Pantheon, One Fallen

I have been trying, and failing, to write about the Bill Cosby abuse allegations for weeks. I am finding it nearly impossible to talk about, because I am so sad.

On the surface of things, this story doesn’t touch me personally. I’ve never met Cosby. I don’t know any of the many women (23 at this writing) who have accused him of drugging and assaulting them. I believe these women, without ambiguity. And while I am distressed at how familiar this narrative is — the powerful man, the vulnerable girl or woman, the fear of not being believed, the threat or payoff to stay silent — that doesn’t account for how bereft I feel.

I am desolate over what has been revealed here, because Bill Cosby is one of my pantheon of fathers.

I’ve written before about my biological father, about his particular damage and how it made him behave in thoughtless, cruel ways. He and my mother split up when I was 6; I ceased all contact with him when I was in my early 30s. In-between, we waged a war of love and fury, estrangement and dark intimacy. He was, in many ways, a great love of mine. He was, in others, a malevolent force that nearly destroyed me. He was so many things to me, but a good father was not one of them.

For that, I had Pa Ingalls. James Evans. Atticus Finch. And Cliff Huxtable.

. . .

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Charles Ingalls, a father who fiddled so you could dance.

I was about to turn 5 when the 2-hour Little House on the Prairie movie premiered in 1974. Like many little girls, I was obsessed with Half-Pint and her braids, perfect Mary, the dinner pails and single room school, that bitch Nellie Oleson. (For the record, I met Alison Arngrim once, and she is delightful. What? Yeah that’s right, I interviewed Nellie Oleson when I worked at TV Land and it was even more amazing than you think it was.) But the real draw of this show, for me, was Pa. Charles Ingalls was a man you could look up to, a man who could shoot and ride and plant and reap, who could build his family a house and then fill it with music he played himself. This was a father, and I turned to him the way sunflowers turn their open faces towards the sun. I never read the books, because someone told me that Book Pa was actually sort of strict and a disciplinarian, and I wanted none of that. For me, Pa is bright blue eyes, moppish hair, social liberalism, a charming sense of humor, and a faithful, enduring, enlightened love for his wife and children.

. . .

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James Evans, whose daughter was always his Baby Girl.

Good Times also premiered in 1974, and I fell in love with the Evans family immediately. As an adult, I wrote about this show for TV Land, and I was shocked — I mean genuinely shocked — to realize they were poor and lived in a dangerous housing project. As a child, all I saw was they love they shared, the wholeness of their family. I wasn’t an idiot, I knew they weren’t wealthy, but anything they might have been lacking, might have been wanting for, was made insignificant by James Evans. Here was a deeply proud man who was willing to do what needed to be done, who worked two jobs at a time to provide for his family. And when that failed, he was cool enough to make money playing pool. He was a man who called his daughter Baby Girl in a way that felt protective and kind, that made the world safer. A man who was there for for his children, adored his wife, and navigated a brutal world with a steadfast power that awed me. This was a father. Poor? Hell, these people were rich as far as I could see.

. . .

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“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

There were years when I carried a copy of Harper Lee’s  To Kill A Mockingbird around with me wherever I went, tucked into my backpack. Atticus Finch made the world bearable. His humility, his passion for justice, his brilliance. The way he could shoot. The way he chose not to. His uncomplicated, profound love for his children. His compassion. His courage. His dignity, and the way he offered a sort of grace to everyone around him. Atticus was the definition of a good man, a gentleman, a man whose fundamental decency was the truest thing about him. This was a father, someone to look up to, who could guide you to the next right thing, the hard thing, every time. He would not fail you.

. . .

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Which brings us to Cliff Huxtable.

I was 15 when The Cosby Show premiered in 1984. By then, my mother had remarried, and my biological father had come back into my life after disappearing for several years after the divorce. My stepfather is a good man, and he has treated me with kindness and love from the start. But it was complicated, being the daughter of these two fathers, both sort of strangers. It was messy, confusing. It was hard to know whom to trust, whom to love and how to love without feeling I was perpetrating some kind of betrayal against one of them.

For the Huxtables, life held no such complexities. There was no mistaking how comfortable these people were, no mistaking the joy and playfulness in that house, the saucy love between the parents, the comical throng of siblings. Cliff was present for his family — literally present, his office was downstairs — and he took such clear pleasure in his children, their achievements and quirks, their adorable babyhoods and teenage dramas. This was a father, one who would talk to you, listen to you, make you laugh. One who was genuinely engaged with who you were, and whom you might be someday. One who didn’t give you secrets to keep, unless it was that he’d given you chocolate cake for breakfast.

And he is lost to me now.

. . .

One of the largest parts of growing up is accepting the fact that your parents are people, with flaws and passions and hungers of their own, with their screwed up histories and regrets. Sometimes you realize  they are dangerous, and the only thing for it is to build a wall between you. Maybe you forgive. Maybe you can’t. But at some point, if you are to have anything for yourself, you find a way to stop blaming them. You take responsibility. You take up the threads of your life and weave a tapestry of your own design.

I know this.

But it is hitting me hard, this realization about Bill Cosby. It is a fresh hurt in a place I’ve been wounded before. Because I believed Cliff Huxtable was like Pa and James and Atticus. I believed he was the kind of father who could keep me safe from men like Bill Cosby, men like my own father. And as much as I want to separate the character from the man, they are inextricable. When we talk about Bill Cosby we are talking about someone who, by reputable accounts that I believe, would drug and abuse more than 20 women while publicly joking about hoagies. Cliff feels like a lie now, the kind of lie my father would tell his friends and colleagues about our relationship, the kind of lie I was meant to agree with, about how close we were and how proud he was of me, while all the while he was hurting me in ways no one could see. This is personal. It is a tangible loss in the father-shaped place I have been trying to fill since I was 6.

Make no mistake. I stand with the women who accuse him. But I stand with a broken heart.

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My Life in Books

I was flattered and delighted when We Wanted to be Writers asked me to contribute to their Books by the Bed series. I was also immediately thrown into all my old insecurities about not being good enough or smart enough or educated enough for this task, since We Wanted to be Writers has its genesis in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a place that seems nearly mythical to me, like Camelot, and deals in fancy authors with impressive degrees and publications.

This particular demon, the one that tells me they made a mistake when they asked me to write for them, that I am unworthy, a hack, a pretender and a loser and no one is interested in anything I have to say, is named ‘Broken Childhood SUNY Bachelors Degree’ and it is an old friend by now. I have learned to ignore it, to tell it to hush and send it on its way.

One of the ways I learned to do this, to not snuggle with the demon and instead do the next good (scary) thing, was reading. Books have been my solace, my escape, my education, the father I needed, the adventure I craved, my ticket to the world. Over and over, I have been transformed and sustained by books. I do not exaggerate when I say Wally Lamb saved my life, Anne Lamott set me free, Atticus Finch showed me what a man is, Jennifer Weiner was the friend I needed.

Books have been my constant companion, they are how I lived my life. They are also how I remember it. And so, I shushed the demon and wrote a love poem to the stack by the side of my bed, that ever-changing tower of inspiration and friendship, grief and care.

Demons be damned.

My Books by the Bed post: http://wewantedtobewriters.com/2014/12/books-by-stefanie-gunnings-bed