"I don't want to call these women liars, but ..."
The words traveled through my car speakers, spoken by a morning radio host, when his co-host read aloud a report about the latest women to allege Bill Cosby assaulted them. (We're up to 17 accusers now.)
The conversation didn't go much beyond that. His clearly uncomfortable co-host didn't share his skepticism, at least audibly, and they quickly moved on to the Bears.
But he's hardly alone in his disbelief. (And disbelief is what it was. Implying someone's a liar is no less damning than calling her one.) Read through social media. Skim the online comments at the end of Cosby news stories. Glance at CNN, where one anchor asked an accuser why she didn't work harder to prevent her attack. You'll quickly see that plenty of us kinda, sorta want to call these women liars.
I reject that reflex. I resent the fact that rape, more than any other crime, compels people to defend the alleged perpetrator and disbelieve the victim. False reports happen, to be sure. But to the degree that we overlook overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Seventeen women? Who, as Sunday's editorial points out, have almost nothing to gain from coming forward?
"They're not piling on a lawsuit," the Tribune editorial reads. "They're not going to send Cosby to prison. They're not going to get a confession or an apology or even a comment, according to Cosby's lawyers."
Still, they're suspect.
Few things have helped me understand the complicated underpinnings of this culture's reflexive doubt like reading "Lived Through This: Listening to the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors" (Beacon Press), Anne Ream's beautiful, heartbreaking collection of 18 survivor narratives.
Roger Canaff spent more than a decade prosecuting sexual abuse and child abuse cases as an assistant attorney general in New York. As a child, he was repeatedly raped by a trusted baby sitter. He told his story to Ream, including the decades he remained silent about the abuse.
He didn't tell his parents until 2012, years after becoming a prosecutor — a job he saw not as a way to avenge his attacker, but as a path to the truth.
"My own experience as a victim showed me, at a very early age, that sometimes the bad stuff — the stuff people want to look away from — is the true stuff," he told Ream. "And it is inarguable that I gravitate to truth."
But that is not our reflex.
"People have an almost primal need to distance themselves from horror," he said. "You see that as a prosecutor. Hell, it's why a jury will acquit in a rape case that unnerves them — they convince themselves that if what this victim says occurred is bad enough, it must not have happened."
I asked Ream, who survived a brutal rape and kidnapping at age 25, if Canaff's words rang true to her.
"(Rape accusations) challenge our beliefs about the world and the people we can trust and our own safety and security," she told me. "It's much easier to believe you're dealing with a confused or unstable or money-motivated person. That's a lot easier to embrace than believing someone we otherwise know and trust can be a sexual predator."
We don't know what happened between Cosby and his accusers. But if your reflex is to assume that every one of those women is lying, I suggest you spend some time with Ream's book. Sit with these survivors' stories. Recognize their humanity. Understand how much they've lost and how little they'll ever gain and then pause for a moment before you distance yourself from their stories.