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As Bill Cosby’s accusers find their voices, Camille Cosby loses hers

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Camille Cosby was always a strong presence in the life and work of Bill Cosby, even as she at times has struggled, she has admitted, to find her own voice. That sacrifice was a part of what it meant to be married to the “Cos.” Beautiful as ever, she has been seen — though not heard — a lot more than usual recently; she sits at the comedian’s side as he mostly refuses to answer questions about accusations of sexual assault. And she has been an off-stage prop when he brags about his five-decade marriage to applause from crowds at tour dates that have not yet been cancelled.

She deserves better.

Camille Cosby was a major character as wife, mother of five and nurturer in Bill Cosby’s popular, relatable stand-up routines full of stories rather than traditional jokes. She was seen as the model for Clair Huxtable, Cosby’s TV partner in his blockbuster NBC series “The Cosby Show.”

Her husband is being pummeled in the court of public opinion by stories that sharply veer from the approved Cosby family-friendly narrative. The list of women giving their names and accounts of being drugged and assaulted grows, with several repeating stories that were once disregarded or ignored. Cosby, who has never been found guilty of any crime, has mostly given his denials through attorneys, though he did tell Florida Today: “I know people are tired of me not saying anything, but a guy doesn’t have to answer to innuendos.”

He hasn’t hesitated, however, to answer in another way, leaning on the idea and ideal of Camille Cosby to explain away the increasingly unexplainable. It was last Thursday at The Atlantis Bahamas where, it was reported, he said, “Camille and I have been married for 50 years,” and flashed his wedding band to the sold-out crowd’s approval. He could not resist playing to fans who would rather not think of what those years might have cost. On Friday, another audience in Melbourne, Fla., greeted him with a standing ovation and laughed at his stories of family life.

It has seemed far different when Cosby could not control the scene, for example, during an NPR segment. He remained silent when asked questions by Scott Simon, while Camille Cosby sat to his side. Simon, who said he was looking at Cosby, not his wife, had left the script about the couple’s art on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art to ask about the headlines.

In a similar scene during and after an Associated Press interview when her husband tried to “scuttle” any record of questions about the charges, a silent Camille Cosby managed a wan smile.

No one knows what goes on in any marriage, or why someone stays or goes. Is it love? Is it denial? And is it fair to blame her for not leaving? Camille Cosby obviously has her own reasons. In a 2000 interview with Oprah Winfrey, she said the couple recommitted to their relationship after “selfish” behavior, which clearly included a Bill Cosby affair that led to an extortion attempt by a woman claiming to be his daughter. “You cleanse yourself of all of that baggage, and you look at each other and determine whether the relationship is worth salvaging, whether you really love each other and want to be together.” And she explained why after dropping out of college at 19 to marry, she returned to receive her doctoral degree, something of her own. “I want to be surrounded by people who have integrity. And, of course, my name is Camille, not Bill.”

She made that plain in a USA Today column in July 1998 after Mikhail Markhasev was convicted for the 1997 murder of her son, Ennis. With a mixture of a mother’s grief and a call for reflection and justice, she wrote an essay with the headline, “America taught my son’s killer to hate blacks.” She noted that the Ukrainian native (now serving a life sentence for the murder) had not been exposed to many blacks in his native Ukraine but had used racial epithets in bragging about killing her son, and had already served time for stabbing a black man since coming to the U.S.

In using history to condemn what she described as a culture of racism in America, she placed herself in the middle of a debate that was certain to be contentious in a country that avoids serious discussions of race. It was raw and revealing, and in answering subsequent critics of her words, she welcomed the dialogue, showing more interest in being heard than loved.

Now the woman who has been her own person in producing projects and philanthropy, who can animatedly discuss the art collection she helped assemble, is again as silent as she has said she was early in her marriage when her famous, older husband took up all the oxygen in the room. It’s not just Bill Cosby’s legacy that has been altered; Camille Cosby is the woman with an empty smile, sitting beside her husband in uncomfortable interviews, a woman no one can look in the eye.

Observers may wonder what Mrs. Bill Cosby thinks of what is going on as women continue to come forward and her husband – with no new NBC sitcom, with Netflix special on indefinite hold – holds out his ring and still-standing marriage for the faithful.