How Did Bill Cosby, America's Favorite Dad, Compartmentalize His Life for Decades?
Why Is Bill Cosby a Transformative Figure in American Entertainment and Culture?
Bill Cosby has been famous for over five decades as a stand-up comic, actor, product spokesperson, author, and social commentator on issues such as race, education, and parenting. He was the hip young star of the series, I Spy, in the 1960's, appealing to both blacks and whites. In the 70's, he focused his charm and talent on a younger generation as the good guy host of the Saturday morning cartoon show, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, advising children on subjects such as stealing, smoking, and gun violence. During the 80's, he reached a wider audience with the classic family sitcom, The Cosby Show, which ran for eight seasons and earned him the designation, "America's Favorite Dad."
Through all five decades and beyond, he was known as the admiring husband of Camille Cosby, the dedicated father of five children, and the trusted spokesperson for Jell-O pudding. He was one of the first black people to advertise products on television. How did this beloved public figure compartmentalize his life to such an extreme, criticizing young black men for wearing sagging pants and listening to rap music, but now standing accused of drugging and raping dozens of women over the years?
What Does It Mean to Compartmentalize One's Life
Compartmentalization is a term used in psychology for the conscious or subconscious effort to avoid mental discomfort when dealing with conflicting values within one's self. It's a coping mechanism we all use to some extent, sometimes to our benefit and sometimes not. Soldiers compartmentalize as a survival skill, boxing up their fears so they can stay vigilant, focused, and ready for battle. While necessary at the time, their bottling up of emotion may have negative consequences later in life.
What Do Bernie Madoff and Bill Cosby Have in Common?
Bernie Madoff infamously compartmentalized his life as he operated a Ponzi scheme, pulling off the biggest financial fraud in U.S. history. He ripped off seniors, charities, friends, and fellow Jews while simultaneously being a devoted father and grandfather, a prominent philanthropist, and husband to Ruth for 50 plus years. For decades Madoff successfully kept the various compartments of his life detached from one another—the illegal business from the legitimate one, the mistress from the wife, the respected financial strategist from the lowlife con man.
But the newly crowned champion of compartmentalizing is Bill Cosby, the once beloved entertainer who has been in the public spotlight for over five decades. In the 60's, 70's, 80's, and beyond, Cosby led a fragmented life that few of us can comprehend let alone pull off like he did. His huge ego—fueled by enormous talent, enduring popularity, and ever-growing wealth and power—combined with his misogyny made him the accused tormentor of women spanning five decades.
Cosby in the 60's: An Award-Winning Actor, A Newlywed, and a Rapist
Most of us remember Bill Cosby as Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, the wise father and solicitous husband on the 80's sitcom, The Cosby Show. But in the 1960's, Cosby was a handsome 28-year-old stand-up comic turned actor in the secret-agent adventure show, I Spy. It was his first acting gig, one that earned him a place in the history books as the first black actor to star in an American television drama. He earned three consecutive Emmy awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Dramatic Series for each year the show ran from 1965-1968.
Traveling to exotic locations around the world to film with gorgeous actresses, Cosby's self-confidence swelled and the compartmentalization increased. He married his wife, Camille, in 1964 and a year later they had the first of their five children. Cosby was building a traditional family life for public consumption but constructing an unorthodox private life that included a friendship with Hugh Hefner, frequent visits to the Playboy Club on Hollywood's Sunset strip, and dates with many Playboy bunnies. It was in 1969 that Joan Tarshis, now a 66-year-old writer, claims Cosby drugged and raped her twice when she was 19.
Cosby in the 70's: A Moralist, A Misogynist, and a Family Man
Bill Cosby grew up in the 40's and 50's before women's liberation in a household with four brothers and no sisters. He served in the Navy surrounded by men, became good buddies with Hugh Hefner, and frequented the Playboy Club. He was a misogynist in ways both big and small—often treating women with treachery, disdain, and aggression.
In his stand-up act, Cosby tells a story about changing his baby girl's diaper while his dad stands by and laments: “You didn't put the stem on the apple,” adding it's a “shame” the baby is a daughter, not a son. He instructs Cosby to pinch her nose and blow hard into her mouth as this will turn her into a boy. Cosby tries and becomes disappointed when it doesn't work. While the routine gets big chuckles from the live audience, it now seems misogynistic, sad, and extremely telling; Cosby devalues the female gender.
In the 70's Cosby's mistreatment of women contrasted sharply with his new role as creator, producer, and narrator of the animated show based on his childhood, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. The compartmentalization continued as Cosby took on the good-guy persona that would serve him well for decades to come—that of the kindly educator and moral authority, the hip grownup who was willing to teach hard life lessons to children, especially those in the inner-city.
During the 70's, Cosby friendship with Hugh Hefner grew stronger, and he started to spend more time at the Playboy Mansion. His dual life got easier to pull off when he relocated his family to the east coast, purchasing a compound in bucolic Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, where his kids grew up and attended school. With his wife and kids safely tucked away, Cosby was free to continue his nefarious ways with women in California. He admitted in a 2005 deposition that he obtained prescriptions for quaaludes so he could give them to women he wanted to have sex with and that he paid women to keep silent so his wife wouldn't discover his infidelities. He did not confess, however, to having anything but consensual sex. Judy Huth, 57, has filed a sexual assault lawsuit against Cosby, claiming he sexually assaulted her at the Playboy Mansion in 1974 when she was just 15.
Cosby in the 80's and Beyond: Moral Authority, Elder Statesman, and Hypocrite
Cosby reached his peak of fame in the 80's when he starred on The Cosby Show as the designer-sweater wearing patriarch of the Huxtable clan and quickly became America's favorite TV dad. He had already gained a reputation as the lovable, funny, and trustworthy creator of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and as the face of Jell-O pudding, appearing in countless commercials over the years with young children. With his good-guy image firmly entrenched, Cosby became more brazen, pursuing young women with the modus operandi he had used for years: enticing them with career advice and opportunities, gaining their trust, then allegedly drugging and raping them. One of his victims during the 80's was supermodel, Beverly Johnson, who fell into Cosby's clutches when he offered her an audition for The Cosby Show.
Cosby was 47 when The Cosby Show premiered and 55 when it ended. He was no longer the hip young actor from I Spy but a mature role model with strong opinions and moral convictions. Just as his character, Dr. Huxtable, seemed to have all the answers so did Bill Cosby. Both had a thriving career, a beautiful and intelligent wife, and five high-achieving kids. It's no wonder Cosby felt empowered to write books and appear on talk shows, no longer just telling humorous stories but giving advice on parenting, marriage, and education.
While most of his audience continued to revere him, soft rumblings of discontent could be heard from comic insiders who knew of Cosby's secret life and resented his hypocrisy. Some blacks, especially poor ones, felt betrayed by Cosby when he gave his famous “Pound Cake Speech” at a NAACP event in 2004. During the speech, he shamed the African-American community for its high amount of drop-outs, prisoners, and out-of-wedlock births. Positioning himself as a social critic and moral authority, Cosby put a target on his back. Now, as more than 40 women have accused him of drugging and raping them, Cosby finds some blacks gloating over his downfall, not bemoaning it.
Bill Cosby's "Pound Cake Speech" Was Filled With Exaggerations and Inaccuracies
A Future in Court
This is the sad story of how Bill Cosby, America's dad, now stands accused of rape. Today, it's impossible to find anything amusing in Bill Cosby's stand-up routines on YouTube. Every tale he tells—once so funny, profound, and touching—now take on a new, perverted meaning. Cosby, approaching 80, faces a future of endless lawsuits, courtroom appearances, and hefty legal fees. His wife and daughters stay loyal but others have abandoned ship. His legacy—possibly dismantled by his own hands, own hubris, and own hypocrisy—is destroyed.
Bill Cosby's Punishment
What is a just punishment for Bill Cosby?
Questions & Answers
© 2015 McKenna Meyers