‘Cosby: The Women Speak’ Is a Respectful Overview of a Tragic Story

“I buried it, locked it up, moved on with my life,” one woman says in A&E’s special Cosby: The Women Speak, which airs on the network tonight at 9 PM. “I was not a participant. It was not consensual,” says another. “I was filled with shame and guilt,” says another. “I was discarded like a piece of trash,” and so and and so on. The stories range from attempted gropings to druggings to full-on, repeated sexual assault. They are all painful to hear individually, and even more so together.

“Over the past few months, we noticed more and more women coming forward, telling their stories one by one, with absolutely nothing to gain,” Brad Abramson, A&E’s Vice President of Programming said in his statement about the special. “Alone, each story was moving and powerful, but we felt bringing them all together would paint a vivid and persuasive portrait of Mr. Cosby’s alleged actions. The material we uncovered was astonishing and heartbreaking. A&E was honored to be able to provide a platform for these brave women.”

Brave they are. The women whose interviews are featured on the special include higher-profile accusers Beverly Johnson, Joan Tarshis, Angela Leslie, Victoria Valentino, Louisa Moritz, Barbara Bowman, and Heidi Thomas, as well as two women who were not in the recent New York magazine cover story: “Elizabeth,” a former flight attendant who has kept her full name confidential, and another new accuser, Charlotte Fox. Valentino, whose interview was particularly insightful, wide-ranging, and angry, explained why it took so many so long to come forward. After hurriedly describing her assault, she said, “If there’s any question about why women don’t report rape, it’s because it’s so damned humiliating you don’t ever want to talk about it again.”

The one-hour special contrasts a chronological history of Cosby’s rise in the entertainment world — here he is on the Tonight Show, here’s Fat Albert, here’s The Cosby Show, here are his moralistic lectures about black America — with the testimony of women, based on when in that timeline they encountered Cosby. So the entire thing creates a very clear trajectory; he gets more famous, the alleged behavior continues, with presumably more and more people looking the other way to enable it. One particularly egregious allegation comes from Louisa Moritz, who tells of being forced to perform oral sex moments before her own appearance on The Tonight Show. The other incidents, as described by the women, take place everywhere from hotel rooms to friends’ houses to the guest house of Cosby’s own family home.

As in the New York story, the women’s ages range widely, because as the actor aged, he continued to target women in their late teens and 20s. The cumulative effect of Cosby’s behavior on several generations of women is deeply upsetting, of course — many of the subjects break down in tears and talk about their helplessness, their rage, and their deep disappointment with a man whose image, and whose overtures, seemed to be heading somewhere entirely different. He was supposed to help them, they say — give their careers a boost, coach them, make calls on their behalf, even offer them a pill to help with everything from depression to allergies. Instead, he left a hurt that reverberated through the years. As one woman put it, “My life changed for the worse.”

A&E has clearly hedged its bets legally, with voiceover narration that makes sure to include ample “she said” and “she claimed” constructions, without muting the power of the women’s testimony. For that’s what this is, just like the interviews in New York were: testimony in a very different kind of court, one with no statute of limitations. Even for a reporter who has been following this story for about a year, there was still an emotional immediacy to watching the special that felt new and important and deeply, deeply sad.

Yes, the coda to Cosby: The Women Speak reports on how many of the Cosby accusers are lobbying to lengthen statutes of limitations around the country, and have formed a sort of sisterhood. But this hardly creates a feeling pure uplift; what comes across is more rage than closure. I found it particularly interesting to witness the contempt the women shared for the public reaction to Hannibal Burress’ viral routine about the comedian. No gratitude towards the comedian could be discerned, watching these interviews. Instead, they were incredulous: suddenly, he was believed — when they had felt silenced, or ignored, or discredited for decades. The anger extended towards other comedians, who have broken their silence and turned the accusations into a punchline. This isn’t a joke, their stories tell us, but a network of tragedy and exploitation that was allowed to persist because people didn’t listen to women.