Bill Cosby had a remarkable, ground-breaking career. As a black stand-up comedian during the Civil Rights movement, he entertained huge audiences of all races. His sitcom, “The Cosby Show,” was a smash hit for years. It represented traditional “family values” at a time when the “breakdown” of the family was being blamed for most of society’s ills.
In his stand-up, Bill Cosby revealed that to him, “traditional family values” meant children growing up unapologetically in houses full of fear, anger, and corporal punishment. As a kid, I loved his “my name is Jesus Christ” routine. I knew what it was like for every sentence spoken to you to contain the phrase “Jesus Christ, what’s wrong with you?”
Even as a kid, though, I suspected families weren’t supposed to be like mine, and most of what I liked about the routine was feeling mine wasn’t the only one so broken.
Jokes about corporal punishment were a staple of Cosby’s routine and a part of his persona. “Bill Cosby: [mimicking a mother scolding her child] “Take a stick and knock your brains out!” I always wanted to get some calves’ brains, keep ’em in my hand. My mother would hit me in the head; I’d throw ’em on the floor. But knowing my mother, it wouldn’t work. She’d say, “Put your brains back in your head! Don’t you let your brains fall out of your head! Have you lost your mind?”
This describes not just corporal punishment but abuse.
In later material, he jokes about continuing the cycle of abuse.
“Bill Cosby: [after spanking the kids] My wife comes downstairs with a broken stick. She throws it on the table and begins to talk out loud to… NOBODY! “Gonna tell me that you’re not going to do something when I tell you to do something. I mean, you MOVE when I say move! Think I carried you in my body for nine months so you can roll your eyes at me? I’ll roll that little head of yours down on the floor. You don’t know who you’re fooling with. I’ll beat you until you can’t grow anymore!”
This piece can’t be taken as a literal proof of Bill, or his wife, beating their children. But it can be taken as a sign that he still thought it was funny.
At a famous speech at the NAACP, he talked about how the lack of “parenting” and “respect” in the black community was destroying it; the implication was that “respect” included the kinds of pain, shame, and fear-based punishments he spoke of enduring.
Corporal punishment is bad for kids. This is proven about as conclusively as the existence of gravity. The ACE research partially explains why- growing up in an environment full of fear and uncertainty causes a child’s brain to marinate in stress-related chemicals, which in turn changes the way a child’s still-developing body grows from their cells on up.
Corporal punishment persists, in part, because all discussion of it devolves into “my parents hit me, and look how I turned out.” That’s an effective pro-corporal-punishment argument when people hear your name and think, “what a success.” When people hear your name and think, “what a rapist,” the argument changes.
My parents didn’t hit me much when I was a kid. But one time, as punishment, my father took me into his bedroom, loaded a gun in front of me, and put it to my head. And at that moment, I learned the only lessons corporal punishment teaches in a complete and overwhelming way; Life is cheap, obey, and when you can’t, don’t get caught.
These seem to be the lessons Bill Cosby learned, too.
Raping dozens of women, spanning decades, and not offering any type of apology when sworn confessions leak out shows a great disregard for human life. Particularly the lives of people with less power than you have, which is the dynamic of corporal punishment. And not getting caught seems to be the overarching theme Cosby applied to his crimes. Cosby has a team of lawyers fighting to keep as much of this quiet as possible.
The other reason we defend spanking is that if we spank, the child stops misbehaving, and we feel better. When you are the parent of a three-year-old who is climbing the refrigerator, you become convinced your child’s obedience equates to their safety and success. If they obey you, or whoever else is in charge, when you tell them to study, they’ll succeed in school and get a high-paying job. If they obey when you say “say no to drugs,” they’ll be spared the pain of addiction. If they obey about sex, you won’t have to raise a grandchild.
The pay-out of spanking is instantaneous. The problems it causes (mostly behavioral and academic ones) aren’t, and they can be caused by other things. And when your child is three and scaling the refrigerator, you don’t think that someday you’ll want them to disobey.
When I was failing out of college, my parents didn’t understand why I was afraid to approach my professors and ask for a second chance with assignments. They don’t know that I never dared to say “no” to sex until I was 30. And they don’t understand why I have virtually no relationship with them.
We all absorb the lessons our parents teach us. Even if they’re not the lessons, they intend to teach us.
I will love it if the Cosby case ends the argument of “it happened to me, and look how I turned out.” We live in a world where over 20% of children are sexually abused before adulthood, and about ⅓ of women are abused by an intimate partner. That doesn’t mean 7/12 of adults are abusers, but there are a whole lot of people saying, “I turned out fine,” who didn’t.
Cancer survivors may expound on what they learned and gained from their illness and recovery. But I’ve never met one who endorses a public policy of more cancer. Every survivor of trauma or tragedy gets to make a choice about how they relate to that trauma; they can either say, “this was bad, it harmed me, and I overcame it,” or they can say, “look how well I turned out.”
Admitting you were harmed means admitting vulnerability. That’s hard for women, much harder for men. And it’s no guarantee that you’ll break the cycle of abuse- that takes healing and skills, as well as the right attitude. But not doing it guarantees you won’t become healthier.
As a nation, we need to take a much harder look at how we raise our children. It’s not acceptable that 90% of people who sexually abuse children never spend a day behind bars. It’s not acceptable that ⅛ of our children have ACE scores of four or more, meaning the odds of them committing suicide, becoming drug addicts, or dying early are astronomically higher than their unabused peers. It’s completely unacceptable that we don’t engage in significant dialogue about something as bad for our children as spanking. And it’s just as bad that we believe successful-looking people who say, “look how I turned out.”
Executive Director, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.