A City of Two Tales: Dealing with the Dissonant Narratives of Bill CosbyPosted: November 23, 2014
I’ve been silent about the accusations and media surrounding Bill Cosby because there are so many voices clattering the sound of mine is unnecessary and unlikely to be heard. I’ve also been engaging in my own process of shock-grief-acceptance.
My process looked like this:
Eye Roll: I saw a trending article on facebook that comedian Hannibal Burress called Bill Cosby a rapist. Reaction: “Geez, that’s low.”
Curiosity: The next day I asked some friends if they had ever heard that Bill Cosby might have raped someone. One of them said, “No, I love him.” The other, an 82 year old woman nodded. She said quietly, as if confessing a deep secret, “I’ve heard that before.” Reaction: “I want/need to know.”
Research: Google: Bill Cosby Rape. Read many documents from credible sources – the kinds of places that research and fact-check – not just “Cracked”. Different women, each with the same story, with names, dates, times. Let’s face it – there is more circumstantial evidence of this than there was of WMD’s when we voted to invade Iraq. Reaction: “I’m shocked.”
Reflection: Trying to combine what my head tells me (This man is probably a serial rapist) with what my heart tells me (This man made me laugh and think). Reaction: “I am so sad.”
Resolution: Humans sometimes do beautiful things. Humans sometimes do ugly things. And many times – it’s the same human doing both. Reaction: Acknowledgement of this very human tale.
We are Books, not Stories.
This isn’t the first story to be given an alternate view:
- Every Martin Luther King Day some know-it-all grad student posts articles talking about Dr. King’s known problems with plagiarism and women. They are schooled quickly that there are 364 OTHER days to discuss the issue.
- Columbus Day has become an out-and-out war over the story we are told in school about the discovery of America and our growing awareness of what an inaccurate tale that is and the monstrous truth of that conquest.
- A new translation of the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales reveals the Pied Piper actually drowned the children, and the queen in Snow White was forced to dance to death in hot iron shoes.
- My own city of Richmond is struggling to cast Shockoe Bottom as the entertainment district and family center of town so voters will approve a baseball park there. Except, there are a lot of people reminding us that the place designated for the kid friendly fun zone is actually the spot where the slave market and jail that sold Solomon Northrup stood.
The problem is the cognitive dissonance (that uncomfortable feeling when a story we tell ourselves doesn’t match the facts presented to us) between the story of the Bill Cosby I knew and the stories I did not.
My first memory of him was watching Fat Albert on Saturday morning, not Bill Cosby the jet-setting actor who hung out with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Club.
- He was the Jell-O spokesman.
- He was the kindly, smart, funny Cosby dad.
- He was a huge proponent of education and scholarship provider.
- He was a curmudgeonly old man telling parents to get with it and kids to pull up their pants.
Then, in a matter of a few weeks – He was a serial rapist.
No – that doesn’t match.
This is NOT the way the story goes.
Except, it is.
There were clues to this hidden narrative. Some crew members said he was hard to work with and had a temper. A few characterized him as controlling (often calling it “he’s his own man.”). Scholars and advocates in the African American community complained he was pandering to popular opinion (largely the opinions of white people) in his criticisms of culture and dampening a young generation’s experiments with identity as a way of making the majority clap for him
But now – this new narrative isn’t just an add-on or sour grapes – it’s a whole different story!
The truth is – human beings are not just one story. We are books, made of more than one narrative. In some of our stories we are kind. In others, we are cruel. In some stories we are passionate. In others, we are too tired to care.
We are the brilliant respected electronics visionary who didn’t give a dime to charity.
We are the peace loving song poet, martyred in death while young, who abandoned his first wife, slapped women, and treated his first son with total contempt.
We are the football star and luggage jumping airport runner who was on trial for murdering his wife and in jail for armed robbery.
We are human beings and our books contain many tales.
How do we Deal with this New Book?
There are several methods to discovering someone you admired is not a novel, but collection of wildly different images:
Catch and Release: Some people will pick one story out of a book and ignore the others. For some Bill Cosby will always be the role model. For others the rapist.
Not My Circus: Other people will just toss the book away and read something else. Collections of short stories aren’t very popular. Anyone who has queried a literary agent has seen “We do not represent short story collections” a million times.
Elementary, Dear Watson: Some will reach for psychiatry, interpretive sociology and any expert they can find to attempt to explain the differences until they are more comfortable with the details.
Accept the Struggle as Part of the Journey: People of any faith are used to the idea of conflicting narratives – because faith life is full of them.
Christian people spend time trying to deal with the idea that the God who says, “I am your God and you are my people” is the same one shown playing a game with the devil and saying, “Sure, you can torture my servant Job.” Jesus tells us the story of a God who forgives (and want us to forgive) but doesn’t really address the God who kills a guy with lightening for breaking a rule while saving the Ark of the Covenant.
Buddhists who like bacon and have affirming views of the GLBT community have to struggle with the ancient ideas about eating and sexual behavior. Decisions across the spectrum have been made to reconcile modern practices and dogma.
Muslims struggle with the Quran – a document (like many sacred texts) both beautiful and savage.
Dealing with conflicting narratives is the fire that refines our metal. Bill Cosby’s story(ies) gives us a chance to show compassion for all who are hurt, to stand against rape, to encourage the truth, to comfort and to learn. We can’t un-know and we aren’t going to be able to separate one story from the other. But we can move forward – a little bit wiser for having read this book.