The death of a celebrity leaves its mark even on distant admirers. We live in a cynical culture, and yet the young, beautiful, talented, and famous still thrill us. They remind us we’re still optimistic, still capable of being awed. Kobe Bryant was one of the greatest athletes in the world, someone whose beauty and grace and power on the court was, even for total laypeople like me, still so very obvious and so very stunning. He was only 41, a dedicated father, a beloved son, a caring husband, a good friend. The eight people who died with him, including three young girls — Payton Chester, Alyssa Altobelli, and Bryant’s own daughter Gianna — had so much promise and were beloved by so many people. They are all grieving today, and my heart hurts for all of them.
You know the and also, don’t you? That Kobe Bryant was accused of raping a woman? My heart hurts for her too.
It’s uncomfortable to raise the worst thing someone has ever done when that someone dies, especially when they are beloved. And I suppose it matters I write this as someone who thinks that very, very few of us are all good or all bad; few of us are saintly, even fewer irredeemable. We can admire aspects of a person’s talent without erasing the ways they also did irreparable damage. We can be horrified and angry about what someone did without writing them off as worthless, without seeing them go away — to jail, to the grave — and saying “good riddance.”
But is it an affront to bring up the bad things someone did, so soon after they die, when their loved ones and their admirers are still grieving? How bad do those bad things have to be to merit immediate mention? How good do the good things have to be to justify silencing the rest? (Do we imagine, for example, that when Harvey Weinstein dies, his talents and wonderful movies will merit courteous silence on his alleged sexual abuses?)
How do you balance the pain that raising sexual assault allegations will cause family and fans against the pain felt by so many survivors of sexual violence who are again watching a beloved man being internationally lauded, the inconvenient parts of his story — the woman who says he raped her — politely excised?
These are not easy questions. There is no scale to weigh them on.
Kobe’s extraordinary ability is key to his story. And it is not the whole story. Out of some mislaid definition of respect, we are so excellent at sidelining the inconvenient parts — at least when the inconvenient parts are women, and the one who is inconvenienced is a man we would prefer to keep admiring without complication.
The inconvenient part of Kobe’s story was a teenager, 19 years old. She worked at a hotel where Kobe stayed. The details are all out there if you want to know them.
Kobe initially told the police nothing happened. Then when the police told him they had blood and semen evidence, he said, well, ok, something did happen, but it was consensual.
The woman had a bruise on her neck. She had genital injuries and vaginal tears consistent with trauma. Her underwear and a T-shirt of Kobe’s were stained with her blood.
The full weight of Kobe Bryant’s money, power, and influence came down on her. His lawyers suggested she was sexually promiscuous. One psychology professor studied the coverage of the case and found that more than 40% of news stories questioned the truthfulness of the woman’s account; only 7.7% questioned Kobe’s honesty.
The young woman — the teenager — settled out of court. As part of the agreement, Kobe apologized.
We like to think of celebrity-watching as an escape from real life, but it’s more of a mirror. The way we bestow celebrity status reflects what we value; so too does where and how and why we deem celebrities good or bad or admirable or deplorable. The Kobe Bryant rape case reflected something very ugly back at us, and the fact that we just don’t know what to do with that information upon his death shows that, yes, we have changed — at least editors and anchors and reporters and commentators are wringing their hands about how to deal with it.
But we are still very much in flux. We still don’t know how to tell human stories when a life ends, only heroes’ journeys or villains’ defeats. A lot of people want Kobe to be an uncomplicated luminary, a great man without inconvenient addendums, and yet here is the inconvenient shadow of a female form darkening the background.
Maybe the stories we tell about our culture’s most resonant figures should strive to be true, for better or worse.
Maybe the reason we care about Kobe Bryant dying is because his life was never just about Kobe Bryant, but about all of the aspirations and values we pinned onto him, and it is for exactly that reason that there is no disrespect or invasion of privacy in insisting that the inconvenient parts live alongside the admirable ones, that the ugly is a neighbor to the exquisite.
People are grieving for a much-admired man, for too many lives cut short, for promise snuffed out, and for families in pain. Others — especially those whose lives have been impacted by sexual violence — may be grieving in another direction, painfully reminded of all the ways women are erased so great men may be sanctified. We can make space for both experiences without shouting each other down or suggesting that one set of emotions has less of a right to be expressed than another does.
That same work of compassion also calls on us to remember that no person is an island. All our lives leave ripples. Some lives are tsunamis. Compassion is not summarizing the beauty of the wave; it’s picking through the wreckage, reckoning with who was hurt.
Awe without honesty isn’t respect; it’s myth. Admiration of only the easy parts is fanaticism, not reverence. And if we want a world in which our stories are more honest than the heroes-and-villains framework allows, then we have to start by telling the whole truth.