On Camille Cosby and the Problem With Asking, 'Why Did She Stay?'

Every time a wife stands by her scandal-mired celebrity husband, we eventually reach a point in the ensuing, endlessly looping discussion where we ask ourselves why she stayed, how much she knew, and whether her refusal to leave him is a reflection of her own shortcomings. If it were me, naysayers say triumphantly, he’d be out on his ass. You sure about that?

Camille Cosby has stood beside her husband Bill for nearly 50 years, through the births of five children, through one child’s tragic death. Camille was there through Bill’s famous womanizing, through career ups and downs, through a lawsuit that claimed that her husband had drugged and raped more than a dozen women. She was by his side years later, on November 6, when a milquetoast AP reporter meekly asked Bill, on camera, about the rape allegations, and she was there when he tried to bully the reporter into “scuttl[ing]” the portion of the tape that contained his non answers. She was there when Bill, a respectability politics devotee until the end, dropped the word “integrity” in an attempt to shame the reporter into doing his bidding. She’s still there. Why?

That’s always the question, isn’t it? Why didn’t she—Why won’t she—Why couldn’t she…? We aim it at scorned wives, at devoted fans of the fallen, at the victims (hello, Don Lemon!). And all of those questions hoist the blame for the actions of others onto a person directly affected by those actions.

On CNN, Blue Telusma notes that caught in the collateral damage of the Cosby scandal is the comedian’s longtime wife Camille. Telusma writes,

We can only speculate on what Camille’s reasons are for staying in her marriage, when she found out about each rape claim, or whether she believes in her husband’s innocence. She’s been stoic and tight-lipped through all this, exuding the unflappable composure that she is known for.

Later in the piece, she adds,

The Cosbys’ union remains seemingly stable through half a century of life’s ups and downs, and as someone who respects the institution of marriage I find that commendable. But when does the adage of “stand by your man” go too far?

Maybe Camille Cosby is standing by Bill for a reason entirely different than one considered out here. Maybe she believes him. Not because it’s rational, but because it’s easier to believe the word of a person you know and love than it is to believe the word of a stranger, or 15.

When bad things happen to other people, we try to edit ourselves into their experiences, imagine ourselves undergoing exactly what they have, but coming out on the other side somehow better off, thanks to our superior choice-making skills. I’d never have married a predator. I’d never have stayed with a man who cheated on me. I’d have figured out who he was before committing decades of my life to him. I’d never have walked home alone after having a few drinks. I’d never have gone home with that date rapist. I’d never have left my child alone with that babysitter. I’d never have worn that outfit. I’d never have gone to that club. I’d never.

Of course, that’s a fantasy, something we tell ourselves because we don’t want to face the reality that sometimes, there’s no way to stop bad things from happening from us. They just happen. People we trust victimize us, people we love betray us, tragedy strikes us randomly, irrationally, and heartlessly. And sometimes, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. That’s an incredibly terrifying thought. Nobody who marries a rapist, or an abuser, or a cheating bastard thinks on the day that they meet that one day, many years from now, the person they love will royally fuck up.

The desire to be entirely in control of our own fortunes is a seductive one. We believe in it so strongly that we’re willing to cast aside rationality in favor of sticking to the desired outcome. From the outside, the actions of the devoted insiders look downright inane—Ray Rice fans insisting that punching his wife in the face was “an honest mistake”; the sad, sad bros of Penn State crying about the legacy of Joe Paterno long after it was pretty clear that he’d turned a blind eye to years of child sexual abuse; supporters of Jian Ghomeshi who don’t want to believe the guy they supported could be an abusive monster.

As Rebecca Traister posits at The New Republic, accusations that Cosby was a creep have been floating around for years (and even wound up in court), but, until now, many fans have refused to believe them, or willfully forgotten them. Traister writes that this is due to people’s desire to cling to the version of “white blamelessness” presented on The Cosby Show. We wanted to believe that everything that show presented, right down to the guy who played Mr. Huxtable, was a reflection of reality. Fans bought in and didn’t want to be wrong.

It’s those longtime fans that have their feelings and their pride riding on the morality and lawfulness of the objects of their adoration; spouses have their whole lives riding on it. Of course people in Camille Cosby’s position are going to believe their spouse for as long as he or she possibly can. When you marry somebody, you implicitly bet your entire life on the assumption that they are not a terrible monster. It’s not exactly easy to throw up your hands and say “NEVER MIND! The last five decades have been a lie!” when assumptions you thought were safe turn out to be wrong.

Never underestimate the power of confirmation bias to convince people to believe the seemingly absurd. From our lofty vantage point outside of the Cosby marriage, it’s easy to weigh the numbers, scoff at the idea that 15 women with similar stories and very little to gain would lie about the same thing, or that something this huge and horrifying would blow over in the post-Teflon celebrity age. Perhaps the Cosbys have confronted the issue and worked through it in their own marriage, but the public isn’t over it yet. This isn’t going away. Everything sticks now, whether your mind can accept that reality or not.

Blaming Camille for not doing enough, not reacting enough, not publicly distancing herself from her husband in the face of horrifying accusations isn’t the same as blaming his alleged victims for what they say happened to them. But passing negative judgment on the actions of a celebrity’s partner—who did nothing wrong—and telling an alleged rape victim that she should have bitten her assailant’s dick off rather than let herself be orally raped are two sides of the same coin. If it’s not okay to blame the victims for what was done to them, then it’s also not okay to blame the rest of the fallout’s collateral damage on anybody but Bill Cosby.

Image via Getty

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