November 8, 2015
Over JHU Family Weekend 2015, I met Lili Bernard, a Cuban-born visual artist and actor from Los Angeles. Besides the chance to visit her son, a Johns Hopkins freshman, Bernard saw the trip as an opportunity to advocate for sexual assault survivors. As one of the nearly 60 women who have accused Bill Cosby of drugging and/or sexual assault, Bernard has asked Hopkins to repeal Cosby’s honorary doctorate degree, awarded in 2004.
As co-director of Hopkins’ Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU), I accompanied Bernard along with six other SARU members to a meeting with JHU Secretary of the Board of Trustees, Maureen Marsh, and JHU Interim Vice President and General Counsel, Paul Pineau, where Bernard shared her story. Two of her witnesses, her talent agent at the time and a production assistant of The Cosby Show, gave their testimonies via video chat for the purpose of vetting. Hopkins has not yet released a decision on whether they will repeal the degree.
Now back in Los Angeles, Bernard spoke with me over the phone about her experiences as a survivor and an activist against rape culture.
Ella: As far as you are comfortable, can you go over the experiences regarding Bill Cosby that you shared at the meeting?
Lili: During the preparation for my role on The Cosby Show in the early 1990s, Bill Cosby mentored me as a father figure. After he gained my complete trust, he drugged and raped me. When I confronted him about drugging and raping me, he threatened serious consequences on my life. In 1992, wrought with fear as a result of the abuse, I became highly suicidal and was hospitalized. I received intensive therapy. Cosby made it clear to me that if I were to report to the police, he would retaliate against me very seriously. I thought he would kill me. That fear silenced me. I decided that in order to move on with my life, I had to put it in the past. However, I have suffered regularly occurring panic attacks and night terrors for the past 23 years.
E: In May 2015, you disclosed to the public for the first time. What led to your decision to break your silence?
L: In November 2014, Cosby’s victims began speaking out in large numbers. Bill Cosby was everywhere in the media. Naturally, that’s a trigger for me. On Facebook, people whom I know personally were blaming and shaming these brave women. Finally, it was just an overload of triggers. I had a major PTSD crisis. I was suffering flashbacks around the clock, and had to be hospitalized again.
What I would liken it to is this: New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina was a functioning city, artistic and beautiful. This is how I appeared on the outside, to people who didn’t know me. I had built in my mind a levy to keep back these horrid, incapacitating memories. I kept them in the back of my brain, and they would leak out on occasion when triggered. But with the media storm of Bill Cosby’s image and name pervading everything, little by little that levy started to crack and break. I couldn’t hold back the memories anymore. They flooded my conscience. I was reliving the trauma as if it were happening right there and then, with painful muscle memory.
E: How did you ultimately decide to publicly disclose your story?
L: Many of my witnesses from back then reached out to me, asking me if I was okay, telling me what they remember and that they were willing to testify. Several of them gently encouraged me to come forward to the public, stating the reasons they felt it’s important for me to do so. Contrastingly, a few family members urged me to stay silent, saying it wasn’t worth the re-victimization and retaliation to which Cosby and his apologists would assuredly subject me.
The pivotal moment was this: my husband and I had never told our six children what I had suffered with Cosby, out of fear that the knowledge of it might traumatize them. Then in April this year, I was arguing with my husband about wanting to go public, saying that I felt the children could handle it and what an important message it would be for them. At that moment, our eldest, who’s now a Hopkins freshman, walked in and overheard us. He said, “What?! You mean this Cosby stuff is true?! It really happened? You mean you’re one of the victims?” With righteous indignation he continued, “Mom, why have you been silent? Mom, you’ve got to speak out! You’ve gotta testify!” My son urging me to speak out was the final push that I needed.
E: Since then, many people have heard some of your story. What response have you received from the general public?
L: While Cosby apologists relentlessly spew vitriol and hate, I receive an exponentially greater amount of love, a tremendous outpouring of support. People from all over the planet have contacted me, telling me that by speaking out I have given them the courage to confront their perpetrators and have helped them heal. I’ve been inadvertently providing comfort to thousands of people around the world whom I don’t even know, and that’s an amazing effect that I did not expect. It’s held me up. I realize that this is a much larger conversation: this is about helping to change our silencing culture of rape.
E: Speaking of support, you’ve also said that repealing Cosby’s honorary degree can be a show of support for sexual assault survivors on campus. How did you decide to reach out to the administration?
L: It happened in the spur of the moment. A number of universities had rescinded Cosby’s honorary degrees; it was in the news. I was coming to Hopkins for JHU Family Weekend, so I asked myself, ‘I wonder if Hopkins gave Cosby an honorary degree?’ I thought they probably had. Cosby was beloved as “America’s Dad,” as a philanthropist, a moralist. It would have seemed like a good idea at the time.
Now flash forward to 2015: you have almost 60 of Cosby’s victims who have come public and Cosby’s own admission of obtaining Quaaludes for the purpose of giving them to women with whom he wanted to have sex. I sat face-to-face with JHU administrators—in your presence, along with your six peers—and told them details of the trauma that I and my family have suffered on account of Bill Cosby. Your administrators heard and watched my witnesses, via video chat, corroborate my story. The question is, what is Hopkins going to do with this information?
I feel loved on campus by the students, professors and administrators whom I met during JHU Family Weekend. It would be wonderful to see that compassion echoed in JHU’s decision regarding Cosby, and reflected in their public statement. These events surrounding Cosby are historic. JHU’s decision will be discussed and studied for generations to come.
E: That would be a really powerful message to survivors on this campus, in the midst of the open Title IX investigation.
L: It would demonstrate that JHU is humane, that they have empathy. It would be a show of solidarity not only with my family, but also with JHU students who are sexual assault survivors, thereby positioning JHU on the right side of history.
E: At the end of the meeting, you asked that JHU invite you back to conduct a performative art workshop on the topic of sexual violence. Can you tell me a bit about your work as an artist?
L: I paint a lot, but also create art in other media: sculpture, installation, video, photography and performance. I also do a lot of community organizing and arts activism. Last year I received an MFA in social practice visual arts from Otis College of Art and Design.
The workshop that I hope to give at Hopkins is called “Silent No More.” Its central message is that silence is a weapon, which rapists use to avoid accountability and perpetuate rape culture. By speaking out, we affect change.
This interview has been edited for length.