‘I’m No Longer Afraid’: 35 Women Tell Their Stories About Being Assaulted by Bill Cosby, and the Culture That Wouldn’t Listen
By Noreen Malone and Portfolio By Amanda Demme
More has changed in the past few years for women who allege rape than in all the decades since the women’s movement began. Consider the evidence of October 2014, when an audience member at a Hannibal Buress show in Philadelphia uploaded a clip of the comedian talking about Bill Cosby: “He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up, black people … I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches … I guess I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns. Dude’s image, for the most part, it’s fucking public Teflon image. I’ve done this bit onstage and people think I’m making it up … That shit is upsetting.” The bit went viral swiftly, with irreversible, calamitous consequences for Cosby’s reputation.
Perhaps the most shocking thing wasn’t that Buress had called Cosby a rapist; it was that the world had actually heard him. A decade earlier, 14 women had accused Cosby of rape. In 2005, a former basketball star named Andrea Constand, who met Cosby when she was working in the athletic department at Temple University, where he served on the board of trustees, alleged to authorities that he had drugged her to a state of semi-consciousness and then groped and digitally penetrated her. After her allegations were made public, a California lawyer named Tamara Green appeared on the Today show and said that, 30 years earlier, Cosby had drugged and assaulted her as well. Eventually, 12 Jane Does signed up to tell their own stories of being assaulted by Cosby in support of Constand’s case. Several of them eventually made their names public. But they were met, mostly, with skepticism, threats, and attacks on their character.
In Cosby’s deposition for the Constand case, revealed to the public just last week, the comedian admitted pursuing sex with young women with the aid of Quaaludes, which can render a person functionally immobile. “I used them,” he said, “the same as a person would say, ‘Have a drink.’ ” He asked a modeling agent to connect him with young women who were new in town and “financially not doing well.” In the deposition, Cosby seemed confident that his behavior did not constitute rape; he apparently saw little difference between buying someone dinner in pursuit of sex and drugging them to reach the same goal. As for consent, he said, “I think that I’m a pretty decent reader of people and their emotions in these romantic sexual things.” If these women agreed to meet up, his deposition suggested, he felt that he had a right to them. And part of what took the accusations against Cosby so long to surface is that this belief extended to many of the women themselves (as well as the staff and lawyers and friends and others who helped keep the incidents secret).
Months after his depositions, Cosby settled the case with Constand. The accusations quickly faded from the public’s memory, if they registered at all. No one wanted to believe the TV dad in a cardigan was capable of such things, and so they didn’t. The National Enquirer had planned to run a big story detailing one of the women’s accounts, but the magazine pulled it when Cosby agreed to give them a two-page exclusive telling his side (essentially that these were instances that had been “misinterpreted”). People ran a story alleging that several of the women had taken money in exchange for their silence, implying that this was nothing more than an elaborate shakedown. Cosby’s career rolled on: In 2014 alone, there was a stand-up special, plans for a new family comedy on NBC, and a high-profile biography by Mark Whitaker that glossed over the accusations.
The group of women Cosby allegedly assaulted functions almost as a longitudinal study — both for how an individual woman, on her own, deals with such trauma over the decades and for how the culture at large has grappled with rape over the same time period. In the ’60s, when the first alleged assault by Cosby occurred, rape was considered to be something violent committed by a stranger; acquaintance rape didn’t register as such, even for the women experiencing it. A few of Cosby’s accusers claim that he molested or raped them multiple times; one remained in his orbit, in and out of a drugged state, for years. In the ’70s and ’80s, campus movements like Take Back the Night and “No Means No” helped raise awareness of the reality that 80 to 90 percent of victims know their attacker. Still, the culture of silence and shame lingered, especially when the men accused had any kind of status. The first assumption was that women who accused famous men were after money or attention. As Cosby allegedly told some of his victims: No one would believe you. So why speak up?
Read her story
PATRICIA LEARY STEUER,59. Alleged assaults: 1978 and 1980.
But among younger women, and particularly online, there is a strong sense now that speaking up is the only thing to do, that a woman claiming her own victimhood is more powerful than any other weapon in the fight against rape. Emma Sulkowicz, carrying her mattress around Columbia in a performance-art protest of her alleged rape, is an extreme practitioner of this idea. This is a generation that’s been radicalized, in just the past few years, by horrific examples of rape and reactions to rape — like the 2012 Steubenville incident, in which high-school football players brutally violated a passed-out teenage girl at a party and photographed and braggingly circulated the evidence. That same year, when a 14-year-old Missouri cheerleader accused a popular older boy at her school of sexual assault, her classmates shamed her on social media and the family’s house was burned down. The whole world watched online. How could this kind of thing still be happening? These cases felt unignorable, unforgettable, Old Testament biblical. Would anyone have believed the girls, or cared, had the evidence not been digitizable? And: How could you be a young woman and not care deeply about trying to fix this?
This generation will probably be further galvanized by the allegations that a national cultural icon may have been allowed to drug and rape women for decades, with no repercussions. But these younger women have given something to Cosby’s accusers as well: a model for how to speak up, and a megaphone in the form of social media.
Facebook and Twitter, the forums that helped circulate the Buress clip, were full of rage at Cosby’s perceived cruelty. Barbara Bowman, who’d come forward during the Constand case, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about her frustration that no one had believed her for all those years. Three days after Bowman’s op-ed, another woman, Joan Tarshis, came forward to say Cosby had drugged and raped her in 1969. By the end of November, 16 more women had come forward. Cosby resigned from Temple’s board of trustees and sought monetary damages from one of his accusers; he also told “Page Six” that he wanted “the black media to uphold the standards of excellence in journalism [and] go in with a neutral mind.” (Cosby, through representatives, has consistently denied any wrongdoing, and hasn’t been charged with any crimes. Emails to four of his lawyers and press reps went unanswered, although his team has begun a media tour to deny that his admission of offering Quaaludes to women was tantamount to admitting he’d raped anyone.) By February, there were another 12 accusers. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler joked about it at the Golden Globes: “Sleeping Beauty just thought she was getting coffee with Bill Cosby.” Attorney Gloria Allred got involved, representing more than a dozen of the women. Even President Obama said it was clear to him: “If you give a woman — or a man, for that matter — without his or her knowledge a drug, and then have sex with that person without consent, that’s rape.”
There are now 46 women who have come forward publicly to accuse Cosby of rape or sexual assault; the 35 women here are the accusers who were willing to be photographed and interviewed by New York. The group, at present, ranges in age from early 20s to 80 and includes supermodels Beverly Johnson and Janice Dickinson alongside waitresses and Playboy bunnies and journalists and a host of women who formerly worked in show business. Many of the women say they know of others still out there who’ve chosen to remain silent.
67. Alleged assault: 1975.
LINDA JOY TRAITZ,
64. Alleged assault: 1969.
58. Alleged assault: 1981.
67. Alleged assault: 1969.
44. Alleged assault: late 1980s.
Alleged assault: early 1970s.
This project began six months ago, when we started contacting the then-30 women who had publicly claimed Cosby assaulted them, and it snowballed in the same way that the initial accusations did: First two women signed on, then others heard about it and joined in, and so on. Just a few days before the story was published, we photographed the final two women, bringing our total to 35. “I’m no longer afraid,” said Chelan Lasha, who came forward late last year to say that Cosby had drugged her when she was 17. “I feel more powerful than him.”
Accompanying this photo essay is a compilation of the interviews with these women, a record of trauma and survival — the memories that remain of the decades-old incidents. All 35 were interviewed separately, and yet their stories have remarkable similarities, in everything from their descriptions of the incidents to the way they felt in the aftermath. Each story is awful in its own right. But the horror is multiplied by the sheer volume of seeing them together, reading them together, considering their shared experience. The women have found solace in their number — discovering that they hadn’t been alone, that there were others out there who believed them implicitly, with whom they didn’t need to be afraid of sharing the darkest details of their lives. They are scattered all over the country — ten different states are represented — and most of them had no contact with their fellow accusers until recently. But since reading about each other’s stories in the news, or finding one another on social media, or meeting in person at the photo shoots arranged by New York, many of the women have forged a bond. It is, as Tarshis calls it, “a sorrowful sisterhood.” ■
“My agent said we’ve been contacted by a really, really big person in the entertainment industry who’s interested in mentoring promising young talent. I find out it’s Bill Cosby. I had the understanding I was going to be receiving private acting coaching from him. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. A driver would pick me up, my agent was paying for it. That made it all very, very professional. The door opens, and there stands Cosby. He’s in his sweats and very casual, very friendly. I had a monologue prepared. He seemed unimpressed. He said, ‘Let’s try a cold read,’ so he pulls out a script. The scene was set in a bar; the character was someone who was inebriated. He poured a glass of white wine. And he said, use this as a prop — now, that means you’re going to have to sip on it, of course. I really don’t remember much, except waking up in his bedroom. He was naked, and he was forcing himself into my mouth.” —Heidi Thomas
“I was introduced to Bill Cosby through my modeling agent. She said that Cosby wanted to see me. Which I thought was obviously for the show. I was told there was going to be a dinner, and when I got there, no one ever arrived. He asked me if I wanted a glass of wine; I took a few sips. It had a horrible taste. And I started not feeling well. He helped me up by my underarms with both hands. He walked me into the next room, where there was a mirror on the wall, and he told me to look at myself. Something was wrong with me. And then he took my right hand, and he put it behind my back. I remember seeing semen on the floor. And I felt some liquid on my hand. That was when I knew something sexual was going on.” —Jewel Allison
“He took my roommate and me out to dinner. It was this new hip steak restaurant on the strip near the Whiskey a Go Go called Sneaky Pete’s. He was chatting her up and trying to charm her. And he reached across and put a pill next to my wineglass and said, ‘Here, this will make you feel better,’ and he gave her one. I wasn’t really thinking. My son had recently died. I thought, Great, me feel better? You bet. So I took the pill and washed it down with some red wine. And then he reached across and put another pill in my mouth and gave her one. Just after I took the second pill, my face was, like, face-in-plate syndrome, and I just said, ‘I wanna go home.’ He said he would drive us home. We went up this elevator. I sat down, and lay my head back, just fighting nausea. I looked around and he was sitting next to my roommate on the love seat with this very predatory look on his face. She was completely unconscious. I could hear the words in my head, but I couldn’t form words with my mouth, because I was so drugged out. He got up and came over, and he sat down and unzipped his fly. He had me give him oral sex, and then he stood me up, turned me over, did me doggy style, and walked out. Just as he got to the door, I said, ‘How do we get out of here, how do we get home?’ And he said, ‘Call a cab.’ ” —Victoria Valentino
SUNNI WELLES,66. Alleged assaults: mid-1960s.
THERESE SERIGNESE,58. Alleged assault: 1976.
BETH FERRIER,56. Alleged assault: mid-1980s.
CARLA FERRIGNO. Alleged assault: 1967.
“Bill had been a friend. I had had dinner with his wife on one or two different occasions, I had worked with him, I had known him for many, many years, and he never made a pass at me. So when this happened to me, I was really, really shocked. I just couldn’t understand what was wrong with him. Had he lost his mind? When I came out of the bathroom, he said to me, ‘Okay, come on, let’s go. They’re waiting for us.’ He was behaving like a person that I had never met before in my life.” —Kathy McKee
“At 17, my agent introduced me to Bill Cosby, who was going to mentor me and take me to the next level of my career. Over the course of the next year, I was drugged half the time when I was with him and would come out of a delusional experience going, ‘Whoa, what was that?’ He would say, ‘Well, I needed to undress you and wash your clothes because you got drunk and made a fool of yourself.’ Do you remember the Jaycee Dugard story? She pretty much could have climbed over the fence any time she wanted to but was just so broken down and couldn’t think straight. I felt like a prisoner; I felt I was kidnapped and hiding in plain sight. I could have walked down any street of Manhattan at any time and said, ‘I’m being raped and drugged by Bill Cosby,’ but who the hell would have believed me? Nobody, nobody. I was invited down to Atlantic City to see his show and had a very confusing night where I was completely drugged and my luggage was missing. When I called the concierge to find out where my luggage was, Cosby went ballistic. He slammed the phone down and said, ‘What the hell are you doing, letting the whole hotel know I have a 19-year-old girl in my hotel suite?’ The next morning, he summoned me down to his room and yelled at me that I needed to have discretion. He threw me down on the bed and he put his forearm under my throat. He straddled me, and he took his belt buckle off. The clanking of the belt buckle, I’ll never forget.” —Barbara Bowman
JANICE DICKINSON,60. Alleged assault: 1982.
“I had a terrible headache, and I said, ‘Bill, do you have some Tylenol? I have a mother of a headache.’ And he said to me, ‘I have something stronger.’ And I said, ‘You know I don’t do drugs.’ He said, ‘You’re one of my best friends. Would I hurt you?’ And I believed him. All I remember is taking the pill; I don’t remember going to bed. But I do remember waking up in a fog and opening my eyes, and I had no clothes on, and there was Bill’s friend totally naked in bed with me. He started to laugh and smile, and he said, ‘Oh, did you have a good time?’ I said, ‘What the fuck happened? Do you always eff a dead person?’ I got my clothes on and I walked out. And Bill said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘What the eff did you give me?’ He said, ‘Oh, you had a bad headache, you were in so much pain. I gave you a Quaalude.’ I was hurt with Bill more than angry at his friend. Bill let him take advantage of me. That kills me. That’s why I know the stories of what he did to the other women are true, because if he didn’t have the respect for me, who was really a close friend, then he could do that to anybody he didn’t know very well.” —Joyce Emmons
LOUISA MORITZ,69. Alleged assault: 1971.
KACEY(name has been changed). Alleged assault: 1996.
“I told my supervisor at the Playboy Club what he did to me, and you know what she said to me? She said: ‘You do know that that’s Hefner’s best friend, right?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She says to me: ‘Nobody’s going to believe you. I suggest you shut your mouth.’ ” —PJ Masten
“People often these days say, ‘Well, why didn’t you take it to the police?’ Andrea Constand went to the police in 2005 — how’d it work out for her? Not at all. In 2005, Bill Cosby still had control of the media. In 2015, we have social media. We can’t be disappeared. It’s online and can never go away.” —Tamara Green
CHELAN LASHA,46. Alleged assault: 1986.
“I had a few moments where I tried to come forward. But I was just too scared, and I also had the extra burden of not really wanting to take an African-American man down.” —Jewel Allison
“I didn’t realize that I had been raped. Back then, rape was done in an alleyway with somebody holding a knife to your throat that you didn’t know. There was no date rape back then. I just knew that something horrible had happened. But I couldn’t put a name to it. The difference between this and that rape in the dark alley is that his face would be before me every week on TV. People would mention a joke that he said: ‘Wasn’t that funny?’ And all the while, my stomach would just be churning.” —Joan Tarshis
“In 1975, it wasn’t an issue that was even discussed. Rape was being beaten up in a park. I understood at the time that it was wrong, but I just internalized it and dealt with it and pushed it down, and it resided in a very private place. It affects your trust with other people.” —Marcella Tate
80. Alleged assault: 1973.
55. Alleged assault: 1984.
65. Alleged assault: 1979.
59. Alleged assault: 1977.
57. Alleged assault: 1982.
68. Alleged assault: circa 1970.
“Survivors of rape have a very difficult time having intimate relationships. I was in my 20s. I could never have a real relationship. It was like a black, disgusting tumor—a secret tumor.” —PJ Masten
“When I see a Jell-O pudding, it comes flooding back. Bill Cosby, that encounter, that one time, played a major factor in the direction my life took, toward the dark side.” —Sammie Mays
“Eighteen is very young. It took me a long, long time to come to terms with the fact that it was him, it wasn’t me. Life has not been easy for me. I had addiction problems as I got older.” —Linda Joy Traitz
“People go, ‘Why haven’t you gotten over it?’ But you might as well ask a combat soldier why he doesn’t forget the Battle of Guadalcanal. There was someone trying to harm him, someone trying to kill him, and they never get over it, they just learn how to cope with it.” —Tamara Green
LILI BERNARD. Alleged assault: early 1990s.
“I read Barbara Bowman’s piece in the Washington Post, how no one believed her, and I said, ‘This is it. I have to say something now. I have to stand up and say, Yes. Somebody else does believe you, because it happened to me.’ It was sort of like we were yodeling in a canyon and set off an avalanche. I knew I wasn’t ever gonna receive any money. I certainly didn’t want to be remembered as the woman that Bill Cosby raped. But I just felt so vindicated that I wasn’t alone.” —Joan Tarshis
“How would it benefit any of us? It doesn’t. We’re telling the story because we can’t hold it inside anymore.” —Kathy McKee
“I came forward to offer my support as a witness. I knew my statute of limitations had run out. When only one or two women came out, a couple of years ago, they were ridiculed more. It’s hard to not believe the numbers now.” —Janice Baker-Kinney
48. Alleged assaults: 1985–1987.
57. Alleged assault: 1987.
67. Alleged assault: 1969.
58. Alleged assault: 1975.
70. Alleged assault: circa 1979.
REBECCA LYNN NEAL,
60. Alleged assault: 1986.
“I went online one morning, just to check my email. The Yahoo page came up, and there was something about Cosby, this thing with Hannibal Buress. And all of a sudden, something just hit me. Anger. Son of a bitch! You know, a woman can be not believed for 30 years. But it takes one man? To make a joke about it? That fucking pissed me off so bad. Suddenly I’m thinking, Who do I contact?” —Victoria Valentino
“I have a friend who is a detective for a police department. She’s the one who pushed me to file a report. My husband was like, ‘No, I don’t want anybody to know, we don’t want to expose you, I don’t want people saying bad things.’ But my friend said, ‘You gotta do it for you.’ ” —Lise-Lotte Lublin
“I saw that there were a lot of negative responses being posted against Barbara Bowman and Joan Tarshis and Tamara Green and Andrea Constand, grouping them in a historical reference to claims that “white women” have made in the past, that weren’t truthful, about being raped by a black man. But unfortunately with this case, I knew that there was a very strong possibility that these women were telling the truth, because I had had my own negative experience with Bill Cosby. And so I just felt like, No, this can’t go in that direction.”—Jewel Allison
“The part of it I wasn’t prepared for was the onslaught of women that have been assaulted and them telling me their story because I told mine.” —Beverly Johnson
“I started getting private messages on Facebook from other former Bunnies: ‘He did me too, PJ. He got me too.’ There’s a couple of websites — ‘We believe the women’ — and Cosby sites that we all created. And we talk, all the survivors. We just had the photo shoot. And I said it was one of the greatest experiences I ever had. It was fun. We had great music, great food, we were all dancing and laughing, and yet in L.A., the L.A. group said it was so somber, and everybody was upset. And I said, ‘What, are you kidding? We were celebrating here in New York, baby.’ Our freedom, our freedom! Nothing macabre about that. We’re out.” —PJ Masten
KATHY MCKEE,66. Alleged assault: early 1970s.
“Listen, he was America’s favorite dad. I went into this thinking he was going to be my dad. To wake up half-dressed and raped by the man that said he was going to love me like a father? That’s pretty sick. It was hard for America to digest when this came out. And a lot of backlash and a lot denial and a lot of anger.” —Barbara Bowman
“I think his legacy is going to be similar to O.J.’s legacy. When you hear O. J. Simpson’s name, you don’t think, Oh, great football player. That doesn’t come to mind first. I’m thinking it’s not going to be, Oh, great comedian. It’s going to be, Oh, serial rapist. And that will be our legacy.” —Joan Tarshis