May 4, 2018

Dear drama observers,

“A father . . . knows exactly what those boys at the mall have in their depraved little minds because he once owned such a depraved little mind himself. In fact, if he thinks enough about the plans that he used to have for young girls, the father will not only support his wife in keeping their daughter home, but he might even run over to the mall and have a few of those boys arrested.”–Bill Cosby

“Iconic entertainer Bill Cosby was convicted on three counts of sexual assault Thursday, a decision that punctuates one of the most thundering falls from grace in American cultural history. . . The comedian exploded in anger as District Attorney Kevin Steele argued that Cosby has access to a private plane and should have his $1 million bail revoked because he might be a flight risk. ‘He doesn’t have a plane, you a–hole!’ Cosby shouted in an earsplitting roar that startled the courtroom and sent necks craning for a glimpse of his moment of distilled rage.”–The Washington Post

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a Cosby fan. I’m old enough to remember “I Spy” and never missed an episode. I listened to and laughed at Cosby’s “Noah” album over and over. I watched his 1983 stand-up routine, Cosby Himself, more times than I can count. My family loved—absolutely loved—The Cosby Show. My wife and I taped every episode so that if nothing decent was on TV for our kids to watch, we’d plug in a Cosby tape. For years, I taught a seminar in which I’d illustrate healthy parenting by replaying an interaction between Cliff and Theo from the show’s pilot episode. Cosby’s book, Fatherhood, still sits on our family bookshelf.

So, how do you reconcile the universally-admired public Bill Cosby with the real-life private Bill Cosby who gets convicted of drugging, raping, and threatening his victims and then explodes in a post-conviction, profanity-laced courtroom tirade? How do you reconcile Cliff Huxtable with a serial sexual predator?

You can’t. Because those two Cosby’s aren’t reconcilable. One is an act; the other is real. One is admirable; the other is detestable. One elicits positive feelings; the other makes you feel nauseated. And yet, these opposing selves exist alongside each other inside the same person’s body.

One of the main reasons drama people are so mentally discombobulating is this public/private incongruence. All that glitters is not gold, the saying goes.

One of the most gratifying things in life is to get in close to someone and discover that they are, in fact, who they appear to be. By the same token, it’s terribly disconcerting to get in close and find out the person you thought you knew is not that person after all. The effect is to get hit by a psychological freight train, leaving you stunned and disoriented.

Books have been written detailing those disorienting effects, but I’d like to highlight just three:

Questioning of self

It’s widely accepted that the first stage of grief is denial. It’s so hard to get your head around what just happened that a psychological and physiological numbing occurs. “I can’t believe it,” is more than a benign assertion. Indeed, it may be so hard to accept the reality before your eyes that you’ll start to question your own perception abilities. “Maybe it didn’t happen,” is the thought.

Distortion of reality

Not only is it hard to accept but you don’t want to accept it. Quite honestly, I’d like to believe that Cosby didn’t do any of those things he’s been convicted of doing. I want my Cliff Huxtable back.

I’ve talked before about something called cognitive dissonance. That is, when two opposing realities conflict (i.e. the public Cosby and the private Cosby), we’ll discard one to keep the other because holding both simultaneously is too unsettling. For example, if someone were to say, “All that stuff we’re reading about Cosby is fake news. Those 60 women now making accusations about him? I don’t believe any of them.” Cognitive dissonance will cause someone to filter out those aspects of reality they find too noxious to accept. They end up with a distorted reality—but they now feel better.

Isolation of self

If you’ve gotten in close and discovered a drama person’s ugly realities—those that don’t show up from a distance—it’s hard to get others to believe your description because they’ve not seen it for themselves nor would want to believe it if they did. Just like you, they’ve been enamored only with the person’s public persona.

It’s always galling to me when someone says, “Why didn’t she say something about it at the time? The fact that she’s waited till now seems awfully fishy to me.” In my mind’s eye, I always picture myself retorting, “That’s easy to say perched on your ivory tower of self-righteousness but if the same thing had happened to you, you wouldn’t have said anything either—because few would’ve believed you. As evidenced by the fact that you won’t even believe her now.” (I’m rarely that articulate in real life.)

Sadly, the most common experience of sexual predation victims is to place a toe outside of their cocoon of silence only to have that toe stepped on by disbelief. With trepidation, they’ve revealed their experience to co-workers, to family members, to church elders, or to someone in a leadership hierarchy only to have that story minimized, disregarded, overlooked, disbelieved, or even disputed.

There’s strength in numbers which is why the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements are gaining such traction. Though their motives are sometimes (wrongly, in my humble and accurate opinion) questioned, it’s liberating to step outside of their bunkers of silence and, at long last, breathe the fresh air of validation.

11 replies
  1. Anderson, gj
    Anderson, gj says:

    It seems an accurate description. The victims are frequently so traumatized that telling someone else is outside the realm of possibility and then all the other things you mentioned start piling up on them…

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I was left stunned by such a person. I remember getting this sinking feeling and saying to myself, My God. I didn’t really know him ! After 5 years of friendship and loving feelings I realized I was fond of someone who wasn’t the person I thought he was. It is very tough for someone else to understand this kind of deception. You would have had to been there and of course no one else was.

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      It’s probably akin to a combat veteran trying to explain the experience to someone who’s never been in the military. If you know someone won’t get it, you’d rather avoid explaining it.

  3. Pam Smith
    Pam Smith says:

    It’s creepy to know that human predators really do exist. Our culture invites and even insists that women believe in sheltering men who will take care of them. Some of those “great guys” are not what they seem. I have learned the enormous power that wanting something to be true can have over me.

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      The human tendency to believe what we want to believe is a powerful force in all of us. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Patricia
    Patricia says:

    Thanks for articulating so well what we all feel and why we feel it when blindsided by one of these people.
    I lived my life with a narcissistic mother, but broke free, began healing, and considered my radar for toxic people pretty good. To this day, her family and most of my “friends” don’t believe me, which to me is like a repeat of her gas lighting. My husband has always been an excellent judge of character, able to zero in on drama people long before anyone else sees it. But a man we knew well, a former college football coach, was charged and convicted of molestation, which left us questioning ourselves. We still wonder how we missed it, when the truth is we are well aware that these people are masters of deceit.
    Strange that none of this has made me want to believe anything but the best of people until they show me otherwise. I guess we all have that childlike need to believe that the people we choose to be around us are good.

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Thanks so much for sharing all that, Patricia. Yours will be a familiar tale to many who’ll read it. I appreciate it.

    • Pam Smith
      Pam Smith says:

      Really well said, Patricia.
      I have only one part where I divert from agreeing totally with you.
      I like to think it is more than “a childlike need to believe the people we chose to be around us are good.” (Forgive me, only that phrase reminds me of the harrowing statements I heard from my former spouse, that “everybody does it,” meaning everybody lies about who they are, their motives, and plunders others).
      For me, it is a decision to believe what people tell me they are until I see that certain things don’t line up,
      And yes, drama people are masters of deceit; doctors of deceit.

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