Chasing Cosby by Nicole Weisensee Egan: Book Review
The Cosby story is a lens through which we can look inward at our own beliefs and prejudices and how it influences who we choose to believe and why, who we choose to idolize and why.
This is one of my favorite paragraphs in the introduction of Nicole Weisensee Egan’s work Chasing Cosby. I read Chasing Cosby for a few reasons. One, Nicole suggested it to me on Twitter. Two, it sounded interesting to me: my parents had played me and my siblings Bill Cosby’s comedy CDs when we were younger, but I remember the day those CDs stopped being played. Three, I was coming off an “American justice” loop after finishing my article on the sexual assault allegations against Michael Jackson — the second wave of which occurred at roughly the same time as the Cosby case.
It would be a study in and of itself to determine the intersections of those cases and the effects each had on the other in the media and beyond, but for now suffice to say that they are cases that are at once strikingly similar and bizarrely different, both in their conclusions and in how they were received by the media. Someday in the future, I may embark on an investigation of how the cases spiraled off each other and affected each other’s trajectories. But that’s a story for another day.
And this is a book review, not an in-depth look at the Cosby allegations. I have conducted no outside research for this article; the words I write are firmly grounded in Chasing Cosby and what I have learned from reading it.
Since this is a nonfiction work, the details of which can be found in a Google search, I’m not going to put a spoiler warning here. I will provide a content disclaimer, though: This post will touch on minor descriptions of sexual assault and violence. Please don’t read it if you’re uncomfortable with those topics.
In 2005, when Andrea Constand — the first of Cosby’s victims to come forward — brought her case to the police, Nicole Weisensee Egan was a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. “… still a believer in the Bill Cosby/Cliff Huxtable myth,” she was assigned the story nonetheless, and “grew more and more astounded” as she dug. Thus began her research in and fascination with the Cosby case.
In the course of her work, Nicole developed relationships with several of Cosby’s victims. She learned Cosby’s trademark style as a predator. Reading Chasing Cosby, I was struck by the sheer number of similarities between a very large number of cases — over 60 women have come forward to accuse Cosby of sexual assault.
But for me, the most intriguing elements of this book — and of the Cosby case — were, one, the role of race in the case, and two, the role of gender and of the #MeToo movement that had taken off just prior to Cosby’s re-trial.
Race and Injustice
As soon as the accusations against Cosby came out, the media blew up. To understand the reaction, you should first understand that at the time of Andrea Constand’s accusation, Cosby was the quintessential spokesman for the future of the Black community in America. Not only was he a funny guy, not only did he have a hit TV show, but he was also an activist and a philanthropist, and held honorary degrees from countless institutions across the country.
And, sure, he’d had his ups and downs in the eyes of the Black community — notably just before the Constand allegation came out, after the “pound cake speech” — but following the allegations Black celebrities rallied to his defense. Eventually, as the case wound on and as it became clearer and clearer that Cosby would be found guilty, most of the celebrities would recant their belief in his innocence. But some people — including Cosby’s wife Camille — would never give up fighting.
Moreover, even by the time the verdict was announced, public opinion hadn’t caught up to court proceeding. Announcers on Good Morning America called the trial and its verdict a “public lynching.” Camille took to the media to compare her husband’s case with that of Emmett Till, and argued that the court of law had once again “[failed] to protect African Americans falsely accused.” But, as Nicole points out in Chapter Twenty-Eight,
… he [Cosby] wasn’t the profile of a typical African American male convicted of a sex crime. There’s no doubt the criminal justice system is vicious to black men — they get longer sentences for their crimes and are imprisoned at five times the rate of white men. Five times…
And yet… that wasn’t the case here. There was no mistaking Cosby for someone else. Nor are the Cosbys a typical African American family, with their reported worth of $400 million and multiple higher-education degrees. All I knew was that race is an entrenched injustice in our country and that it was a sensibility Camille held onto — tightly.
The #MeToo Movement and the Effect of Gender
In my mind, not only is the verdict reached in the Cosby trial a reflection of the #MeToo movement, but the fact that the trial ever happened at all is an even stronger reflection of the changes the #MeToo movement brought to our society. Cases involving sexual assault are often difficult or almost impossible to “prove” beyond a shadow of a doubt, because oftentimes the strongest evidence comes in the form of an alleged victim’s testimony. And testimonies are just testimonies. People can poke holes in them and denounce the credibility of the person testifying. Sexual assault causes often become a “your word against mine” kind of deal.
But not this time, because over 60 women had come forward. And while not all of these women were allowed to testify during the course of the lawsuit, several were and did. Most of these women came forward without any hope of financial gain, and at a heavy risk to their mental and emotional lives. They suffered the eye of the media and the many voices that screamed at them, publicly and privately, that they were liars seeking to destroy Bill Cosby’s reputation. It was not a fun thing or a good thing that these women went through to come forward. But they did it for themselves and for each other and for the other people out there who had suffered rape, sexual abuse, or sexual assault of any kind in the past — and for those who would suffer it in the future.
Without the #MeToo movement in play, I’m not sure that all the women who came forward would have come forward. And this means I’m not sure the case would have swung the way it eventually swung, towards what I feel is justice. When more than 60 people accuse you of something, and their stories bear striking similarities, yet they have no relation to each other, and they do this for no financial gain and at the cost of their privacy in the face of the media, it’s my feeling that something must have happened. And in this case, that’s what the court decided as well.
Nicole points out in Chapter Twenty-Five that
[Cosby was] the first powerful man accused of serial sexual assault to face trial since #MeToo became a phenomenon…
In other words, you could look at the Cosby case, trial, and verdict as the first major #MeToo case. But because of Bill Cosby’s place as an American cultural icon, that’s not necessarily how we view it. Because he was once “America’s dad,” there is still — in the hearts and minds of many people — a strange, bittersweet sense of nostalgia. A profound struggle, a cognitive dissonance like the one Nicole expresses at the beginning of the book when she poses some simple questions: “Who is [Cosby] as a human being, really? How could someone who’s done so much good in this world do so much evil at the same time?”
It’s this that I like most about the narrative of Chasing Cosby. Because while Nicole clearly casts Cosby down from his throne and shatters his crown and his carefully-tuned image, she never loses sight of the complexities of the situation. This is a story more than a condemnation. It’s the story of how the man we thought of as America’s dad rose and fell. A story about how the image cracked. A story about justice, but with this profound sense of acceptance that we will never know the truth of Cosby’s inner workings. Nor may we want to know them. Reading this book is like looking into the cracked mirror of what you thought you knew.
And I want you to read it, too. Here’s a link to Chasing Cosby on Amazon. It’s an affiliate link, like many of the Amazon links on this site, which means that if you choose to purchase through it, I’ll gain a small commission at no extra cost to you. You can read a bit more about it in my affiliate disclaimer in the footer at the bottom of this page.
Chasing Cosby: In Conclusion
If you think you have what it takes to be my next super read (after a whole bunch I have lined up), then drop me a recommendation in the comments here (links welcome), or hit me up on Twitter @VoyageoftheMind and tell me what I should add to my reading list.
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As always, thanks for reading. The comments are open for discussion. I’d love to hear your voice!
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