MARTIN McKEN­ZIE-MUR­RAY

Amer­ica el­e­vated him to the sta­tus of hero, ex­em­plar and model parent. In truth, Bill Cosby was a deeply flawed man.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - By Martin McKen­zie-Mur­ray.

There ex­ists in Bill Cosby’s early com­edy the same clean, sar­donic ob­ser­va­tions of par­ent­hood that would in­form his most cul­tur­ally defin­ing project – The Cosby Show – two decades later. But while he avoided pro­fan­ity, there was a tart­ness to his bits on par­ent­ing. His comic af­fect was one of ir­ri­ta­tion, a prickly ex­haus­tion. “One-year-olds know how to de­stroy grown peo­ple,” he said in his ac­claimed 1968 record, To Rus­sell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With. “One-yearolds, man. My daugh­ter knows when

I’m sleep­ing on the sofa how to pick that ash­tray up and drop it right on my fore­head. I wake up and look and there’s that smile.” His comic la­ments must have been a great gift to am­biva­lent and over­tired par­ents ev­ery­where, but most would have as­sumed that be­hind the can­tan­ker­ous schtick lay parental pride and ten­der­ness.

As it is, the harsh­ness and right­eous ex­haus­tion hemmed fairly close to the fa­ther off the stage. In an in­ter­view with the Los An­ge­les Times in 1989, Cosby ex­co­ri­ated his el­dest daugh­ter, Erinn, who had just left re­hab. “We have four other chil­dren,” Cosby said. “This par­tic­u­lar daugh­ter ap­pears to be the only one who is re­ally very self­ish. It isn’t that we hang our heads or that we’re em­bar­rassed by this, be­cause we’ve been liv­ing with this per­son who knows that her prob­lem isn’t co­caine or al­co­hol. I think that she’s a child who has re­fused to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for sup­port­ing her­self ... She’s never held down a job, never kept an apart­ment for more than six months. She never fin­ishes any­thing. She uses her boyfriends. She wants the finer things but she can’t stand any­body else’s dirt, which is im­por­tant. De­vel­op­men­tally, she’s still around 11 years old. The prob­lem isn’t al­co­hol or drugs – at the re­hab cen­tre her urine showed up neg­a­tive. It’s be­havioural ... She’s not a per­son you can trust.”

Only a month be­fore these com­ments were pub­lished, Erinn Cosby told her fa­ther Mike Tyson had sex­u­ally as­saulted her. Three years passed be­fore the ac­cu­sa­tion was made pub­lic, in the same year the heavy­weight cham­pion was con­victed of rap­ing Desiree Wash­ing­ton. In a 1992 tele­vi­sion in­ter­view, Erinn

Cosby said she had not wanted to go pub­lic but felt com­pelled to pre-empt an ex-boyfriend’s leak­ing of the story for profit. She said Tyson had in­vited her home to a party he was host­ing but there was no party. After show­ing Erinn his tro­phy room, the boxer locked the door, pinned her to the floor and as­saulted her.

What fol­lowed, Erinn Cosby said, dis­mayed her. After con­fid­ing in her fa­ther, his re­sponse was clin­i­cal: there was to be no pub­lic com­ment, no crim­i­nal charges. Bill Cosby would re­quest that Tyson at­tend ther­apy with some­one he knew. That was it.

The same year Erinn Cosby went pub­lic and Mike Tyson went to jail, the episode “Theo’s Gift” of The Cosby Show aired. For years, Cliff Huxtable’s son, Theo, has been aca­dem­i­cally fail­ing at high school, be­wil­der­ing the son and dis­ap­point­ing the fa­ther, who at­tributes Theo’s dis­mal marks to a flawed char­ac­ter. That is, un­til Theo is di­ag­nosed with dys­lexia. This sto­ry­line was taken from Cosby’s own life. His only son, En­nis – who would be mur­dered just five years later – was di­ag­nosed with dys­lexia in col­lege. Cosby wanted to pub­licly reckon with his own ig­no­rance, which was com­mend­able, but it also af­forded an in­sight into his im­pe­ri­ous moral judge­ments. Today, we are also af­forded an in­sight into a pro­found, al­most in­com­pre­hen­si­ble hypocrisy.

Like Louis C.K., Cosby’s com­edy will be raked for clues to his pathol­ogy. We might now say that the arch im­pa­tience of his par­ent­ing jokes were not the comedic fic­tion of a gen­tle man, but a palat­able di­lu­tion of a much darker and ir­ri­ta­ble sanc­ti­mony. If it mat­ters at all, we can now ret­ro­spec­tively find more sin­is­ter echoes. In a short 1968 bit about hu­man­ity’s ban­ish­ment from the Gar­den of Eden, Adam is por­trayed as hap­less and horny, mis­led by the sex­u­ally con­niv­ing Eve. In the same set, speak­ing about his frus­tra­tion with not hav­ing any sons – at the time, Cosby had two very young daugh­ters – the comic riffed: “I wanted sons, and [my wife] came up with these two losers … I love girls. Love, love, love. But I know what boys are after. And I know that boys are ba­si­cally nasty. So it means one thing: pretty soon they’re gonna be com­ing after me – kids com­ing to my house, look­ing for my daugh­ters. They’re gonna be in trou­ble, Jack.”

One might nod or shud­der at this quote, but I’m not sure this kind of anal­y­sis is mean­ing­ful, or even ac­cu­rate. Comics have al­ways lifted ma­te­rial from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence – have be­come art­ful tour guides of their own neu­roses, or of­fered their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties as the me­di­ae­val head in the pub­lic stock. Yet mem­oir is also mixed with fic­tion, ex­ag­ger­a­tion, af­fec­ta­tion. Roles are as­sumed. To treat a comic as a re­li­able nar­ra­tor – to con­sider their sets as tes­ti­mony un­der oath – is ex­ces­sively lit­eral. Per­haps there are trace el­e­ments of Cosby’s crimes in his com­edy. There were cer­tainly traces of C.K.’s in his. But Cosby’s gift for com­part­men­tal­is­ing is ob­vi­ous now. More im­por­tant is that for decades his power helped ren­der his vic­tims silent, or their sto­ries un­heard or dis­be­lieved.

I wrote last year of Louis C. K.’s art be­ing one long con­fes­sion from a com­i­cally af­fected mis­an­thrope. His mis­an­thropy burst vol­ubly from within – of­ten from his own be­lit­tling and un­tame­able li­bido. He was both Cosby’s Adam and the fu­ture boyfriend of Cosby’s daugh­ters. It’s hardly ex­cul­pa­tory, but un­like Cosby, C.K. was never con­vinced of his own rec­ti­tude. In fact, his com­edy de­pended on its op­po­site: here’s how you and I both suck. Per­haps in­cur­ably.

Cosby – a se­rial rapist – be­came a sten­to­rian moral­ist, a man who proudly wore the ep­i­thet of Amer­ica’s Dad.

From the 1980s he be­came one of those out­sized moral paragons that Amer­ica loves sculpt­ing. Late in that decade, when The Cosby Show ruled the rat­ings, Cosby pub­lished three best­sellers, mostly ghost­writ­ten. They all sold in the mil­lions. Fa­ther­hood be­came a cul­tural touch­stone. It was in­tro­duced by Alvin F. Pous­saint, MD – a close friend and the man to whom Cosby re­ferred Mike Tyson for coun­selling. Within a few years, in hard­cover alone, its dull mix of sar­donic one-lin­ers and folksy wis­dom had sold

2.5 mil­lion copies. In a 1991 episode of

The Simp­sons, Homer, alien­ated from Bart, con­sults the book in des­per­a­tion. I think my own fa­ther had a copy on his shelves. “Fa­ther­hood is pre­tend­ing the present you love most is soap-on-a-rope.”

In Cosby’s 1990 book, Love and Mar­riage, his daugh­ters now grown up, he re­turns to the theme of men’s ra­pa­cious­ness: “Ev­ery time a young man comes to my house for one of my daugh­ters, I have wanted to take them aside and say: You’re not like me, are you? If you are, then I know what you want and I hope you have the same ter­ri­ble luck … I hope you’re on a mis­sion im­pos­si­ble. And one more thing: I may have to kill you, but it will be noth­ing per­sonal.”

Sto­ries of Cosby’s rapes had sur­faced be­fore. In 2005, An­drea Con­stand filed a civil suit against Cosby al­leg­ing he had drugged and as­saulted her. Court doc­u­ments con­tained sim­i­lar al­le­ga­tions from 13 other women. The mat­ter was set­tled out of court, only to be crim­i­nally re­vived a decade later. Fol­low­ing this, other women came for­ward but none of this seemed to stick to the pub­lic’s con­scious­ness. Per­haps oddly, it was a comic bit by Han­ni­bal Buress in 2014 that helped fan the flames of pub­lic ac­cu­sa­tion. It went vi­ral and the story fi­nally stuck. “Bill Cosby has the fuckin’ smuggest old black man per­sona that I hate,” Buress said. “‘Pull your pants up, black peo­ple. I was on TV in the ’80s. I can talk down to you ’cause I had a suc­cess­ful sit­com.’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby. So turn the crazy down a cou­ple notches.”

For a man who spent decades preach­ing per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity, Cosby has demon­strated none him­self. After Cosby was found guilty last week of drug­ging and sex­u­ally as­sault­ing Con­stand, he was rep­ri­manded by the judge for call­ing the pros­e­cu­tor an “ass­hole” after the pros­e­cu­tor sug­gested Cosby owned a plane, in­creas­ing his risk of ab­scond­ing. Cosby’s lawyers in­sisted on their client’s in­no­cence and promised to ap­peal the con­vic­tion. This de­spite the co­me­dian’s 2005 de­po­si­tion in which he ad­mit­ted not merely to decades of phi­lan­der­ing but to the sin­is­ter modus operandi of giv­ing women seda­tives be­fore sex. A ju­ror said this week that Cosby’s own words had con­demned him.

There are plenty of ways to parse Cosby’s crimes, not least of all its im­pli­ca­tions for black Amer­i­cans. Cosby was a divi­sive ex­em­plar, a man who preached that racism might not be van­quished, but could be tri­umphed over with strong fam­i­lies and grace­ful self-re­liance. But come his no­to­ri­ous pound cake speech in 2004, his moral pre­scrip­tions were in­creas­ingly viewed as sim­plis­tic and su­per­cil­ious. Still, the black critic Wes­ley Mor­ris wrote this week of how de­press­ing the con­vic­tion had been, given how ea­gerly he once ab­sorbed the Cosby wit and wis­dom as a young man. No mat­ter how se­vere the sen­tence, Mor­ris wrote, “It … can’t undo what he once did for me, which was to make me be­lieve in my­self. This is foun­da­tional, el­e­men­tal, cel­lu­lar stuff. There is no sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dure to rid me of it. Any­way, I don’t want to lose that be­lief, just the man who en­no­bled me to pos­sess it in the first place. Maybe we’re all com­part­men­tal­iz­ing.”

In Aus­tralia in 2018, we’re at some dis­tance from the ex­tra­or­di­nary in­flu­ence Cosby had on US cul­ture. But his con­vic­tion re­minded me of an­other Amer­i­can icon, Tiger Woods, whose fall was very dif­fer­ent but who was also the sub­ject of the Amer­i­can en­thu­si­asm for carv­ing Mount Rush­mores from rep­u­ta­tions. It’s dif­fi­cult to over­state the ex­cited myth-mak­ing of Woods when he was at his peak. The em­bar­rass­ing grandeur of Robert Wright’s 2000 Slate piece is rep­re­sen­ta­tive: “[Tiger] war­rants con­sid­er­a­tion not just as an ath­lete but as some­one of po­ten­tially po­lit­i­cal, even spir­i­tual, sig­nif­i­cance.”

In an ex­haus­tive bi­og­ra­phy of the golfer this year, jour­nal­ists Jeff Bene­dict and Ar­men Keteyian re­veal Tiger as a dys­func­tional and ag­gres­sively cal­low man. His feted “Zen fo­cus” was in fact a creepy va­cancy, an abyss into which dis­ap­peared sex, drugs and com­puter games. And now Amer­ica watches the dy­na­mit­ing of an­other of its gran­ite mon­u­ments, or Cliffs

– this time its own dad.

Ac­tor and co­me­dian Bill Cosby after be­ing con­victed of sex­ual as­sault last week.

MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

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