From Woody Allen to Bill Cosby, Can We Hear Survivors and Still Honor Legacies?

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Phylicia Rashad is saying that she has been misquoted, that she never said — as was widely reported — “forget those women” when speaking about her TV husband Bill Cosby’s long (and growing) list of accusers.

Instead, she clarifies by saying basically the same thing, with a different emphasis. She wants people to consider the man’s cultural legacy, and not see it ruined. “He’s a genius. He is generous. He’s kind. He’s inclusive,” she explained on an ABC interview. “What I said is, ‘This is not about the women.‘ This is about something else. This is about the obliteration of legacy.’”

Yesterday I criticized her dismissal of the Cosby accusers. But some real truth, and tragedy, does lie embedded in her elaboration of her comments, ill-advised as it may still be. Indeed, as Flavorwire’s Pilot Viruet noted, Cosby’s is a remarkable legacy. So, to varying extents, are Woody Allen’s, and Roman Polanski’s, and those of the dozens and dozens of musicians and rock stars who we now know were wife beaters and rapists.

Personally, I have never been able to fully dismiss the artistic outputs of many of these people, nor have I fully ceased getting pleasure from their work. Maybe I’m a hypocrite, but I don’t know any other way to exist in this flawed world, wherein almost all my spiritual practice involves consuming art made by flawed people. I cherish the way some of them allowed their audiences to feel seen and important for the first time, and the way others channeled their inner darkness and turned it into fascinating beauty.

But as the result of my knowledge of their failings and misdeeds, their legacies have also changed for me. Today is R. Kelly’s birthday, and when my morning radio station played a song of his I nodded along, and when the host pointed out his widely reported crimes against young women, I nodded soberly to that, too — it echoed my own conflicted thoughts.

Once we really start listening to survivors, we may not be able to support our favorite artists as unequivocally as we once did, or identify with their work without pause, or even in extreme cases consume it without thinking that we’re giving someone a free pass to destroy lives. When you begin to comprehend how heinously someone has behaved, you inevitably start reading that into his or her work, with results that could go in any direction.

Yet that is a risk we have to take, because to fully insulate ourselves from it, we’d have to silence survivors’ stories. This is what Rashad is, perhaps unintentionally, attempting to do. As Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote yesterday: “you could address the issue in a way that doesn’t appear to blow off people who just might truly be sexual assault survivors. You could give them at least the same respect you reserve for your costar’s precious legacy.”

No one person’s narrative trumps another, no matter how transcendent a genius the first person is. The Cosby Show tells a story about race, and family, and culture. The testimony of the Cosby accusers tell a story about power, and silence, and collusion. Can we hear both stories at once? Is it even possible to honor the momentous accomplishments of Rashad’s TV husband while also not “forgetting those women”?

At this point, with both the accusations and the Cosby oeuvre already in existence, we have to try to do both. We have to evaluate artistic legacy as separate from, if not unconnected to, an artist’s personal failings, or crimes. We have to try to let the Cosby cultural legacy and these women’s stories uneasily coexist into the future, while recognizing that we may lose something in that balancing process.

In the year or so since it was published, I’ve thought often about this essay by an anonymous pianist’s daughter and Woody Allen fan who writes about surviving her father’s abuse. She says that her abuser’s music is the only part of him she can stand, and even love, now.

Watching him play the piano, I knew his pieces were personal. I knew they were his way of seeking redemption. Perhaps that redemption is not owed to him, but listening his music now reminds me of the moments in my childhood that were peaceful and loving. ….I can’t separate Woody Allen’s art from the crimes he committed against Dylan, but I can appreciate that even the most damaged people deserve an artistic space to work through their demons.

The strands that meet and separate in this discussion are intertwined, complex and painful. But we have to start somewhere.

Certainly, a great artist who was a terrible person may yet leave the world richer and fuller than he or she found it, no matter how damaged the people around him or her were in the process. Another artist’s output might end up weighed down beneath some ignominy or another. But that’s not for us to determine, and it’s cruel to quantify this balance, to weigh and measure people’s lived experience against a body of work.

Some of the dozens of the Cosby accusers may indeed want to live in a world where all references to the man who they say tried to hurt them are scrubbed out. But really, what most of them have actually asked falls so short of obliterating his existing legacy. They no longer want to be ridiculed, dismissed, discredited, and disbelieved. They just want us to listen.