In the ongoing spate of commentary on fallen celebrities like Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi and American actor-comedian Bill Cosby, one piece especially stands out, at least to me. It’s by Irwin Kula, president of CLAL: National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. In disclosing his own experience of being sexually abused as a teenager, Rabbi Kula turns the lens of critique on himself, asking, “why did I unconsciously side with Cosby?”
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He wonders whether it was Cosby’s success that blinded him, or whether it was Cosby’s attempt to address the problems within the African-American community. He wonders whether he confused Cliff Huxtable, Cosby’s character on the 1980s hit sitcom The Cosby Show, with Cosby the man. He wonders about the implications of toppling a celebrity Black American, and about the “messiness of a world” where successful people can do unspeakably awful things. I urge you to read his piece in full.
I’ve been reading nearly everything I have seen — which is a lot — on these latest celebrity scandals. But it was Kula’s piece which moved me in a way that no other has. It might be because Kula’s was the first to help me reflect more coherently on my own one-time, sort-of-kind-of experience of sexual abuse when I was a young girl at the hands of an older boy. And it might be because Kula paired this admission with a powerful reminder of our ongoing need for human connection, even when that connection is the hollow kind that comes with worshiping famous figures for whom our individual existence doesn’t register.
I don’t quite know whether my experience that afternoon when I was six technically falls into the category of abuse since there wasn’t touching involved, but there was power and nakedness and an accelerated heart rate and confusion and shame. There was the image of my red cable-knit sweater that tied around the waist and nothing on my legs since the older boy had asked me to remove my pants and I felt both thrilled and cowed and frightened by his age, five years my senior, and unsure of what to do in his mother’s unmade bed in the empty house where I was left in his and his brother’s sort-of after-school care while my mother finished her workday.
Days later I collapsed in tears to my parents, and different after-school arrangements were hastily made for me.
Yet I relate to Kula’s admission of retaining a relationship with his abuser. I instinctively understand the feeling that in repairing the relationship years later with friendliness and cordiality, one might somehow magically roll back the abusive act.
And then there’s Kula’s mention of how we relate to celebrities, in this case to Cliff Huxtable, Bill Cosby’s on-screen character. How I loved The Cosby Show, adored it, didn’t want to miss a single Thursday-night episode when I was 12, and learned how to program our newly acquired Betamax so I wouldn’t have to. And while they were unapologetically a sitcom family, with Cosby mugging for the camera at every other beat, the Huxtables represented one of the first truly happy families on TV. Truly because there were warts and challenges and some pain. But like real-life happy families, these moments of unpleasantness were overcome, rather than being papered over or never being experienced at all. And most poignantly for me, they were my idealized happy TV family when my own two (post-divorce, blended) families weren’t always.
When I think about celebrity, as I often do, prone to my own admitted tendency to idealize figures who appear larger than life, I think about one of my favorite films as an antidote: The King of Comedy, Martin Scorses’s 1983 darkly brilliant send-up of the hold celebrities can have on our individual and collective psyches. In that film, Robert DeNiro, Sandra Bernhard and Jerry Lewis tell an eerie story of psychopathic delusions of grandeur being fuelled by the grandness our society bestows on mere mortals, especially on comedians. (After all, comedians make us laugh, numbing for a moment the pain that we all carry.)
The trouble with the king who was Cosby was that, with his accessible, family-oriented craft and his pudding and jello ads and animated television shows and his straight-talking approach to collective self-improvement, his fame came to feel, perhaps, accessible. Maybe, in the Cosby TV glow, we could each feel a little bit famous. But that’s just the problem. When we look upwards to constitute our self-esteem, we can be left emptier than we ever were before we touched that dial.