He was a rising star when it happened the first time. When it happened again, his fame and power had only grown. The more he did it, it seemed, the more he was propelled into the stratosphere. Maybe it was an addiction. Maybe he thought it made him successful. Maybe he was a rich, successful man who thought the world owed him everything.

James Brennan

We’ve known about this for a long time. It’s been the butt of jokes and discussed in depth on news shows. But it disappeared. We forgot, and we did so willfully. “The court case was settled!” we shouted, as if that gives us justification to consider him innocent. His lawyers and his money took the accusations of rape out of court, but it was us who took them out of our minds and conversations. In the court of public opinion, we threw in the towel.

But why? We care about women. We care about rape and sexual assault. We care about justice that is both equal and blind. His power shouldn’t matter. Our adoration of what he has given us shouldn’t matter.

But these things did matter. The journalists wanted to keep their jobs and avoid being shut out, so they took a back seat to power. His fans couldn’t imagine him being so perverse, so they labeled accusers opportunists. And we all played along.

He’s a powerful man, but more importantly, he’s our powerful man. An indictment of him means an indictment of ourselves. It was us who held him in reverence, who propelled him to his fame and influence. He sold us an idea that we all bought into, and he did it over and over again. All the while, he was ruining the lives of young women. He was putting his wife through hell. He was a god to us, and a demon to them.

Maybe we let it all go because he left the limelight. He focused on his family. Wrote books and gave speeches. Did philanthropy and mentored entire communities.

But he couldn’t stay away from the fame. He couldn’t leave the bright lights and the cameras, and we were happy to welcome him back.

Our icon.

Our hero.

He’s old school, but his words and his work cut across all ages, all races, all demographics. He unites people. There were grumblings about his dark, degenerate past. But we adore him so much. He’s given us so much. How can we take these accusations seriously?

We can’t, and we didn’t. We could forgive his shortcomings, even admitted marital infidelity.

“No one is perfect!”

“We all make mistakes!”

“He came clean in the end, after all!”

His wife forgave him, and we welcomed him with open arms. He made some bad decisions, he hurt people around him. But who among us hasn’t? After all that we’ve shared with him, well — he’s pretty much family. We can forgive and we can forget.

But rape — that is something we cannot forgive.

His victims — they are people who cannot forget.

Sexual violence penetrates deep into a person’s psyche, and seeing their assaulter may forever trigger pain. Their assaulter is on TV constantly. People applaud for him. They hold him up as a man to be admired. He’s beloved.

How can they live like that? How can he live like that?

How have we let them go on?

Well, maybe we’re about to finally do something. Times have changed, and this cannot be kept quiet any longer. Women are taking back their agency, but survivors have tried before. This isn’t just about them. This isn’t about a takedown of someone famous. This is about all of us, and the guilt we all carry by way of silence. We refused to speak up. We refused to hold this man accountable. We refused to hold ourselves accountable for falling under his spell.

We can’t abdicate our responsibility again, and neither can he. Maybe he will quit this façade of perfection that enchants his followers. Maybe he will succumb to the strict standard society has refused to enforce.

Maybe as he has watched Bill Cosby collapse and refuse to answer allegations, he will do the opposite and hold himself responsible.

Or maybe we’ll have to slaughter sacred cattle ourselves.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.

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