By Lia Hagen
This month, after more than a decade of waiting, Andrea Constand sat at a witness stand and publicly accused Bill Cosby of drugging and assaulting her. After a period of deliberation that took longer than the arguments of both the prosecution and the defense, she received the jury’s conclusion. They were hopelessly deadlocked, and the case ended in a mistrial.
To many, this was a stumbling block on the path to justice. To others, it was a glimmer of hope for a wrongly prosecuted man. Cosby’s case will be retried and his fate decided. But his and Constand’s story isn’t just about the courts. It’s about us, too.
As dozens of women came forward to echo Constand’s accusations, members of the public were forced to choose a side. Was Cosby a beloved entertainer or a rapist? A celebrated figure who worked to advance the lives of black people, or an abuser of women? Like his actual court case, this trial of public opinion has been filled with grandstanding, misdirected nostalgia, and touching testimonies from accusers. And like Cosby’s jury, the public is currently unable to come to a conclusive decision about who this man really is.
But maybe that just means we’re asking the wrong questions.
We shouldn’t waste time debating the merits of Cosby’s body of work. We can never erase his legacy, and there’s no use in digging through his illustrious past, searching for the moment when the man became a monster. That’s something we’ll never find.
There is no “type” of person who becomes a rapist. Rapists aren’t just balding men on barstools. They don’t spend their evenings lurking in dimly lit alleys, waiting for a girl to totter over in her stilettos. Rapists are all around us. They have families and feelings. They take the subway to the restaurant and say please and thank you to the waiter. They’re not supervillains. More often than not, they’re a lot like Dr. Huxtable: likable, well-known, and seemingly normal.
Maybe that’s what’s so frightening about this case. In discussions about Cosby, I often find that people are desperate to understand how Cosby lied to the American people about who he was. But he didn’t, not really. On TV, Cosby was the father that many people didn’t have, the friend who we always wanted. He made us smile and laugh, made entire communities feel stronger.
Cosby never had to lie about who he was. In fact, he publicly admitted to giving drugs to women over a decade ago. Yet somehow, he’s still received the benefit of the doubt for all these years. People can’t believe that someone they care for would do things they can’t condone. But he has. He is a charming, talented entertainer, and he is an abuser of women. It’s not an either/or situation. He is both, and he always has been both.
Once you learn that, Constand’s trial becomes easier to understand. It’s believed that the inconsistencies in Constand’s testimony were the reason for the jury’s split decision. At first, Constand misreported the date of her assault and claimed that she had no further contact with Cosby after the incident. Many people who have not been sexually abused believe this means she’s a liar. They have never experienced how trauma alters memory, and they don’t understand why anyone would keep in contact with a rapist. But a rapist is not all that Bill Cosby was. He was someone who claimed to be Constand’s friend, someone Constand saw as a mentor. He was one of the most famous men in America and a crucial donor to her place of employment. The power dynamics in this situation are almost impossible to navigate, and, quite frankly, Constand doesn’t have to explain the way she kept herself afloat. Not if we all agree that she was drowning.
It’s difficult to understand how to engage with rapists, particularly rapists that we care about. That’s part of the reason why celebrities like Casey Affleck, Nate Parker, and Sean Penn keep receiving our love and critical acclaim. No one really knows how to reform a rapist, especially in a society where their behavior is frequently condoned or even encouraged. But that doesn’t mean we can just ignore their actions. If we don’t recognize abuse while it’s happening, we have a responsibility to address it in the after. It isn’t easy. It is, in fact, excruciatingly hard.
But we must learn to understand how someone who appears so good can do something so evil. We must understand that rapists are not caricatures. They are real people, living among us, shaped by the same culture that has shaped each of us.
If we don’t learn to see that, we’ll never be able to take an honest look at sexual violence. And we’ll never be able to tackle the issues that turned the man in the bright sweater into something considerably more sinister.
Lia Hagen is a 20-year-old creative from the cosmopolitan metropolis of Omaha, Nebraska. She is a long-time poet and President of NYU’s slam poetry organization, SLAM! At NYU. She also works as an intern at the Bowery Poetry Club and the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault. Her passions include writing fiction, creating newfangled content for the internet, and taking selfies she’ll never post.