“As a survivor, all you want is to be believed”: Andrea Constand on Bill Cosby’s overturned conviction and healing from trauma
Constand discusses the aftermath of the high-profile trial and connecting with other survivors to film the new documentary The Case Against Cosby
More than 60 women have come forward with allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby, but only one—Andrea Constand—obtained a conviction in court. In 2003, the then 29 year old moved from Toronto to Philadelphia to take her dream job coaching basketball at Temple University. Cosby was a celebrity alumnus and one of the school’s biggest donors. When he invited Constand to his home in 2004, he told her it was to discuss her career. Before she left, she was drugged and sexually assaulted by the man still best known as “America’s dad.” “I have spent the past 15 years trying to get back to the person I was when I arrived at Cosby’s home that night,” says Constand, who moved back to Toronto shortly after the assault.
In a new documentary, The Case Against Cosby, Constand and five other Cosby survivors come together at a retreat on the Sunshine Coast, in BC, led by acclaimed trauma specialist Gabor Mate. “It wasn’t pretty,” says Constand—but that’s sort of the point. Tonight, she and director Karen Wooky are hosting a screening and discussion panel at the Scotiabank Theatre. Constand spoke to us about hope, healing and life as a reluctant icon.
There’s been a lot of coverage of the Cosby case—on the news, on 60 minutes, on HBO’s We Need to Talk About Cosby. You published a memoir about your experience in 2021. What does this new documentary add to the conversation?
I think the difference is that this documentary is about Bill Cosby and what he did, but it is also about trauma and the damage done by sexual violence. Karen Wooky, our director, and I have been friends for years. We were actually in a romantic relationship when I was in my late teens. We had fallen out of touch a little bit, and then a few years ago she sent me a Facebook message—just like a Hi, how are things? I was working on my memoir at the time, and she asked to read it and ended up optioning the rights for some kind of film project. When we started talking more seriously about what that might look like, I was really interested in how we could show the power of women coming together to heal. That has been a focus for me personally and also for Hope, Healing and Transformation, the foundation I started in 2020 to support survivors of sexual violence. One of the things we do is monthly healing circles, which are a way to sit in communion with others who have been carrying the same pain. Because the foundation launched just before Covid, the circles have always been virtual, but Karen and I thought it could work really well to do something similar in person with some of my fellow Cosby survivors.
How did the group come together?
We initially reached out to probably a dozen women to see who might be interested in participating. In the end it was six of us, including me—all of us had come out publicly against Cosby at some point. We have this key thing in common, which is that we were all traumatized by the same man, but we all have our own stories, both in terms of the assaults and also how we have processed and managed our trauma since. Some of the women were children when they met Cosby; some had never spent a single minute in therapy.
And yet your stories all have so many details in common: the way Cosby would offer to help with career development, how he would ingratiate himself with parents, calling them “Mom” and “Dad.” Were you surprised to learn how much your stories overlapped?
Certain aspects of his modus operandi are well known among his accusers, including the things you mention, but it was really interesting to hear some of the experts who appear in the documentary—particularly Anna Salter, who is a world-renowned expert on sexual predators—talk about how Cobsy’s grooming process and how he was able to use his charm and reputation to get away with his crimes.
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Your retreat is led by renowned Canadian Hungarian trauma therapist and bestselling author Gabor Mate. How did that happen?
We had talked about how, if we were going to do a retreat, it would be a good idea to have a trauma-informed professional there to guide us. When Karen said, “Maybe I could get Gabor Mate,” I was like, “Really?” She didn’t know him, but she reached out and we got lucky. This was a few months before the release of his new book, The Myth of Normal, so he had a very small window. Initially, we had envisioned the retreat as something we would do toward the end of filming, and then suddenly we were all flying out to BC to find a location near Gabor. We ended up at the Linwood House, on the Sunshine Coast in Vancouver, which was a spectacular setting and really allowed us to spend time together in nature, which is so important. And Gabor was just incredible—he was the glue that held us all together, but he also really pushed us to talk about the hard stuff. There is nothing comfortable about confronting your trauma.
I’m guessing that is especially true when the cameras are rolling.
We were lucky to have a crew that was so sensitive to the project. It’s not like we were shooting a Tic Tac commercial, and everyone was really respectful of that. There were days when filming was really emotional, and a couple of times people in the crew came up to me afterward to share their own stories of trauma. I think we all felt like, if we were going to do this, we were going to do it. And, if the goal is to really show the impact, there is no room for holding back. In that sense, it was almost like, the uglier the better. But then there were also these wonderful moments of levity. We spent time hiking and being out on the lake. You see a moment in the doc where we’re six adult women jumping on a trampoline.
What did you take away from the experience?
Mainly just the extent of the damage and how much I had disconnected from myself and my feelings in order to survive. Early on in the doc, Gabor talks about how trauma is a wound and, in order to heal, we develop scar tissue, which is hard and has no feeling in it and allows us to disconnect from our emotions and maybe appear strong. Everybody had seen the pictures of me walking through the courthouse, big and tall and ready to take the stand. In a weird way, that was kind of easy for me—having grown up as a competitive athlete, preparing for this big, stressful event was within my comfort zone. You train as much as you can, you watch tapes to see the other team’s strategy. Even before we got started in BC, Gabor came up to me and said, “I don’t want you to worry about being strong; I want you to be vulnerable.” Now that was hard, but so worthwhile. It is impossible to be authentic if you’re living with guards up, and I am so grateful to be on the other side of that.
Do you feel like you have achieved some level of closure?
Closure is one of those things where, maybe you feel you have it one day, but then something else happens and everything you thought was behind you is back. I have actually coined a new term, which is “post-traumatic wisdom”—the wisdom that comes after you have moved through the trauma so that you’re managing your triggers or you’re not so triggered; you know what self-care you need, and you have a support system in place. One of the things I say in the doc is that the Andrea who went to go and see Bill Cosby that night in 2004 is not the Andrea who left his house the next morning. It’s taken 15 years, but I think I am finally coming back to the person I was.
Of the more than 60 women who have come forward with allegations of sexual assault against Cosby, you are the only person to achieve a conviction in court. In the documentary, one of your fellow survivors calls you “the Joan of Arc of Bill Cosby survivors.” Is that how you see yourself?
I understand where Lily, one of the other survivors, was coming from and why she said that, but it’s definitely not how I think. The focus with Joan of Arc is on her suffering whereas I really want to focus on my healing. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly proud of what I achieved with the support of so many others, and if that means people consider me a hero, I am honoured. It was definitely not easy.
Was there an aspect of the trial that was the most difficult?
Definitely being shamed and blamed for what happened, having my words twisted by Cosby and his PR machine, and having the credibility of not just me but my family questioned. That was so hard. But I do think the fact that we ultimately got a conviction shows that things are changing—the victim-blaming line of defence really backfired as a legal strategy, and I think we’re seeing it less and less in courtrooms. Of course there are exceptions, but overall there is a growing awareness about survivors’ behaviour that may seem counter-intuitive: failing to report what happened for several years or maintaining contact with our abuser. My legal team actually put an expert on the stand at the very beginning of the trial to educate the jury on these realities, which ended up being extremely effective. They did the same thing at the Harvey Weinstein trial.
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Your case is often referred to as the first #MeToo victory, but you initially filed charges in 2015, two years before the movement started. Is it possible that #MeToo would not have happened without you and your fellow Cosby survivors?
I don’t want to take anything away from all of the courageous women who spoke out against Weinstein and many of the other predators who were exposed by #MeToo. But I would say that many of us Cosby survivors feel that what we did paved the way for what turned into a global movement and, really, a global explosion of pain. Sometimes there is a sense in our community like, Oh, the Weinstein story gets all the attention. I think that could be, at least partly, because with Weinstein you had a lot of famous women involved: Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie. It makes me think about the women who were victimized by Bill Cosby. Many of them were aspiring actors, and I wonder what they might have gone on to achieve had it not been for this predator. Maybe one of them would have achieved the success of a Paltrow or a Jolie.
You were a basketball coach at Temple University at the time of your assault. Do you ever wonder what you would be doing had things gone differently?
Working at Temple was my dream job, and then, after that night, I was on a plane back to Toronto and I never coached basketball again. I had always been interested in sports broadcasting—that was actually what we were supposed to be talking about when I went to Bill Cosby’s house in 2004. Who knows, maybe had things gone differently, I’d be covering the Olympics on TSN. But I do feel like I have found my calling. Within weeks of coming home, I enrolled in massage therapy school, and that is what I’ve been doing ever since. I love being able to help people with their pain. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
In March 2022, Bill Cosby was released on a technicality after serving less than three years in prison. How does that affect your sense of justice?
I was disappointed, but mostly because I worried about the message his overturned conviction would send to anyone who might still be holding on to a secret, and now they’re thinking, Well, what’s the point of coming forward? But, like you said, he was released on a technicality: the district attorney who initially worked on the case back in 2005 had made a deal to not prosecute him if he would testify in my civil trial. That has absolutely no bearing on what happened in the courtroom or the fact that a jury found Cosby guilty on all three counts of aggravated indecent assault. As a survivor, all you want is to be believed, and I feel like I achieved that when I heard the word guilty. I don’t spend much time thinking about Cosby or what he is doing now.
What is daily life like for you now?
Like a lot of people, I left the city during the pandemic. It wasn’t easy. I had spent more than ten years living on Queen West, and that is where all of my clients were, but I felt this yearning to be in nature, and I’m so glad I listened to that voice. I’m now in the town of Malmer, which is about 90 minutes from Toronto. It’s all rolling hills and green and just so peaceful. I’ve been here for about a year, and I have managed to build up my client list and make some friends in the community. My parents are close by, so we see each other all the time. I have two nieces who come and visit me a lot.
Do they recognize you as a feminist icon?
They just think of me as their auntie. They were kids when this first started, but now I think they understand more, and I know they have a lot of respect for me.
Can I ask if you’re in a romantic relationship?
I’m not actively dating at the moment—I don’t have a profile online or anything like that. But I will say that it’s something I’m looking forward to, and I’ve never felt so ready for that kind of thing.
What do you do to relax and recharge?
I have actually taken up woodworking—I make walking sticks out of dead branches that I find out in the woods when I’m walking with my puppy, Chase. There’s something about taking something dead and discarded and making it strong and beautiful that really resonates with me. At the end of the retreat, I gave a stick to each of the women, and I’m auctioning a few off at the screening this week.
You’re also a tattoo enthusiast. Tell me about your ink.
I got a phoenix on my back in 2017 to symbolize my rise from the ashes. I have another one on my arm that says #tellsomeone, just because that is my message to all survivors of sexual assault. For me and, I think, for a lot of people who have experienced trauma, there is a cathartic aspect to the process of getting needled. Everything I went through is written all over on my body. It’s like: been there, done that, got the tattoo.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.