NORRISTOWN, Pennsylvania—How many women must bleed to be heard? How many times? Once is not enough. It must be dozens, if not hundreds, of times. You need to do it under oath. You need to do it on camera. You need to let the lawyers and politicians and everyone on the internet call you and your family and your friends whatever they like. Preferably, do it at a press conference with microphones shoved in your face and reporters looking on, blank-faced and taking notes. Crying helps. Ignore those cameras snapping in your face because it helps if your pain goes viral. Mega-viral is better. A Twitter moment is best. Emotional breakdowns will get you bonus points. And, while you’re dying inside, can you be pretty? And do it again tomorrow?
How many times did the survivors of Bill Cosby have to speak to be heard? The thought couldn’t escape my mind as I sat at the survivor press conference after Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison on Tuesday for the night he drugged and sexually assaulted Andrea Constand. At the press conference, Stacey Pinkerton told her story to reporters for the first time about how, she says, Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her. Others, like Chelan Lasha and Lise-Lotte Lublin, had testified as part of the second criminal trial. And others, like Victoria Valentino and Therese Serignese, hadn’t testified in court but were telling their stories for reporters. They have told their stories so many times, I’ve lost count.
Sitting there, I looked around at our surroundings—a makeshift press area out of what looked like a school cafeteria or auditorium with teal plastic chairs and white cloths covered folding tables—part of me felt these women deserved so much more, and part of me was pleasantly surprised the press conference was well attended at all. For more than an hour, each woman spoke then gave the podium to another woman. Some talked about the activism that Cosby’s actions had led them to take; others spoke about hospitalizations, mental breakdowns, and post-traumatic stress disorder brought upon them after what happened; all talked about why they blamed themselves or felt they couldn’t say anything until 2005, when Constand filed her police report, or even later. All their lives had been changed.
Lise-Lotte Lublin: “He committed a crime against me. He preached to our youth for years in a bad attempt to teach them to take responsibility for their actions, but he does not honor his own words.”
Chelan Lasah: “I was young and innocent only 17 years old. Why should he receive mercy just because he is 81?”
Linda Kirkpatrick: “If someone tries to report to you, please don’t insult them by asking them what they were wearing. I do not know what I was wearing that night, but I call you right now it was not a prison jumpsuit.”
Stacey Pinkerton: “No place was far enough away from Mr. Cosby. Once I arrived in Europe, it was nice to be able to turn on the TV and not see his face. No matter what, these things stay with you forever.”
Sarita Butterfield: “It was traumatizing. It was something I could never forget. because it was premeditated.”
Janice Baker-Kinney (her statement was read aloud by Gloria Allred): “My final thanks goes to you, Mr. Cosby. Yes, I said thank you Mr. Cosby. Thank you for your enormous ego and arrogance, for without it we might not be here today. Your arrogance led a group of wounded women to come together, to support one another and to form a bond that can never be broken.”
Sunni Welles: “It is because of you B.C. and men like you that I have lost trust in people and in men in particular. It is because of you that I have been unable to sustain any deep, intimate, or healthy relationship with any men in my life.”
Therese Serignese: “Your criminal behavior is not acceptable. There must be consequences. Today, you were finally forced to suffer the court impose consequences for your abhorrent behavior.”
Barbara Bowman (her statement was read aloud by attorney Joseph Cammarata): “This is not a day to rejoice, this is a solemn day. A day that marks a firm understanding that victims can no longer be silent, even when facing the wrath and power of their abuser.”
Lili Bernard: “I look upon Bill Cosby as a masterful war criminal and a slaver, who waged chemical and sexual warfare upon the landscape of my body and upon my dozens of unsuspecting women and girls.”
Victoria Valentino: “I am sick and tired of answering the question why didn’t you report sooner, why didn’t you talk to anyone. Because you can’t.”
It was Welles who delivered the most gut-wrenching statement. Welles said she was still a virgin when Cosby sexually assaulted her twice. Her mother, a single parent working as an agent in Hollywood in 1965, told Welles that she couldn’t say anything. Dozens more women would get such advice for the following decades.
None of these statements were read in court. Just statements from Constand and her family were allowed; a request by the Commonwealth to allow more Cosby survivors to speak was denied. After the victim-impact statements in the Larry Nassar sentencing changed the entire national perception of that case, it’s understandable why the decision to exclude them raised some ire. But it’s worth remembering that admitting such statements into court remains questioned in the legal world. They weren’t allowed in death penalty cases until a 1991 Supreme Court ruling, and that cases’ dissent included liberal icons Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan, and John Paul Stevens. Marshall wrote in his dissent that such statements create “an unacceptable risk of sentencing arbitrariness.” His concern was sentences would be handed out based on who had the most eloquent victims, who best performed their pain for the court.
I hear Marshall’s concerns because, at least in the media, they correlate. The news loves few things more than a dead, pretty, young white woman while all the other dead women are lucky if they get mentioned at all. And yet I also want to tell Marshall that what he doesn’t understand is that this public suffering is moving into the courts because it is the only thing that works. Without our tears, without our pain, without emptying ourselves of our very life force, who would listen? Who would care?
You could see the effect of such public suffering on Tuesday. Through two trials and a sentencing, Cosby spokesman Andrew Wyatt didn’t get asked too many tough questions, reporters taking his quotes about how Cosby was an innocent man, all the women who said they were raped were liars, and everyone in the entire legal proceeding was corrupt and just using them to present both sides. On Tuesday, reporters pushed back.
You could see it at Tuesday’s press conference, when Welles paused a few times to cry and, as she suffered, the air was filled with the shuttering of cameras going off.
As I drove back to my hotel, NPR played an interview with Anita Hill, another woman forced to once again relive her suffering for the American public so it could maybe, just maybe, learn a lesson.
The Hill hearings—held in 1991 when I was 10 years old—are burned into my brain, even these decades later. I read and write about violence against women and yet it is the Hill hearings I cannot bear to watch, perhaps because they happened when I didn’t know better. When I believed a person would call out wrongdoing and that wrong would be righted. When I was a young and just beginning to learn that you needed to let boys be boys, or end up like Hill, berated by some of the men while the others, the alleged “allies,” did nothing. Leaning in was bullshit, and it was the only bullshit anyone had because the alternatives were so much worse. It has taken all these years—more than two decades—since the Hill hearings for #MeToo to happen because America needed an entire generation of women to grow up who hadn’t seen that, who hadn’t been told directly by our Senate that the most powerful people in your orbit will abandon you, at a moments notice, just because the discrimination, indignities, and crimes you suffer are inconvenient for them—and then they’ll build an entire career in which they are, at worst, seen as flawed people who just needed time to grow up and learn. But more likely than not, they’d be celebrated as champions of women. Sucking it up wasn’t about feminism; it was about survival.
There’s already fear that the upcoming Brett Kavanaugh hearings will end like those with Hill—Christine Blasey Ford’s life laid bare for a nation for scoffing, for mockery, and ultimately the memory hole. Meanwhile, the media turns to Hill, asking her how everyone should feel, what should the men do this time. I have no idea what the men will do, but I know what the women will do. They will be called performative if they cry, they will be called “not real victims” if they stay stoic, they will have their lives irrevocably altered. They will bleed and hope it works.