“There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible.”
Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Last summer I read Harper Lee’s much-talked-about draft novel, Go Set a Watchman. There are varying opinions about whether or not the draft should even have been published; I don’t know the answer to that question, but I did love reading the book. Ms. Lee’s first, raw attempt at exposing the reality of racism in her world (in our world still) is fascinating, especially to a former book editor.
What I appreciate most about the book, and what’s at the heart of any good book, is the truth revealed within it: all of us are far from perfect, some are seriously messed up, and most can’t get away with pretending everything’s rosy forever. Our beloved Atticus Finch is no exception to this rule.
I’ve been thinking about this lately while wrapping my head around the allegations that surfaced against longtime American entertainment icon Bill Cosby. Like many, I grew up watching The Cosby Show. I cried through the last episode, especially during Cliff and Clair’s final dance across the living room and off the TV set. At one point during my teen years I mailed a fan letter to the man himself and received an autographed picture in return. Two years ago, I took an early lunch break and hustled down the street to catch a glimpse of Bill cutting the ribbon at the opening of Ben’s Chili Bowl in Arlington, Virginia. I’d call myself a fan.
When the allegations first hit the news in 2014, my heart lurched and I hoped, of course, that none of it was true. At that time, it seemed like there was some possibility of serious misunderstanding or gross exaggeration or a pandemic of made-up stories. I had just finished packing a hospital bag, including season one of The Cosby Show, for my second baby’s birth. Shortly thereafter, as the allegations were building, I took the DVD out of the bag and put it back on the shelf.
Now, more than a year later, it seems probable that Bill Cosby did some terrible things. Setting aside the real problem – Cosby’s alleged actions and their effects on the people involved – I can’t help but wonder how to handle my relationship with Bill Cosby. Should I throw away all of my DVDs and pretend Rudi’s goldfish, the Gordon Gartrell shirt, and all of Denise’s crazy boyfriends never existed? Should I return the autographed picture? Are my good memories ruined because they never should have existed in the first place?
For me, the answers lie in separating fact from fiction, man from character. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why I’m so personally disappointed, and I think it’s because in my mind, Bill Cosby was Cliff Huxtable. I transposed the character qualities (admirable father figure, standup citizen, just the right balance of smart and funny, someone you can trust) onto the actor himself. And maybe Cosby does have some or all of those qualities to some extent. But Cliff Huxtable, not Bill Cosby, was my childhood TV hero.
Back to Atticus Finch: many people have been severely disappointed by how Atticus was portrayed in Go Set A Watchmen, as a racist who barely resembles the favorite hero-Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird, and there is some resentment that this “bad Atticus” exists. My own take is that Harper Lee created two Atticus Finches: one hero and one anti-hero. One doesn’t cancel out the other. Our favorite, classic Atticus is still a fictional hero to celebrate and emulate.
Like good Atticus Finch, Cliff Huxtable has already been created and can’t be undone. He is still and always will be a fictional hero who loves his five kids and wife and eats giant submarine sandwiches and delivers babies. The man who played Cliff may have done some terrible things, and hopefully he will be held accountable for any and all true allegations. But Cliff Huxtable is the epitome of good comedic fiction, which exists separately from the real, much more complicated world in which it is created. It teaches us lessons, keeps us company, and makes us laugh, even if the real world is breaking our hearts. We may choose never to watch The Cosby Show again. I’m still not sure where I stand on that. But no matter what, I think we can keep our good memories.