If you were to represent the net worth of each person sitting in this Montgomery County courtroom with a dot graph, Bill Cosby’s dot would dwarf most everyone else’s in the room (with the possible exception of Gloria Allred, who’s been here every day). Cosby at one point was worth $500 million; a bit less now, one would imagine. The trial can be seen as a challenge to the integrity of that massive bubble. There are forces assembled here attempting to pierce the bubble, and opposing forces surrounding and protecting it. Because money is not just money; it’s power, it’s privacy, it’s the means by which the rich can insulate themselves and their activities from scrutiny or accountability. Cosby’s wealth is possibly the truest, clearest lens through which to see and understand this trial.
Cosby’s wealth created the level of power and trust he enjoyed in places like the William Morris Agency and Temple University, where he met Kelly Johnson and Andrea Constand, respectively. It scarcely needs to be said that very rich, eminent people create an atmosphere of pleasure and excitement around them wherever they go. Selfies are taken and posted on Instagram. If a rich person should invite you, a non-rich person, into his circle, it will almost invariably be seen as an honor by your friends and family. You might share in his wealth, to some degree, when your rich friend is generous; fine presents, parties with wonderful food and wine. Cosby had his chef phone Constand to ask her what she’d like to eat, for instance, before she came over for dinner. He cajoled her into drinking wine; “Try it; it’s an old bottle.”
His friendship was an entrée into a beautiful world of ease and pleasure. He offered her professional introductions to facilitate a career change. His resources and contacts were infinite. Here in this courtroom you can almost sense the size of the $500 million bubble around him.
But Constand eventually found herself on the phone with Cosby and her mother, according to this week’s testimonies, confronting him about having sexually assaulted her. This phone call is not in dispute, by the way. He told her and her mother that he thought he’d “helped her get an orgasm.” He apologized and offered to pay for Constand’s graduate studies.
Cosby’s wealth is everything in this story. It’s why everything happened, and why everything is happening. But nobody has really discussed this aspect of the matter in the trial. Money flows from Cosby to his lawyers in a roaring cascade. If Constand prevails in the case, she too will have a claim on Cosby’s money: that is the only restitution the law can give her. And win or lose, Cosby will remain very rich, insulated, surrounded by people who admire and agree with him.
The public’s love and respect, the thing that brought Cosby all his wealth, is partly lost already. He’s not the lovable, old-fashioned family man who gained fame as a comedian in the ’60s with “clean,” harmless jokes any longer. There is no path back to public respect for the 79-year-old entertainer, even if the jury should find a reasonable doubt or two in order to let him off.
Both Constand and Johnson come from educated professional families. But not rich families. Kelly Johnson’s mother, Pattrice Sewell, is a retired educational administrator with a Ph.D. who on Tuesday told Assistant DA Kristen Feden of her high regard for her daughter’s famous friend. She and her husband, an LAPD detective, were fans of “The Cosby Show,” she said. “It kind of reminded us of our own family.”
So there is something essential missing from the questioning in this case. Whatever the merits of Constand’s case, those of us in attendance don’t ordinarily focus on how much money defense attorneys Angela Agrusa and Brian McMonagle are being paid to needle Cosby’s accusers. We don’t focus on how Cosby’s wealth and position made friendship with him attractive to these young women. The old-fashioned way of looking at this is to think about “what’s in it for them,” to paint a woman befriending a powerful man as a gold-digger. But just about everyone in this country is a wealth worshipper, to some degree, and this unspoken prejudice clouds our ability to judge the situation in which our society places abused women.
This article was originally published on Death & Taxes.