Blue Telusma: Bill Cosby's wife, Camille, is reluctantly in the spotlight due to controversy
Women have come forward alleging rape or sex assault by Bill Cosby
Camille Cosby charted independent path, going back to college, getting doctorate
Author: Camille Cosby has displayed stoicism, composure through the controversy
Editor’s Note: Blue Telusma is a Washington-based writer for theGrio.com, an online venue devoted to perspectives that affect and reflect the African-American community. Follow @theGrio on Twitter or like it on Facebook. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Follow her on Twitter.
Camille Olivia Hanks was studying at the University of Maryland when she met Bill Cosby in the early ‘60s. He was doing stand-up comedy in Washington when the two were set up on a blind date. They fell in love and she left school to support his burgeoning career in entertainment.
By 1964, the two were married and they would go on to have five children together. In 1997, their son Ennis (who inspired the character Theo Huxtable) was murdered, and a few years later Dr. Camille Cosby did a one-on-one with Oprah explaining how she’d eventually been able to find joy after mourning the loss of a child.
Throughout that interview it was so clear that you were looking at the real-life Clair Huxtable that even Oprah seemed a bit star-struck by her poise and grace.
During her 2000 appearance on Oprah, Camille revealed:
“I became keenly aware of myself in my mid-thirties. I went through a transition. I decided to go back to school, because I had dropped out of college to marry Bill when I was 19. I had five children, and I decided to go back. I didn’t feel fulfilled educationally. I dropped out of school at the end of my sophomore year. So I went back, and when I did, my self-esteem grew. I got my master’s, then decided to get my doctoral degree. Education helped me to come out of myself.”
When asked why she wasn’t content to just settle for being the wife of a famous entertainer she continued:
“I don’t know exactly what it was, except that for me, integrity is important. For me friendships are important, family is important, and it is a blessing if we can have monetary benefits. That’s wonderful, and I love it. But I have to have the security of people who really care about me, and me about them. I want to be surrounded by people who have integrity. And, of course, my name is Camille, not Bill.”
That was a beautiful answer. But a lot has changed since then.
These days, Camille Cosby is standing alongside her husband during what may turn out to be the worst month of his long career.
For the last few weeks, the beloved TV dad who used to sell us Jell-O pudding pops has been at the center of an ever-growing scandal. He has canceled several appearances, Netflix has postponed the launch of his stand-up special, NBC nixed plans for a new comedy show, and this week Janice Dickinson became the latest woman to make allegations against him; telling E News that he raped her in 1982 after she’d done a stint in rehab.
Cosby is arguably the most successful African-American performer in television history, but this isn’t the first time he has found himself under scrutiny for extramarital affairs.
In his biography, “Cosby: His Life and Times,” Mark Whitaker makes mention of the legendary comedian’s “roving eye” and even tells an anecdote about how he finally cut back on his womanizing by breaking up with his long-time girlfriend. Now it seems those softball admissions about having a weakness for beautiful women may have been shrouding something much more sinister than an affair.
In the last decade alone, more than a dozen women have accused Cosby of rape or sexual assault. No formal charges have ever been successfully filed, so even with all the media speculation, these claims are technically only allegations. But there is one person in this melee whose anguish is virtually indisputable: his wife, Camille.
So how does a woman like that end up spending 50 years of her life beside a man who is now alleged to be a serial rapist? One can only imagine the embarrassment she must be experiencing through all this. But her dilemma is a lot more common than you may think.
In a world that asks you to be a mother, a wife, a businesswoman and an alluring sexual being, women grapple with finding the balance between respecting themselves and prioritizing their relationships. While many say they would leave a spouse who cheats, experts estimate that approximately 50-75% of couples rocked by an affair stay together.
There are many reasons why some women choose to stay: the fear of being alone, financial dependency, belief that they can alter the behavior of their mate, professional status of their partner, deep emotional investment and family obligations.
It is hard enough to come back from infidelity in private, let alone when you have the added stress of being a public figure. Both Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards have weathered similar storms with men they devoted their lives to. And one could argue that it is a lose/lose situation for any wife who finds herself in that position: If you stay, people judge you for not standing up for yourself, and if you leave there is endless speculation about why your marriage failed.
But this isn’t just a simple case of being cheated on. There are some very serious stories coming to the forefront from those who describe Cosby as a sexual predator, who for decades allegedly drugged and violated young women who looked up to him as a mentor.
During one of Cosby’s old routines, he actually jokes about drugging young women.
Coincidentally the set is from his album “It’s True! It’s True!” which was released in 1969, the same year Joan Tarshis claims he drugged and raped her.
We can only speculate on what Camille’s reasons are for staying in her marriage, when she found out about each rape claim, or whether she believes in her husband’s innocence. She’s been stoic and tight-lipped through all this, exuding the unflappable composure that she is known for.
During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, many believed that had Hillary Clinton left her husband, his political career would have collapsed. Hillary Clinton may have well understood that her marriage wasn’t just a union between a man and a woman but a much larger political machine. Perhaps Camille Cosby, who is equally responsible for her husband’s career, feels a similar responsibility to maintaining the legacy and philanthropic institution she and her husband have built together.
Few knew that in the original “Cosby Show” pitch, Bill had planned to have Heathcliff be a limousine driver who was married to a Latina handywoman. Programming executives weren’t too thrilled with that idea, but it was Camille who convinced her husband to go in another direction.
According to another excerpt in Whitaker’s book:
“The producers felt strongly that both [parents on the show] should be college graduates. As Cosby had proved in his stand-up act, the war of wits between parents and children was even funnier if the parents thought of themselves as highly intelligent people.
“Finally, shortly before 1 in the morning, Cosby said the words that made Carsey think that she might be getting someplace: ‘I think my wife would agree with you.’
” ‘You will not be a chauffeur!’ Camille said when he briefed her on the meeting. ‘Why not?’ Cosby asked. ‘Because I’m not going to be a carpenter!’ Camille said.”
That snippet gives a rare glimpse into the type of bond these two have, and also illustrates that Mrs. Cosby has not just been her husband’s muse, but also a trusted adviser who keeps his career on track, behind the scenes.
Sunday when NPR host Scott Simon asked Cosby about the resurfaced rape charges, he was met with a wall of silence. Later on, Simon admitted to CNN that during that awkward moment in the interview, the one thing he couldn’t do was look at Camille.
“I did not look at Mrs. Cosby, and I don’t mind saying I might’ve been a little uncomfortable doing that anyway,” Simon said.
That’s what many find so unsettling about all this: the deafening silence of it all. The same man who has spent years waxing poetic about every social issue under the sun has now fallen completely mute on us, with his equally reticent wife by his side.
The Cosbys’ union remains seemingly stable through half a century of life’s ups and downs, and as someone who respects the institution of marriage I find that commendable. But when does the adage of “stand by your man” go too far?
I’m rooting for black love as much as the next person – but not like this.