Here is a very small Kobe Bryant story. At an Oscars after-party, I once sat near him for a couple of hours on a fancy couch. His animated short had just won an Academy Award, and he had the statue in his hand as celebrity after celebrity came over to congratulate him. Multiple times, Bryant leaned over to a member of his entourage and asked if he could go say hi to “her” — “her” being, obviously, someone he was eager to meet, and an odd reminder that even famous people geek out over famous people. Eventually, the object of Bryant’s adulation arrived, and it was Allison Janney. Allison Janney, the cerebral star of “The West Wing.”
It’s the first thing I thought about on Sunday, when CNN began streaming footage of the late basketball player’s helicopter crash: how happy and proud he’d looked to be sitting there at the Oscars, honored for a film he’d made about the sport he loved. How much he weirdly, dorkily seemed to love Allison Janney.
Here’s another very small story, in which Kobe Bryant doesn’t appear at all.
I once found myself in a long telephone conversation with a woman I didn’t know, a reader who’d phoned to discuss something else but who ended up talking about a sexual assault from her teenage years, by a popular boy the rest of her community loved. She’d never gone public with her account, and then the boy became a man, and then the man died.
She thought his death might close the chapter of the assault in her brain, but somehow it hadn’t. Somehow, she said, it had only made the assault seem more permanent, because now she couldn’t talk about it, she believed, or she’d be seen as speaking ill of the dead.
That story is about what we owe victims: Do we owe them the right to be heard and listened to, even when their alleged attackers are no longer around to defend themselves? It’s about what we owe the families and friends of accused men: Do we owe them an untarnished legacy — the smallest mercy of remembering their loved ones only as excellent fathers or devoted husbands?
That story is about how we make sense of trauma or pain, when the pain refuses to be constrained by something as temporal as an earthly life span.
Now it’s a Kobe Bryant story, too, in a way.
On balance, his life seemed to be worthy and meaningful. From the outpouring of grief and shared stories, he seems to have inspired more people than he harmed, and the people he inspired are the ones sharing stories about him now.
This is what we do, after all. Death allows us to polish away the rough edges of life.
But I do wonder about his accuser right now. I wonder about the woman who, in 2003, had lacerations around her genitals — “too many to count,” according to her medical exam — along with a bruise on her jaw and injuries “consistent with penetrative trauma.” A woman Bryant admitted to having sex with, in an encounter he says he believed was consensual. Had he bruised her neck? Yes, he said, but he’d done the same thing before with another sexual partner and it was fine. “I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did,” he said of his accuser, and he apologized.
She was excoriated. Portrayed as a gold digger, a slut — and a liar, above all else, even when sharing parts of the story that Bryant had admitted to. I hope we would consider the case more thoughtfully now, but now, of course, it’s too late.
As tributes pour in, celebrating Bryant’s life and legacy, I wonder what it would be like right now, to watch the world around you open up in love for the man who hurt you. To hear people tell you that this wasn’t the time to remind the world of your pain, and it may never be that time again.
In the past couple of days, Bryant stories have become meta stories, about memory and reckoning and hero worship and heroes. Venerated media institutions published obituaries that made only cursory references to the 2003 rape allegations. Other venerated media institutions ran pieces that didn’t mention them at all.
Maybe the decision was made that he’d atoned for his sins, the basketball court replacing the court of law. He never went to trial, after all. Our judicial system’s one fixed standard is innocent until proven guilty, and Kobe had cleared that.
Or maybe the decision was made that it wasn’t the right time to dig up this unpleasantness, which makes me dearly wish we had a guidebook of some kind on when it’s time to talk about the things that are never convenient to talk about. We don’t have a guidebook. What we have is a vague consensus about what constitutes empathy in the aftermath of a public tragedy in which people have died.
A few hours after Bryant’s helicopter crash, a reporter at The Washington Post, my own institution, tweeted out a news story detailing the rape allegations. In response, she received hate mail and death threats, and she was put on administrative leave by our managers so they could conduct a review of tweets that, according to an official statement, “displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.” (She was reinstated on Tuesday.)
My own particular job is to think about the messiness of cases like Kobe Bryant’s, so I did not feel undermined. I felt relieved that she’d brought up this thing that was incredibly difficult to talk about; I felt chagrined that I hadn’t known how to talk about it, either.
The easiest path is to talk about the complications and nuance that exist in all humans: how good people can do bad things, how that doesn’t make them bad people but it also doesn’t erase pain.
A more complicated path is to question why that obvious truth is apparently so hard for us to acknowledge. Why would we find the need to ignore a piece of Bryant’s biography that reflected and shaped our entire culture? If the argument is that we’re not ignoring it, we’re just postponing it out of respect — what are we doing to make sure the postponed discussions actually happen, and happen in a way that’s respectful not only to those who were inspired but also anyone who was harmed? How can we become more empathetic if we insist that only evil men do bad things, and thus our heroes must be perfect, and thus we must punish people who want to talk about the ways in which they were not?
Let’s talk about it now. Let’s talk about the complicated men and women who are still with us while there’s still time to consider more than just the legacies they left behind.
I don’t know. I sat next to Kobe Bryant for a few hours at a party once, and it was weird and hilarious. But I can also have the story of the woman who called me on the phone. And all the victims who didn’t call me on the phone. And what happens to them when the people who hurt them are gone.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.