There is no feeling quite like reading Bill Cosby's Love and Marriage in January 2015.
It's a weird thing to willingly enter a world of delusional hypocrisy and stay there for 267 pages. It's even weirder to witness the utter mundanity with which Cosby tosses off sentences like, "It was in those basements that I tried to squeeze girls as if they were melons to see which ones might be ripe for going steady with me." His writing style is an unpleasant blend of insidiously creepy and mind-numbingly boring. I do not recommend Love and Marriage, nor would I recommend any of Bill Cosby's other 11 books.
These books are not—as in the case of Woody Allen—closely tied to the works that made Cosby famous. When Dylan Farrow's essay was published in the New York Times last year, there was a dark, frenzied moment in which (some) conflicted Woody Allen fans dove back into his work, collectively groaning at the troubling themes that were suddenly (and belatedly) obvious. With Cosby's writing, it's different: his books aren't synonymous with The Cosby Show or his old stand-up routines, many of which are, in fact, telling. Rather, they are a weird, secondary, muted extension of what he did and does. Cosby's books—autobiographical, endlessly didactic—are not so much his comedy reimagined on paper, but instead winding, repetitive 200+ page-long Best Life pamphlets for the Bill Cosby Superfan.
As a newcomer, I was initially afraid to dip my toes into such a crowded pool of conversation. I was two when The Cosby Show ended. I watched reruns occasionally and tuned into Kids Say the Darndest Things every now and again, but the Cos did not play a particularly vivid role in my personal development. Unlike others who have recently revisited his work—and no, Washington Post, the books are not "still funny"—I'd mostly familiarized myself with Cosby post-scandal. These books were my real introduction to the man: my first significant, extensive, one-on-one with Cosby himself, and his life as he would like us to perceive it.
But, after boning up on 20th century Bill Cosby, the one who stood awash in the glow of tenured adoration, I can't conjure up a convincing image of the comedic "genius" being collectively mourned. All I see is a blowhard, and one who can't really write.
Time Flies, 1987
In Time Flies, Bill, 50 years old at the time of authorship, gives us the Real Deal on aging.
This very dull personal history is a jumble of bumbling, aren't-I-silly senility jokes—accounts of missing glasses, looking for cars in parking lots, etc. Still, it was a New York Times bestseller, and according to the back of the paperback, was called "'Cos' at his most irresistible" (Newsweek), "Wit for all ages" (Chicago Tribune), and "Witty in a way that makes one laugh aloud on public transportation," (Houston Post).
Beg to differ, Houston Post.
Here is a typical sentence from this exceptionally bad book: "In the beginning, Temple was not just my college but a description of my body as well."
At least 20 of the sexual assault accusations that have been brought against Cosby—including those of Beverly Johnson, Carla Ferrigno and Janice Dickinson—allegedly occurred prior to the 1987 pub date for Time Flies. Time sure does fly, doesn't it? Especially when your rickety old brain helpfully fast-forwards through decades of depravity.
Love and Marriage, 1989
In 1988, the year after Time Flies was published, an accuser known as "Lisa" claims that Cosby brought her into a hotel room and gave her a drugged drink. "He was the Jell-O pudding man," she told Dr. Phil. "He was everyone's dad." Lisa woke up two days later with no memory.
One year later, Cosby published Love and Marriage, a "delightful" (according to Ann Landers) romp through a very respectable man's very respectable love life.
In Love and Marriage, we take a nostalgic look back at the gloriously patriarchal gender-relations of the '40s and '50s, reminiscing on the humble cat-calling origins of Bill's blossoming sexuality:
"Young men no longer stand at drugstores and make plaintive cries to young women in this age of the equal female; but what memories I have of those boyhood evenings at a bus stop named desire."
A bus stop named desire. Also, love that Cosby considered 1989 to be the "age of the equal female." Love that about him!
"In my twenties, I gallantly paid the check for every woman I took to dinner. How many light-years that was from the average dinner date of 1989, where the woman not only is liable to pick up the check, but often has to look behind her condoms for her credit card."
This kind of smug declaration is a signature of Cosby's writing style. What was likely interpreted at the time as a cranky father figure shaking his lovable fist at a changing society ("Kids these days!") is now so overloaded with hypocrisy that it's nearly impossible to form a coherent response. I remain agape.
As a young man, Bill Cosby was also, very unsurprisingly, a huge fan of objectification:
"It was in those basements that I tried to squeeze girls as if they were melons to see which ones might be ripe for going steady with me."
Now there's a nightmarish image: stuck in a basement game of spin-the-bottle with an adolescent Bill Cosby.
When not likening his female peers to items available for purchase at a farmer's market, Cosby tended to describe most of his relations with girls in sporting terms; painfully common as the "conquest" metaphor is, it invokes new meaning coming from the pen of a man who allegedly baited and trapped dozens of women into sexual submission against their will.
"And so, with both the dedication and the mental balance of Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick, I began my great hunt. The following day, I began pursuing a gorgeous girl I'll call Artemis, after the Greek Goddess of Virginity."
Cosby is also a proud believer in the concept that men are from Mars and women are from some minor moon circling Mars:
"I now know the answer is that no man ever grows up in the eyes of a woman—or ever grows familiar with the rules for dealing with her."
According to Cosby, there's just no way, realistically, for a male to express himself to a female, "for men and women belong to different species and communication between them is a science still in its infancy."
This brings us to the union of Bill and Camille.
"I am certain that I have one of America's better marriages," Cosby declares. Later: "Because Camille and I have wisely left each other in the dark so often, our marriage has been rich in surprise." That, and that alone, is undoubtedly true.
Congratulations! Now What? A Book For Graduates, 1999
Two women—Angela Leslie, a model, and "Kacey," a former assistant to Cosby's agent—have alleged that they were assaulted by Bill Cosby in the time period between the 1989 publication of Love and Marriage and the 1999 publication of Congratulations! Now What?
Naturally, Cosby was called upon to shape the morals of a floundering young adult generation. Congratulations! is a college graduate's guide to navigating the tricky waters of post-diploma life, from Someone Who Knows. It's also terrible: here, finally, is that long, long-running gag on the "helpless college grad" notion that nobody asked for. "Reality is knowing that your liberal arts degree will get you no job besides a restaurant receptionist," he helpfully notes. "If it's a BA, you have letters that proudly stand for Barely Able because you are now someone who: Thinks withholding tax means not paying taxes. Thinks a bar code is drinking rules." And so on.
But regarding romance, as ever, the author deigns to share a few choice nuggets of terrifying advice. On dating post-college, Cosby elaborates upon that wonderfully vivid woman-as-prey conceit:
"Now, however, you have to go hunting and the game preserve is huge."
Later, he writes this, the most baldfaced print reference to his personal qualms with consent that I encountered in my reading:
"In one way, however, dating will now be easier because you're free from the campus sex police, who were ready to charge you with sexual harassment if you put your hand on any woman besides one who had asked you for help in crossing the street. At some schools, there are even manuals for sexual exploration that tell the men the permissions they need before they can start the rake's process."
The "campus sex police"? In 1999? Wouldn't that be nice!
This quote paints a picture of a man who lives by the gospel of sexual entitlement, who balks at "permissions," who believes so deeply in his right to lay hands that he would like to extend that imagined freedom to all young men. "In the real world, boys," he insinuates, "you can make a woman do just about whatever the fuck you please, if you're smart about it."
In 2000, one year after the publication of Congratulations! Now What?, Lachelle Covington filed a police report against Cosby, citing unwanted sexual advances.
I winced through these books, slogging at a snail's pace through sentence after poorly-written sentence, hoping against all odds for... what? Admission of guilt? A front-of-book dedication to Rohypnol? No such luck. But for a man so obsessively dedicated to controlling his image, there was plenty of material here, perhaps illustrating that sexual hypocrisy and exploitation are not necessarily themes the average American reader will pick up on unless they are pinned into a corner with their eyes clamped open.
"Raunchy reverence." "An' the girl comes flyin' at ya legs first." This is not the stuff of great literature. This is not the "Can you love the art, and hate the artist?" conundrum that arises when discussing The Cosby Show, or any other critically acclaimed work by a Woody Allen or a Roman Polanski. I have no qualms when I say that I hated these books, and I hate their author. And as for that "legacy" we keep hearing about? These words, for me, are it: the tedious platitudes, the crooked self-aggrandizement reimagined as guidance, and, most of all, the hideous, calculated manner in which he thought about women.