In 1984, an aspiring 17-year-old actress named Barbara Bowman auditioned for a role with one of the country's biggest names in comedy: Bill Cosby. She did so well that her agents advised her to move to New York, where the comedian was developing The Cosby Show.
Not long after arriving, Bowman was invited to meet with Cosby at his home — seemingly a major break. Cosby offered her a glass of wine. But after drinking it, she later said, she blacked out. When she woke up, she was wearing only her underpants and a man's T-shirt.
Cosby maintained contact with Bowman, paying, along with her agent, for her rent and other expenses — which, Bowman has said, left her financially isolated and dependent on Cosby, who allegedly used it as leverage to meet with and assault her other times over the next two years.
Then in 1986, Cosby flew her down to Atlantic City, where he was performing. During a conversation in his hotel room, Bowman says, Cosby grew angry and pinned her to the ground, holding his forearm to her neck. As she screamed and struggled against him, Cosby tried, but failed, to undo his pants. Frustrated, he called her a "baby" and threw her out, and promptly cut off the money he'd been providing, including for her home.
Though she did not know it at the time, Bowman does not appear to have been alone in this experience. Nearly 60 women have, like her, since come forward. They have reported incidents ranging across decades — coinciding with Cosby's rise as not just a comedian and TV star but the beloved sweater-wearing America's Dad of pudding commercials and The Cosby Show. Their allegations have forced Americans to confront that Cosby may not have been who they thought, and to grapple with questions of how he was allowed such impunity for so long.
If you haven't been completely paying attention, there's a lot going on here. Let's break it down:
1) What is Bill Cosby accused of?
So far, 58 fully or partially identified women have come forward to say Cosby either sexually assaulted them or that he attempted as much, in incidents ranging from the early 1960s to 2008. Most describe being drugged. Some describe multiple incidents, and others only one. Several of the women have joined lawsuits against Cosby or acted as witnesses, and others have spoken out to the media.
Often the women say they met Cosby in a professional context, and describe him using his star power to draw them in.
One woman, Kaya Thompson, said Cosby met her in the late 1980s on the set of The Cosby Show. She was an aspiring model, and Cosby offered to take her under his wing. But she said she found the attention from him off-putting. In her final meeting with him, she tried to break contact with him; she says he forced her to give him a hand job, and then gave her an unsolicited $700.
Like Bowman, some of the women say Cosby did not act alone, alleging that his agents at William Morris and other Hollywood players helped to connect him with his victims. According to Carla Ferrigno, in 1967 she was on a date when the man she was with mentioned he was friendly with Cosby, and suggested they visit him at his home. Once there, she said, she found herself alone with Cosby, and he grabbed her and kissed her.
These sexual assaults remained largely unknown for decades.
2) Why did Cosby's alleged victims stay quiet for so long?
Many of the women said they had told someone (including their own family members) who didn’t believe them, or they figured no one would believe such an accusation anyway, or they themselves weren’t completely sure of the situations they found themselves in, due to the drugs that were allegedly used to subdue them. Bowman said she went to lawyers, who told her the case would be impossible to defend.
As Linda Joy Traitz told New York magazine, "I blamed myself at the time. I thought I did something wrong. This happened when I was 18. It took me a long, long time to come to terms with the fact that it was him, it wasn’t me."
Model and actress Beverly Johnson said she was at his home in the mid-1980s when she realized she had been drugged. She said when she fought him off, he dragged her down the stairs and threw her into a cab. "In the end, just like the other women, I had too much to lose to go after Bill Cosby," she wrote in a 2014 Vanity Fair essay.
Cosby is currently out on $1 million bail after facing felony charges for three counts of aggravated indecent assault, which allegedly took place in January 2004 at his home in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.
That's when Temple University’s then-director of operations for the women’s basketball team, Andrea Constand, was visiting his home in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, to get advice on her career path from Cosby, whom she considered a mentor.
She told Cosby she was feeling stressed, and he gave her three pills, telling her they'd take the edge off. When she asked if they were herbal, he reportedly said, "Yes. Down them."
After drinking wine at Cosby's urging, Constand said, her vision became blurry and her speech slurred. Cosby helped her to the couch and began to grope her breasts, and then shoved his hands in her pants and digitally penetrated her. He also took her hand and made her grab his penis. Hours later, Constand said, she awoke in his house with her clothing askew. Cosby greeted her in a robe, gave her a muffin, and walked her out of his house.
Constand reported the ordeal to local authorities. Cosby was questioned, claiming the sexual acts were consensual. When the news of Constand's allegations went public, California attorney Tamara Green appeared on the Today show in February 2005 with a similar story about how Cosby gave her pills to help with a fever, and then sexually assaulted her in her apartment.
Cosby denied both allegations, and the Montgomery County district attorney in Constand's case said there was not enough evidence to move forward with the case, so Constand, who had moved to Toronto at that point, filed a civil complaint against Cosby. Thirteen women had come forward to Constand and were mentioned in her case as Jane Doe witnesses.
Some of the women who had provided testimony for Constand's case even came forward publicly, telling reporters what Cosby had done to them. Their stories got some coverage, but it never quite broke through to the national consciousness. Cosby and Constand settled the case on undisclosed terms in 2006.
3) Why didn't the 2005 accusations against Cosby get more attention?
For many, these acts were incomprehensible, especially for someone who had built a career on a fun yet somewhat wholesome family image, while also pushing for education and upward mobility for black Americans. So, yes, part of what people are debating is whether Cosby is guilty of the overwhelming number of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault claims.
But this is also about those who have seen Cosby rise as an elder statesman and a cultural icon, and the reluctance to tear down a black man who has done so much to build himself up while helping others.
Ever since Cosby appeared on The Tonight Show in 1963, he's been a beloved entertainer, releasing several hit comedy records throughout the 1960s and then co-starring with Robert Culp in the dramatic series I Spy. It was the first time a black actor had starred in a network drama, and Cosby earned three consecutive Emmy awards while making a huge impact when it came to visibility of black people in media in a barely post-segregation country.
In 1984, The Cosby Show debuted on NBC and was a hit from the beginning. The show about the Huxtables, an upper-middle-class black family, lasted eight seasons and was the highest-rated sitcom on television for five consecutive seasons. Again drawing inspiration from his own family, as he did with the show, Cosby penned the 1986 bestseller Fatherhood. You may also remember him from the movie Ghost Dad and all those Jell-O pudding commercials from the 1990s.
Later, Cosby became known for philanthropy. He's received at least 37 honorary degrees from colleges across the nation, including Howard University, Yale University, and the University of Pennsylvania, Vulture reports, and has donated extensively to educational institutions.
By 1997, everyone loved Bill Cosby — 90 percent of Americans had a favorable view of him. And through all of his accomplishments and stress on education, Cosby became a legend for comedians and among black Americans, even as he deployed finger-wagging messages urging blacks to live up to the work of the civil rights movement by pulling up their sagging pants and putting an end to out-of-wedlock births.
So his whole career has been based on a fatherly, warm-but-stern, friendly image most aligned with his role as Dr. Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show — which makes the accusations even more jarring and, for some, unbelievable. How could America's dad commit such acts?
4) Why did this all finally start coming out in 2014?
It wasn't until that year, a decade after the episode with Constand, that Americans finally started seeing, and grappling with, the allegations against Cosby.
Comedian Hannibal Buress, in a standup set at the Trocadero in Philadelphia, did a bit skewering Cosby in October 2014. How, Buress asked, did Cosby get away with a career of pushing respectability politics on black America when he himself had been accused by more than a dozen women of sexual assault in the 2005 suit?
"'Pull your pants up, black people. I was on TV in the ’80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.’ Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby. So, brings you down a couple notches," Buress said.
The clip went viral, finally drawing widespread attention to the case. While Buress was applauded for getting people to finally take these accusations seriously, it also underlined that we live in a culture where the accounts of women who say they've been raped, molested, or sexually assaulted are met with more scrutiny than someone reporting, say, being mugged (which is why rapes are largely underreported).
The social priority, until that point, was clear: protecting a rich and powerful man over the women who accuse him of such acts.
As national attention turned toward Cosby, many women who'd remained in the dark for decades felt it was finally safe to come forward — and they did. Over the next few months, individual women spoke out one by one, creating an avalanche of stories that couldn't be ignored.
In July 2015, 35 of those women shared their stories with New York magazine in a powerful cover story. In many cases, the women were aspiring entertainers or models who say Cosby used his power and status in the industry to take advantage of them.
In the year and half since then, a number of women have filed defamation lawsuits against Cosby, saying the comedian and his lawyer defamed them by calling them liars after they stepped forward.
"It is one thing for an accused sexual assailant to remain silent and allow the legal process, or public opinion, to run its course, but it is quite another for him to unleash his agents to deny that he attacked the plaintiff and other women, to invite others to republish his statements, and to brand them as unreliable liars," the lawsuit reads, according to Reuters.
Late last year, a criminal case against Cosby related to Constand's allegations was filed — though this had seemed unlikely, largely due to the statute of limitations. The case is going forward, and on December 30, 2015, Cosby appeared in court for arraignment. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for January 14.
5) Is Cosby guilty?
Despite the dozens of accusations, Cosby has remained aloof in interviews with the press, and has denied any wrongdoing. He has also filed defamation suits against some of his accusers.
However, in his 2005 deposition for Constand’s civil case, Cosby admitted to giving Quaaludes to women before sex, assuring the act was consensual and that he did not partake of the drug himself. He claims to have given Benadryl to Constand. The deposition became public in July 2015, revealed when the Associated Press sued to access the sealed documents.
We won't know the legal evidence behind, at least, Constand's accusation unless it is revealed in the course of the criminal case.
Still, the overwhelming number of women who have shared their stories related to Cosby is difficult to ignore.
Cosby, and some who have come to his defense, have called the accusations a ploy to tear down Cosby's character, and said that many of these women willingly slept with him.
But at least Constand had a pretty clear rebuke to this. As Mic's Jamilah King pointed out in July, Constand is a lesbian.
6) Who's still defending Cosby?
While the public has largely changed its view of Cosby, there are still some — especially in the comedy world — who advocate for him.
Comedian Eddie Griffin told Vlad TV that he saw it all as part of a larger effort to tarnish black men in the entertainment industry. Rapper Waka Flocka Flame echoed this, calling the situation "an organized lie." So did Cosby's Cosby Show co-star Phylicia Rashad, and, as Jenée Desmond-Harris wrote for Vox, her attempt to clarify her statements only made her sound more callous to the women involved.
Whoopi Goldberg, another pioneering black comedian and one of the co-hosts of The View, initially defended Cosby outright. More recently, she's been more neutral about the criminal accusations but still has extended words of support to Cosby and his wife, Camille.
These days, Cosby has lost major points with Americans — 61 percent have an unfavorable view of him, according to YouGov. But among black Americans, it's more polarized: 35 percent approve of the decision to prosecute him, and 28 percent don't.
"It’s difficult for black people to accept the idea that Cosby could be guilty," University of Connecticut professor Jelani Cobb told Goldie Taylor, who wrote a controversial Ebony magazine cover story about Cosby’s downfall last year. "Certainly the long history of prominent African Americans being torn down in public lends itself to the idea that Cosby is being targeted because of his wealth and influence."
7) What has Cosby's wife, Camille, said about all this?
From the beginning, Camille Cosby, the comedian's wife of 52 years, has backed her husband, denouncing the women who have accused the comedian of sexual assault and rape.
In December 2014, she asserted that her husband’s accusers were not credible enough to be quoted in media. She even claimed his case was similar to that of Rolling Stone's University of Virginia story, in which a young woman accused three fraternity brothers of raping her. The story was later invalidated, and Rolling Stone retracted the piece.
"None of us will ever want to be in the position of attacking a victim," Camille Cosby said. "But the question should be asked — who is the victim?"
In the latest defamation case, Camille Cosby has so far been able to avoid testifying against her husband. According to Variety, she was so resistant to deposing that plaintiffs "threatened to seek the assistance of federal marshals to compel Mrs. Cosby’s deposition."
8) What's going to happen to Cosby now?
Right now Cosby is out on bail from Constand's criminal case and is also defending himself from defamation suits. In the Constand case, he's being charged with three counts of aggravated indecent assault, each of which could bring between five and 10 years in prison if convicted.
Still, he even did a tour of comedy shows throughout 2015. The tour was sold out in August 2014, before the controversy took shape, and was still reportedly well attended in 2015.
And Cosby even joked about the sexual assault allegations during the tour. At one show in Ontario, Canada, he noticed a woman in the audience getting up. He asked where she was going. She said she was getting a drink, and asked if he wanted one. He pointed to his water bottle, replying, "I already have one. You have to be careful about drinking around me."
Also in 2015 Cosby launched the Bill Cosby smartphone app, with old standup videos, tour dates, and audio versions of Cosby's books. The app's reviews page has been filled with comments satirizing Cosby's image — a sign that he is now, for many, firmly associated with rape:
Cosby's career has suffered. He was scheduled to perform a comedy special for Netflix, but in November 2014, Bill Cosby 77 was indefinitely postponed. Cosby had also been working with NBC on developing a new sitcom, but the project is now reportedly dead in the water.
9) Are people still watching The Cosby Show?
It hasn’t been as easy to come across reruns of the Cosby Show these days. Some of the cable networks that carried the show, including TV Land and Centric, have dropped it, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
The Cosby Show is not the first TV program to face this problem. In December 2014, Stephen Collins, who played a lead role on the WB series 7th Heaven, confessed to molesting underage girls between 1973 and 1994. Reruns of the show still play on UPtv, though not without controversy.
Still, Cosby the person is associated, in the public eye, unusually closely with Cosby the entertainer and with Cosby the show. Some people may not be able to "unsee" Cliff Huxtable as an accused rapist.
That may already be happening. In July, an anonymous network executive told the Hollywood Reporter that fewer than 500,000 people were tuning in for Cosby Show reruns on the channel TV Land, and only about 45,000 were watching on Centric. Networks would have little incentive to keep the shows.
For a generation of children and their parents, the Huxtables were America’s black neighbors, showing that no matter the color of our skin, families of all types deal with curfews, sharing the chores, and ending a lesson in a hug. For some black kids, the Huxtables were just like their own family — or an assurance that people who looked like them could have that sort of happiness and success (at the very least on television).
In either case, Dr. Huxtable may have been derived from Cosby, but he's not the same guy.