I grew up with Bill Cosby.
Not with the man, per se but with the man’s work.
His stand-up records were the continual soundtrack to my childhood. I laid in my bed for countless hours, soaking in the unmistakably buoyant voice of the man telling the stories he wove so brilliantly. In high school when we were asked to memorize and recite a spoken word piece for Language Arts, I chose Cosby’s Go Carts routine. (It was already well committed to memory, along with a hundred of his other bits).
He would become my constant living room companion for all of my formative years, as I spent hundreds of lazy Saturday mornings hanging out on the corner with Fat Albert and the gang, quiet afternoons doing Picture Pages, and giddy evenings at the dinner table with Dr Huxtable and family.
And the thread through all of it was Bill Cosby; his persona, his demeanor, his extraordinarily perceptive take on childhood, parenting, and marriage. I really thought he was that guy and I rooted for him. He was more than a comedian to me, he was a friend of the family. I didn’t just laugh with him, I believed in him.
And since I believed in him, when the allegations against him began surfacing in recent years—I didn’t believe them. More than that, I didn’t want to believe, in much the same way that we never want to admit the worst about those close to us. I needed Cosby to be innocent of what he has been accused of, selfishly not for him or even for his many alleged victims. I needed him to be innocent for me because I knew that if he wasn’t, that I was going to end where I am right now: deeply and terribly conflicted.
Now, I’m not at all conflicted about what he is accused of doing. If true, they are the most reprehensible, deplorable, perverted acts one could conceive of subjecting another to, and I have absolutely zero vacillation about wanting full justice for the women who have been damaged. They have clearly lost so very much, not only in the alleged crimes themselves but in the public assassination of their character as they have spoken out. Their stories once again underscore how very difficult it is for rape victims to ever come forward, and the further abuse they subject themselves to when they do so. That is the big story here for certain. That is the great tragedy.
The incredibly far less important, yet far more personal dilemma, is that I don’t know what to do with this big part of me anymore.
I don’t know how to respond to things that gave me such joy for so long; the private joke Cosby quotes that I’ve always exchanged with my siblings, the reruns and the memorized routines and the hours upon hours of memories, all the laugh lines on my face and the work that helped produce them. I feel like I need to box them up and get rid of them in response to all of this; to dig a hole and bury them for good.
To keep them feels like a betrayal to his victims and somehow a sanctioning of the horrible things that he now seems likely to have done. But to jettison all of the stuff also feels like amputating a bit of myself; like losing a piece of my childhood that up until recently was sweet and innocent and life-giving. I don’t want to let that go and I feel really guilty about that.
Making heroes out of people is dangerous, especially from a distance. It’s so very easy to view the selective bits they choose to reveal to the world and to believe that these comprise the entirety of who they are. We end up beholden to the image of them that we’ve accepted, and dependent on it not to let us down. We elevate people beyond their worth and then work far too hard to keep them there. I did this with Bill Cosby. It’s not fair to him and it certainly isn’t wise, but that’s what I’ve done.
And as trivial as it sounds, his precipitous fall from Grace is like losing a dear childhood friend. There’s a profound grief that comes along with having something that used to be beautiful in your memory, now tainted. I suppose that’s the tax on growing up.
So how do we reconcile deeply flawed artists with the art they create? Can we ever separate the work from the worker? Does participation equal approval when the inhumanity of our heroes surfaces?
Maybe one day I’ll figure out how to reconcile these feelings and maybe I will be able to laugh without wincing or without feeling guilt for receiving the art purely on its own merits. I might eventually let Bill Cosby’s purported crimes and failures fade from my memory and simply enjoy his work again. Yet that’s probably not something to aspire to either. Come to think of it, I hope the awkwardness and tension and the disgust never fully leaves. I hope it forever reminds me that flawed people don’t deserve our blind adoration or our subconscious protection.
The Bill Cosby of my childhood is gone and I can’t get him back.
As the comedian once said of his own son following the young man’s untimely passing: I will miss my friend.