A Question for our Shadows

By Nancy O Meyer Phd                                              3/26/19

I have a question, and I can’t find an answer. I don’t really think there is an answer. I think this is one place where we have to get comfortable in the squidgy grey areas of opinions. At what point do we erase the good things done by someone due to their crimes (legal and/or cultural)? These questions are being asked of and by a whole gamut of people. Every time I talk about Freud in class, or any other old white guy (yes, he was actually Jewish, but he identified as European, A.K.A. white) from the ivory towers of academe, I have to give a caveat: “he was not a great guy, especially if we look at him through the current lens of greater sensitivity to gender, class, cultural background, etc., and he was addicted to cocaine and likely got all of patients addicted as well. BUT, he also had really interesting things to say that were revolutionary at the time. Whether we like it or not, we stand on his shoulders.” Freud is not someone I want to hold up and say “emulate this!” BUT, he had insight, and even though other voices were silenced in favor of his, can we simply ignore what he did? This may be too easy, it has been nearly a century since Freud was writing and working, the wounds aren’t bleeding anymore. But, do Michael Jackson’s crimes erase his innovation?


The difficult answer is, no. We can’t simply walk away and say he sucked. We must acknowledge the shadow, help any victims and be honest about the achievements. This is really hard, especially when the shadow is so incredibly deep–as in the case of Bill Cosby too. We cannot erase what he did, either good or bad. We cannot go back in time and change anything. At the same time that Cosby was destroying lives, he was helping the civil rights movement by breaking down barriers for entertainers of color. How do we navigate that? History is full of people, men and women who held deep shadows and did atrocious things, but also created and paved paths for all of us. We cannot pretend the new ideas, new paths, or new freedoms suddenly appeared, as if by magic. We also cannot pretend these people were saints, or even decent in some cases. We cannot ignore their victims and say, ‘wow, that’s a bummer, but look what amazing things they did!’


All of my heroes have fallen from grace in some way. Jung was kind of racist. Cosby was a rapist. That stings. A lot. A lot of people are being seen differently now. They weren’t all rapists, sometimes they were womanizers or bad mothers or fathers (John Lennon comes to mind). We look at them and judge them. Where is the line between revolting, sucky, and not that big of deal? That line shifts through time, and does so dramatically. 50 years ago it was ok to hit your wife, beat up some one who was queer, and kick your dog. In some cultural contexts today those things are still acceptable. Perhaps the answer is a sort of cultural jail. We ignore them for years, perhaps even decades, until the victims have healed or passed away. Even then, though, when we can look our heroes in the eyes again (so to speak), we must not forget our grievances. Rather, we must learn from their mistakes as much as we learn from their triumphs. We have to be honest about our history, especially when it hurts because that’s where we have the most to learn.

2 thoughts on “A Question for our Shadows”

  1. It’s an interesting conundrum. Do we throw out the advancements and contributions that these people made, due to their behaviors? I don’t think so. A medical advancement made by a terrible person is still a medical advancement. A piece of art created by a depraved artist is still art (or is it?)

    What we must do is view the output of that person while also acknowledging the terrible things they have done. When doing that – does it devalue the product of their talent? In some cases – yes. I watched Bill Cosby back in the 80’s. He was hilarious. If I watch him now – knowing what I know about his character – it’s no longer funny. A fundamental part of the comedy was his perceived character. When the perception of that character is corrupted by his real behaviors – the power of the comedy fades.

    I find the same applies to Michael Jackson – and most other artists. Art, by its very nature, partakes of the Artist – and a change in the perception of the Artist will change the perception of the Art.

    I find advancements in Science don’t quite fall into the same paradigm.

    The products of science do not/should not partake of the character of the scientist.
    This is how I can separate the fundamental discoveries of Freud (using your example) from his character.
    Science and Medicine are full of “dirty little secrets”. This does not excuse the scientists actions – but it also does not devalue the scientific progress attained.

    It’s also important to place the “creator” in context of their time/place/culture. If Bill Cosby (and this is a far fetched hypothetical) was living in a time/place/culture where his predatory behavior was the norm – and accepted – we might look differently on him. Just a thought.

    1. There is always a three way conversation in the arts (between the artist, the art, and the viewer) that doesn’t typically happen in academic disciplines. The artist is, indeed, ALWAYS a part of the art–especially on screen because because the artist IS the art. Their job is to reflect their social and cultural context. I wonder if part of our revulsion is, in fact, because they are carrying a part of our shadow that we can’t face. Cosby is all the more abhorrent because our culture allowed it to happen (and continues to allow it), and we don’t want to admit that. Cosby was his art, warts and all. Cosby is also a part of our own culture, and we created the context that forged his psychology: a man who needed to feel absolute power over the women around him, a man who, at core, felt powerless in his society.

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