It wasn’t going to be long before Rolling Stone’s botched story about sexual assault at the University of Virginia was cited to try to discredit other rape allegations. And so it’s no surprise, though perhaps a bit of a disappointment, that the inevitable moment has arrived. Yesterday, Bill Cosby’s wife, Camille, released a long and self-pitying statement urging the press to be inspired by the Rolling Stone case to dig more deeply not into the specifics of the stories women are telling about her husband but into the women who are making the allegations. “None of us will ever want to be in the position of attacking a victim,” the statement read. “But the question should be asked – who is the victim?” Cosby’s strategy is odd because the U-Va. story unraveled over the specifics of the accuser’s story, not the character of the accuser herself.
The Cosbys have benefited from preferential press treatment for a long time. Some reporters essentially ignored the allegations against Cosby for years. And it’s deeply hypocritical for Cosby to essentially ask the media to criticize the women who are accusing her husband so that she doesn’t have to say what she really thinks about them. But reading the statement, I mostly felt profoundly sorry for Camille Cosby.
The language Cosby uses in her statement is striking and specific. Describing the women who have come forward with their stories as “individuals and organizations whom many in the media have given a pass,” Cosby bemoaned that “There appears to be no vetting of my husband’s accusers before stories are published or aired.”
In some cases, the women accusing Cosby have been frank about the kinds of details that Camille Cosby seems to be looking for. Janice Dickinson, who recently accused Bill Cosby of raping her in 1982, has never been quiet about the ups and downs in her personal life, including her eating disorders and struggles with alcohol — instead, she has turned them into fodder for memoirs and reality show appearances.
In Beverly Johnson’s account of the occasion on which she says Cosby assaulted her, she is clear about the fact that she was in the middle of fighting for custody of her daughter and that she needed money when Cosby approached her about a role on his show. “I was a top model during the 70s, a period when drugs flowed at parties and photo shoots like bottled water at a health spa,” she tells readers. “I’d had my fun and experimented with my fair share of mood enhancers. I knew by the second sip of the drink Cosby had given me that I’d been drugged—and drugged good.”
Maybe knowing Johnson used drugs is supposed to discredit her, but in Vanity Fair, she uses her experience to bolster her own account. Cosby’s request that the press dissect her husband’s accusers as people, rather than their accounts of sexual assault, relies on the ugly and persistent idea that women who have lived certain kinds of lives cannot be raped or molested because they have forfeited their right to say no.
But what makes her statement feel sad rather than purely cruel is the sense that Cosby is looking for reassurance that she has not been deceived, that her husband was not one person with her and another one entirely when he was with other people. “A different man has been portrayed in the media over the last two months,” she writes in the statement. “It is the portrait of a man I do not know.” By placing the weight of her husband’s reputation and accomplishments against that of women she hopes will be found lacking, both in achievements and in the way they have lived their lives, she seems to be hoping that her husband will be restored to her.
And it’s notable that she isn’t calling for an investigation into the allegations themselves. It would be more than appropriate to do serious investigative reporting into the claims against Cosby, especially one from a former NBC employee who alleges that he passed payoffs from Cosby to a number of women. Good reporting into how Cosby managed to fend off reporting about the allegations against him, and the reasons Cosby decided to settle Andrea Constand’s civil suit against him, could help paint a powerful portrait of how serial offenders can go undetected and maintain prominent positions in public life. It could also bolster Cosby’s defense of himself if details of the women’s accounts prove to be inconsistent or impossible, as was the case with the Rolling Stone story. But Camille Cosby doesn’t appear willing to risk the former outcome in order to gain the latter one.
She appeals to us, insisting that “The man I met, and fell in love with, and whom I continue to love, is the man you all knew through his work.” But the truth is that we don’t know Bill Cosby. We knew Alexander Scott, or Chet Kincaid, or Hilton Lucas, or most of all, Cliff Huxtable. It’s one thing to be able to separate a man from his work, and another to try to reckon with the idea that the man you married might have been someone else as well. I don’t envy Camille Cosby that work. And if women continue to come forward with stories about how Bill Cosby treated them, I’m not sure all the background checks in the world will be able to help her.