We Need to Talk About Psychopaths

Posted in: Other Commentary

Last week, the fourth and final part of the outstanding television mini-series, “We Need to Talk About Cosby” aired on Showtime. W. Kamau Bell interviewed the subjects and edited the material, and it is riveting. It tells the story of the rise of a talented Black comedian, Bill Cosby, who became one of the most beloved celebrities in the United States, often affectionately named “America’s Dad.” From the very beginning of his career, he was charming and sweet and funny and had a self-confidence that was nothing short of remarkable in the 1960s, when the country was largely segregated. The audience learns as it watches that The Cosby Show, a program that aired in the ’80s about an upper-middle-class Black family, reportedly had a viewership that only the Superbowl would not envy today. And Cosby made demands on behalf of Black actors and stuntmen that few of his fellow Black actors would have dreamed of demanding. At the time, a white man whose face was painted black served as Cosby’s stuntman in the show “I Spy.”

Bell slowly unveils Cosby’s shadow self. Even as the whole country adored him as America’s Dad, Bill Cosby was drugging and raping women. Sixty of the women have come forward, which makes it likely that there were many more who could not face reliving the trauma of what had happened to them. His pattern was straightforward: he would invite a woman to a “party” where she or she and one other person turned out to be the only guests. He would offer her a drug in a manner that made her feel she would be insulting him if she turned it down, and he misled her regarding the impact the drug would have on her. He would tell her she’d feel better, but the drug made her sick to her stomach, dizzy, and thus disabled from protecting herself from Cosby’s predation. Woman after woman reported that the last thing she remembered was waking up naked next to Cosby, realizing that she had been sexually assaulted. Women who put up any kind of resistance to his efforts to use them as sex dolls for his own gratification encountered Cosby’s anger, something unfamiliar and frightening to many women.

How To Think About America’s Dad the Rapist

Because it was so painful to face the fact that a beloved African American heroic figure was a serial rapist, some people never accepted it. We see people marching outside the courthouse during and after Cosby’s trial for the rape of Andrea Constand, holding signs declaring Cosby innocent and his scores of victims liars. Some commentators spoke of how people chose to see Cosby as comparable to Emmet Till, the 14-year-old African American boy who was lynched after a false accusation that he had flirted with a white woman. The comparison is obscene and offensive to the memory of an innocent child and to the credible women traumatized by Bill Cosby’s rape habit.

For people who do not indulge in the radical skepticism reserved for rape victims in what can only be called rape culture, a dilemma remains. Everyone who loved Bill Cosby has memories of appearances he made or episodes of his TV show that feel like coming home. Should people stop watching or listening to or laughing about those warm moments? Is holding onto those memories a betrayal of Cosby’s victims?

In a brief clip from Jerry Seinfeld’s appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, we hear Colbert say plaintively that he can no longer listen to Cosby’s comedy albums; he just can’t. Seinfeld responds “Really?” and seems utterly perplexed. They represent two understandable reactions. Colbert viewed Cosby as one person, and the one person forfeited Colbert’s applause when he raped at least sixty women. Seinfeld viewed Cosby as “public Cosby” and “private Cosby.” The former was the one that Seinfeld loved, and Seinfeld would continue to enjoy listening to public Cosby’s comedy albums, a number of which plainly influenced Seinfeld’s own brand of stand-up, from the use of a high-pitched voice at times to the commentary on the absurdity of everyday life situations.

Although both reactions make sense, I think they lead many people to view Cosby inaccurately, as a split personality, one good and one bad, one public and one private, one generous and one cruel. I understand this way of viewing Cosby because it is how ordinary people are. Ordinary people have good and bad in them, and you might decide that the bad outweighs the good or you might decide either that the good outweighs the bad or that the bad is none of our business. But people like Bill Cosby are not ordinary people.

When a Psychopath is “Good”

The title of the miniseries is a clue. Lionel Shriver wrote a great novel in 2000 titled “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” The book is a first-person narrative by a mother of a school shooter writing to the boy’s father bemoaning the latter’s failure to see the evil in their growing child. The boy, Kevin, charms his father so that the father finds the mother’s ongoing alarm at the child unwarranted. The word “gaslighting” crosses the reader’s mind. The child is plainly a psychopath, someone who was born evil, a controversial proposition at the time the book came out (and probably now as well). Though Bell does not take an express position on what might have motivated Cosby, it seems clear that by naming the series “We Need To Talk About Cosby,” Bell tells us that Cosby, like “Kevin,” is indeed a psychopath.

At various points in the series, people interviewed comment on how famous Cosby was, how handsome, suggesting that he could have been having consensual sex with women. But puzzling over his choice to rape them instead comes from the mistaken belief that rape is simply a way for men to get sex when no one is interested in them. It is the incel narrative, and however “logical” it seems, it does not appear to describe the crime of rape at all, particularly when the rapist is a psychopath. Cosby plainly raped women because he liked raping women. Consensual sex was perhaps less stimulating to him than drugging a person and forcing himself on her. If this manner of thinking sounds insane, then you are blessedly unfamiliar with the strange mind of the psychopath.

An individual with this personality disorder lacks a conscience and has no empathy for others. What such an individual lacks in connectedness with others, however, he makes up for in an uncanny ability to sense what people most want and to give it to them, at least for a time. Regular people thus find themselves believing in the psychopath, trusting him, and wanting to elicit more of the social magic that psychopaths can conjure. They are typically charming, relaxed, and inclined toward watching their intended prey long enough to be able to play the part of her best friend or love interest or whatever it is that she most wants. No regular human can compete with this toxic robot. And no one needs to be murdered for us to find the telltale signs of the psychopath—he will always leave destruction in his wake because the one emotion that plagues him is boredom. Psychopaths frequently claim to hate drama, but they in fact cannot live without it, and nothing generates drama as effectively as conflict and misery, the hallmark of the psychopath.

I found Bell’s Cosby series brilliant and illuminating, but there is one thing I would have added. That one thing is a psychiatrist explaining that all the sweetness and warmth and wit that made America fall in love with Cosby was not the “good” in a cost/benefit analysis of his life. It was the bait that allowed him to carry out his career of serial rape on unsuspecting women who trusted “America’s Dad.” I can best capture what I mean by imagining a conversation between two fish discussing an angler. One fish says to the other, “It is true that he kills us with a hook that tears into our faces, causing excruciating pain followed by suffocation on a boat or a “release” into the water to likely die slowly of our wounds. However, we should consider the good in the angler as well. After all, he always feeds us with worms. Who’s to say whether the angler is a friend or an enemy?” Nothing that the angler does brings anything but pain and death to the fish, including the worms used for bait.

Cosby ingratiated himself with a country in which white crowds were generally less than a hospitable audience to a Black comedian. Everyone came to trust him because his material was “clean” and he came across as a loving, responsible, and generous man who understood people and stood up for African Americans in show business. But there is every reason to conclude that this was an act. Was he a talented comedian? Absolutely. He was brilliant, and his work inspired millions. But he was not good; he was evil. The psychopath allows us to say such unambiguous things without qualification. Cosby was not a complicated man with a dark side. He was an evil man with a clever façade.

A person who repeatedly rapes women, traumatizing every one of them and somehow escaping any real consequences for his actions is a classic psychopath. We can be sad and disappointed when the scales fall from our eyes. But it is crucial that we understand what we are dealing with if we are to protect ourselves and those we love from such individuals. I once heard a psychologist say that with all the differences between men and women and between different races and ethnic groups, nothing approaches the gap—the chasm—between psychopaths and non-psychopaths. If you have never tangled with such a person, consider yourself lucky and educate yourself and your family and friends about how to spot one. Once you understand what a psychopath is, you realize that they—Ted Bundy, Bernie Madoff, Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby—are truly all alike.

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