35 Women, 1 Story: Bill Cosby Accusers In 'New York Magazine' NPR's Melissa Block speaks with Noreen Malone about her story in New York Magazine that names and shares personal stories of some of the women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault.
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35 Women, 1 Story: Bill Cosby Accusers In 'New York Magazine'

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35 Women, 1 Story: Bill Cosby Accusers In 'New York Magazine'

35 Women, 1 Story: Bill Cosby Accusers In 'New York Magazine'

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Thirty-five women dressed in black, each posing, seated, hands on knees - they're looking straight into the camera, unsmiling. They are 35 of the 46 women who have come forward and accused Bill Cosby of rape or sexual assault. Their portraits and their accounts are the cover story of this week's New York magazine. It's titled "Cosby: The Women - An Unwelcome Sisterhood." Noreen Malone wrote the story and interviewed many of the women and joins me now. Welcome to the program, Noreen.

NOREEN MALONE: Hi, thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And we've heard a lot of these accounts bit by bit over these last months, but we've never seen these faces all together, and that's what's so powerful. How did this project start?

MALONE: Well, it was - it actually started with the idea of what you just said - that we'd never seen all these women together. Our photo director, Jody Quon, was reading the news in December as each of these women were coming forward, one by one, after a bit by the comedian Hannibal Buress had gone viral and sort of reopened this conversation. And she just had the vision that if you got them all together in one photograph it would have a tremendous impact.

BLOCK: The 35 women in your piece all allege attacks that are very similar, follow a very close pattern. And I want to play some audio that you have on the New York magazine website of Victoria Valentino. She's a former singer and actress, and she's describing what happened at a dinner with Bill Cosby in 1969.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICTORIA VALENTINO: He reached over, and he put a pill next to my wine glass. He said, take this. It'll make you feel better. It'll make us all feel better.

BLOCK: And, Noreen, invariably, these women describe Bill Cosby giving them a drink, passing them a pill, and then they pass out. They wake up either, they say, being assaulted or naked the next day, not knowing what happened.

MALONE: Yeah, that was the really striking thing about talking to these women and going through the transcripts from the interviews that I didn't do, was just how similar so many of the accounts were. Not just the pattern of apparently drugging drinks, but also the way that Cosby got in touch with these women. Often it was through an agent. Many of them were, you know, hoped to work as models or actresses or were just breaking in. And he would call up agents and, you know, ask them for introductions to really young girls - people in their late teens. And, you know, these were women who were ambitious, who - you know, you get a call to say that Bill Cosby wants to mentor you, and they were all thrilled. And then the other thing that was similar in all of their accounts, particularly the women where it happened in the '60s and '70s, is that they all said I didn't know how to process that experience because there was not a word for what had happened to me. You know, the term date rape was not really in the lexicon. Acquaintance rape wasn't a thing. You know, it wasn't until, really, Take Back the Night and No Means No, all these campus rape activist movements really helped people even understand what that experience was. And so they just knew that something bad had happened. Many of them blamed themselves for it. They said, you know, I'd gotten myself in that situation. And it took them years to work through that.

BLOCK: A deposition that Bill Cosby gave in a civil lawsuit was revealed this month, and he admitted that he gave women Quaaludes. Do the women that you talked with feel vindicated by that admission?

MALONE: Absolutely. So just to clarify, he did admit to giving women Quaaludes in pursuit of sex, but he did not admit to doing it without their knowledge...

BLOCK: Yes.

MALONE: ...Which is something his lawyers have emphasized. But we - you know, this happened very late in our process. And so we - a week ago or, you know, a week-and-a-half ago, we had 31 women who'd signed on to do it. And the deposition broke in the news. It was a big story in The New York Times, and four more women signed on. And one woman - I found this very moving - Patricia Steuer had - I'll participate, but I don't want to use my full name. I'm just not - I'm not there yet. I'm not comfortable yet. And she sent an email as soon as that deposition hit that said use my full name and, you know, not just my full name. Add my maiden name in there - Patricia Leary Steuer. And, you know, he can't say we're lying anymore. He can't say it.

BLOCK: Noreen, in a few cases, the women whom you talked to who allege that they were assaulted, or thought they may have been assaulted by Bill Cosby, did go back to him, accepted another invitation from him and claimed that they were assaulted again. Did they explain why they went back?

MALONE: I think it varies. I think, again, people did not understand what had happened to them. You know, he said to people - he allegedly said to people in a number of situations, oh, you drank too much last night, you know? For many of these incidents, the women were drugged and didn't fully know. Also, you know, he was a famous celebrity paying attention to them. I think that was a powerful thing. He - many of these women say he, you know, he groomed them. He psychologically manipulated them. You just don't know what someone's going through in that moment.

BLOCK: Most of the faces in these 35 portraits are white women, but there are some African-American women, too, who are accusing Bill Cosby. And one of them, named Jewel Allison, told you that she felt she had an extra burden in this case. Why is that?

MALONE: For a while, the only people who had come - gone public were white women. And I guess that people were saying, you know, this is an old trope in America. These are white women trying to cut down a black icon by alleging this. And what Jewel said was that she had - had she believed that to be the case, she would have been, you know, sort of the first person saying that's not fair, that's racist. But she had had this experience herself. And she felt like if she didn't come forward and support these other women, she'd be letting them down. But I think for the women who are African-American, it was certainly an extra burden. I mean, Bill Cosby, you know, wasn't just America's dad. He was a real pillar of the African-American community. And I think that's another reason why it has taken so long for people to grapple with these accusations, is that no one wants to believe this of Bill Cosby. These women didn't want to believe this of Bill Cosby. He was Bill Cosby to them.

BLOCK: The cover photo on New York magazine this week with these rows of women sitting in chairs ends with an empty chair.

MALONE: It does. So it's a little bit up to interpretation. I will say that many of the women we interviewed said, oh, I have a friend who this happened to her. She's not coming forward. But it's also taken on a life of its own on Twitter, which has been very interesting to watch. It's become a hashtag - #TheEmptyChair. And people are using it to say, you know, to talk about the reasons why not all women are ready to come out and talk about their assaults because, you know, these women are obviously very brave to do this, but not everyone feels like they're in that place.

BLOCK: Noreen Malone is senior editor with New York magazine. Their cover story is "Cosby: The Women - An Unwelcome Sisterhood." Noreen, thanks very much.

MALONE: Thank you.

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