Bill Cosby has always been a presence in my life. Before I was born, my father used his comedy routines (Noah and the Ark was a favorite) to liven up family gatherings. When my sister and I would watch our weekly Saturday morning cartoon viewings, Fat Albert was a staple. The Cosby Show was something the entire family enjoyed. After we heard Cosby’s fatherhood routine, we’d sing, “Dad is great. To make us chocolate cake,” whenever our father gave us something unhealthy for breakfast. My sister even played Bill Cosby’s fatherhood routine while giving birth. In short, Bill Cosby meant something to us.
We were not alone. To many, Bill Cosby stood for gentle family humor and the kindly patriarch who was the model of what a respectful husband and loving father should be. Thus, the news of not only his numerous alleged rapes but also his domineering personality and narcissistic behavior came as a blow. For a lot of people, Cliff Huxtable and the fun Jell-O Pudding Pop guy gave them a model for a positive father figure when few were available in their own lives. That’s why the news about who he truly is has been so personally upsetting. In the last few weeks, I’ve heard many people mention (in the low tones reserved for serious topics) how disappointed they were to hear about him.
Part of the problem is that it is hard to reconcile Cosby’s amazing accomplishments with who he may be as a person. He is literally a self-made man who worked hard to be a success. He was the first African-American to co-star in a dramatic television series (I-Spy). He was part of the beloved Electric Company and later television shows he was responsible for, like Fat Albert and Little Bill, featured African –American performers and presented humorous and positive messages about tolerance and cooperation. Unlike many performers who are granted an honorary doctorate (which, as someone who had to get her doctorate the hard way, I find offensive), Cosby actually earned his doctorate in education. And then there is all of his charitable work, especially the numerous scholarships he’s offered, and his mentoring of other performers.
None of that sounds like the kind of guy who would drug and rape women, humiliate people, insist upon getting his way or threaten people who cross him. Yet apparently these are all parts of Cosby too. A significant number of women claim that he drugged and raped them (which they have been saying for years; we’re just hearing about it now). He’s infamous for chastising the African-American community for not keeping themselves out of trouble, conveniently ignoring the impact that institutional racism has on poverty and emotional well-being. Almost all of his projects have his name in the title, even when it makes little sense. (Why is a series about the Huxtable family called The Cosby Show?) He sucker punched comedian Tommy Smothers over a perceived slight. Then there are the numerous stories of how Cosby threatened careers and livelihoods if people dared to ask him uncomfortable questions or refused to do his bidding.
So what are we to make of these disparities? How can one person simultaneously be so great and so awful? The answer could rest with mental illness. For example, it sure appears as though Bill Cosby could meet the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). From the stories about his behavior, he seems to believe that he is special, demands excessive admiration and demonstrates arrogant attitudes. There also are definite signs that he has a sense of entitlement, is interpersonally exploitative and lacks empathy.
It is the last three traits in particular – the hallmarks of NPD – that could explain both the awful parts of Cosby’s personality and make the likelihood of him being guilty of the rape charges pretty high. After all, to drug and rape women, some of whom were engaging in consensual sexual relationships with him, required a belief that he could do what he wanted (entitlement), a desire to treat them with disdain (exploitive) and a purposeful disregard of the physical and psychological damage such actions would cause (lack of empathy). In fact, someone with NPD would view the ability to dismiss others’ feelings as proof of his superior power, something he would want to do again and again. That might account for the high number of women coming forward with the same story.
While all this sounds horrible, what is so odd about people suffering from NPD is that they can be – and often are – charming, intelligent, witty, charismatic, talented and fun to be around. Sound familiar? In fact, given the strong desire of people with NPD for fame, fortune and power, many of them can be found in high positions within politics, religion and business. People with NPD can be master manipulators. They often initially show interest and appreciation for others, making people feel good, but it’s all in service of their larger agenda. Their charm enables them to draw people to them so that they will give them what they want but eventually people will figure it out. And that might explain why few, if any, of Cosby’s co-stars or friends have come forward to defend him.
Although I do not know Bill Cosby personally and cannot be positive that he suffers from NPD, it would certainly explain a lot about his behavior. The disorder can account for both the good and bad parts of his personality and it provides an answer to the question of why someone with such immense power and public good will would risk everything to drug and rape women. Yet while I am glad to have gained some insight, it doesn’t make me feel better. Parts of my childhood are now irrevocably altered and there’s no way to change that. I don’t think I can ever watch The Cosby Show again without being disgusted. Bill Cosby was like a father figure, the one we always wanted, so the unmasking of his true colors feels like a betrayal. It’s almost like the country has lost a dad. Instead of making us laugh, he has now made us cry.