A Montgomery County judge ruled last week that the sexual assault case against Bill Cosby may proceed. For countless people who have suffered in silence, including more than 50 women who have alleged that Cosby attacked them, the prosecution shows that the world is starting to condemn this kind of behavior and listen to its victims. My hope is that this will help many more survivors speak up soon after a crime occurs.
I have been counseling men and women who have experienced trauma and abuse for nearly 20 years. It is not uncommon for me to learn months and sometimes years into the therapeutic relationship that a patient has lived through some type of assault or violation.
My patients often come to me struggling with an eating disorder, addiction, or other form of self-destruction. Once they get to my office, they are ready to let go of their symptoms and reclaim their right to live fully. The dilemma is that most want to “get better” without revisiting the violation they suffered, often at the hands of an authority figure or mentor. No one wants to believe that someone looked up to or trusted could hurt another person so deeply.
I stayed silent about my own experience of childhood abuse for years. It was not until early adulthood that I could face my trauma. I finally spoke up only because my life was falling apart: I was deeply depressed, suicidal at times, and hated who I was. Like many of my patients, I had dreams of having a family and finding trusting relationships, and I realized that avoiding my past was keeping me stuck in an unhappy life. So I am never surprised when a patient I have known for some time tells me she has a secret she has been keeping from herself and others.
It is heartbreaking every time I learn that another person I care about was raped or abused by an authority figure. But it is lifesaving for patients to allow themselves to speak about what happened to them and digest the fear, shame, and guilt that was buried so deeply.
The Cosby case and the media attention surrounding it send the valuable message that no one, no matter how widely esteemed, should be allowed to hurt another person without being held accountable. Cosby’s alleged victims are in evident pain, and some observers might find themselves feeling very bad for them. But they do not need pity; they need to know that people are listening to them and believe them.
While the ideal outcome of sexual abuse and assault cases is for the perpetrator to be appropriately charged with and found guilty of a crime, most such criminals walk away without serving a sentence. So it is important to keep in mind that we do not need perpetrators to go to jail to be victorious.
Regardless of the outcome of the Cosby case, we must applaud the women who have come forward. It takes tremendous courage to do so, especially in cases in which the alleged perpetrator is beloved throughout the community.
We can also hope that speaking out has improved the lives of the women who have come forward. Maybe speaking will lessen their emotional pain. Maybe they will go on to fall in love and learn what it means to trust and be intimate. Barbara Bowman, one of Cosby’s alleged victims, has gone on to become a national advocate for victims of sexual violence.
We don’t yet know how the Cosby prosecution will end, but it has already given us an opportunity to let survivors of sexual crimes know that they can speak out, get support, begin to heal, and go from just surviving to thriving and doing amazing things for themselves and others.