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

Sentencing ‘America’s Dad’ Bill Cosby

Actor and comedian Bill Cosby after being convicted of sexual assault last week.
Credit: REUTERS / BRENDAN McDERMID

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-year-olds, 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.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 5, 2018 as "Father fissure". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.