There is an autographed, glossy, 8x10 photo of Bill Cosby on my mantle. It has been there for years, although in the last several months it has been face down so I don’t have to see it every time I sit down to watch TV with my kids.
Many of the most cherished moments of my childhood involved Bill Cosby. Much of my childhood was tumultuous, peppered with divorces and multiple moves and brothers and sisters split up into different households. My parents hated each other, but in the years before their divorce, at least once a week my siblings and I would lie belly-down on the shag carpet in anticipation while Dad packed his pipe with sweet-smelling cherry tobacco, pushed the 8-track in, and settled in his favorite chair. We spent hours listening to tales of Fat Albert, rolling around in hysterics and trying desperately to stifle our giggles so we wouldn’t miss the next hilarious line about the dentist or Buck-Buck Number 5. Those evenings were magical. There were few things that we could all agree on – vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s syrup and Cosby’s routines being the only two I can recall now – and we listened to those tapes until we could recite them verbatim. I used to delight in spontaneously rattling off a line in the middle of a boring road trip or somber meal just to see everyone crack up.
After an ugly divorce from my mother, Dad and I had issues. He was a complicated man who didn’t always do the right thing. He cheated on my mom. He cheated on his second wife. He had a terrible temper and ruled with shame and fear. He was also committed to teaching us to be better people, coaching my brothers’ soccer team and letting me help him wash and wax the cars and change the oil. He was serious and meticulous and didn’t laugh easily, but when he did it was like Christmas morning and my birthday all rolled into one. I was simultaneously terrified of him and desperate to make him proud of me. For much of my life there was no more powerful force in my world than Dad.
Mom had a lot of really terrible things to say about him and nearly a decade after their split when his second marriage began crumbling, my stepmother added to the accusations. I was a senior in high school and a budding feminist. I was disgusted by the tales of my father’s cheating and indignant in my defense of my mom and stepmother. I began to distance myself from Dad, which was fairly easy since I was soon to be off to college, anyway. I never confronted him, certain that he would deny their allegations, and kept all of our interactions purely superficial. I didn’t trust him and wasn’t about to put myself in a vulnerable position.
When I was 29 and expecting my first child, things changed. I had been too afraid to formally disengage from Dad’s life since that would have required having an honest conversation about why I was choosing that route. Instead, I held him at arm’s length, determined to protect myself. But as my belly grew, I began daydreaming about the life I wanted to give to my child. I recalled my own family Christmases smack in the eye of a tornado of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents; torn tissue and ribbons and smiles all around. I remembered that allies don’t always come in the form we expect them to and, regardless of how fiercely I hoped to be the one my child came to when she needed help, it dawned on me that I may not be the one she chose. I decided that I wanted to give my baby the biggest, most loving family in the history of the world. I wanted her to know her aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. I wanted her to hear their stories and see their hilarious antics. I wanted her to stand in the center of a room full of her people and feel loved and protected and cherished, and I realized that that group included Dad. My heart melted as I recalled some of my favorite moments with him – playing Heart and Soul together on the piano, hiking in the mountains on a sunny summer day, lying around cracking up to Bill Cosby routines. I had forgotten how safe I had felt with him as a kid.
But I was unsure how to go about it. I would have to steel myself for this conversation, this decision to let him into my life for real. I figured I would have to confront him with all of the accusations Mom and his second wife had made and ask him to answer for them. I lay in the darkness, one hand on my belly, my anxiety ratcheting up as I imagined the awful fight we would have. The baby started kicking furiously, turning somersaults and flipping around.
Gradually it began to dawn on me: was there anything he could say that would appease me? Could I imagine a scenario whereby he would say, “I cheated on your mom because of ‘x’” and it would be okay with me? Could I come up with any plausible explanation for some of the crappy decisions he made as a parent? Anything that would make me nod my head and say, “Oh, I get it. I totally would have done the same thing.”
The baby stopped moving and I went cold. It was in that moment that I realized I had been vilifying my father for decades and he was simply a human being. He hadn’t had a set of rules or guidelines for being the perfect parent any more than I would.
Yeah, but did he do his best? the devil voice on my shoulder sneered.
The answer surprised us both. Yeah. I think he did.
When faced with this question I was forced to admit that I didn’t honestly believe anything my dad ever did was motivated by hatred for me or my siblings or even my mother. I don’t think he was ever trying to hurt any of us. Not that his actions were excused or excusable, but it wasn’t my job to make my father pay for his mistakes, especially those he made with his wives.
And so Dad and I started over. From that moment, as adults, we began again, without mention of or atonement for past mistakes, with an acknowledgment that we were both human and fallible. Our relationship as adults was based on mutual love and respect and while I still wanted him to be proud of me, I no longer needed his approval. Most importantly, I stopped judging him.
We had eight fabulous years as father and daughter. We spoke on the phone a couple of times a month about anything and everything and he never hung up without saying, “I love you, Kari.” Watching him get down on the floor with my girls and play Polly Pockets and build Lego houses and sing goofy songs, I often thought my heart would bust wide open. He was funny and irreverent and would have done anything for his granddaughters. He was amazed at how smart they were and wanted them to have every opportunity in life. More than once, I saw threads of him woven into the fabric of my children – their tenacity and determination came straight from him through me, I’m sure. Because of my children, I was able to recapture the good memories of Dad. Before that, I only saw the cheating and lying.
My father died in my arms after a brutal battle with lung cancer six years ago. I spontaneously offered to write and deliver the eulogy at his memorial service and for a few terrifying hours I sat on the guest bed at my in-laws’ house searching for inspiration. What came to me was Bill Cosby. As a kid, Dad was stern and serious except for those nights when he lit his pipe and put his feet up and laughed at Cosby’s routines until tears rolled down his cheeks, and that is what I told the room full of people that came to pay tribute to my father. I chose Dad’s favorite routine – the one where God is trying to convince Noah to build the ark – and wove the humor and persistence of that bit into my acknowledgment of Dad’s gifts.
Today, I mourn for the tainted memories. I am relieved that my daughters never took to my attempts to hang out and listen to Bill Cosby CDs as a family because now I don’t have to dismantle that family tradition for them. They are too young to have watched The Cosby Show or have seen any Jell-o adds featuring Cosby, so all they know about that autographed 8x10 on the mantle is that it belonged to Papa. I will throw away the CDs I’ve had tucked away in my car for long road trips, naively thinking that the girls would stop listening to their own iPods long enough to hear the “snakey lick” routine that still makes me giggle, but I’m torn about how to handle the photo. Do I burn it and repurpose the frame? Do I throw the whole thing out? And what do I do with the memories? How do I reconcile the bonding that occurred over his comedy routines with the possibility that, during that time, he was drugging and sexually assaulting young women?
Oddly enough, I’m very clear on how to handle such things with my children. They are very aware of which music I refuse to buy because the musician is not someone I wish to support. The misogynist characters who build their reputations on objectifying and, at times blatantly threatening women and girls are not welcome to be heard in my car. One day as we drove to school, a PitBull song came on the radio and my youngest quickly reached for the dial to change the station.
“You know, it’s sad, Mom. He is a horrible human being, but he is a really good rapper.”
In our current era of social media and citizen journalism, I suspect we know far more about today’s celebrities than we ever have before. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that many of the artists I listened to as a teenager did awful things but were lucky enough not to get caught by the general public, and it makes me wonder whether I would rush to get rid of all of their music now in response. If I discovered that Robert Plant or Jimmy Page had committed terrible acts against women or gay people or Latinos, I would be devastated. Would I never again listen to “Stairway to Heaven?” I don’t know.
Can I separate the individual acts from the performance? In the case of entertainers like PitBull and Eminem, it is clear from their music that they espouse certain beliefs and claim particular entitlements. It has been claimed that there were indications in Cosby’s routines as far back as 1969 that he wanted to drug women. I remember the Spanish Fly bit and, honestly, I don’t remember thinking anything of it at the time, mostly because the whole notion of Spanish Fly seemed confusing and “adult” to me.
I am a firm believer in consequences and if it turns out Bill Cosby did the things he is alleged to do, he deserves to pay harsh penalties and he has a lot to atone for. But the organizer in me wants to know which file to put those memories in, or whether I ought to just bag them up and throw them out with the dog poo.