Last year, I was diagnosed with complex PTSD from ongoing childhood trauma. As a sexual assault survivor and abuse victim, I had already spent hours in therapy working to heal the long-term shame and fear that coursed through my body after enduring so much in my youth. When I was given my official mental health diagnosis, the clarity and affirmation I received from it both relieved and saddened me. Here was concrete proof of the abuse I had endured. Here was the validation my story so deeply needed.
And yet, here was also tangible evidence that the traumatic impact others had on me still affects me to this day.
One of the major themes running through my counseling sessions these past few years has been breaking down the polarizing judgments I tend to make about people. Growing up, I naturally developed a mentality to help protect me during the bouts of trauma I incurred. I had a chronic habit of seeing a person as either “good” or “bad” based on their actions. There was no middle ground in my thinking and no ability to understand the full complexity of others, and this was something my therapist helped me transform in our work together.
Evolving in this way has helped me realize that no matter how destructive or empowering our influence, we are all just complicated, messy, and vulnerable human beings in this world.
When news broke out about the tragic deaths of Kobe Bryant and his 13-year old daughter Gianna on Sunday, I was beside myself with grief. Images of a young girl and her father were splashed across the media for all to see, and my mama bear heart was quickly shattered to pieces. Despite not personally knowing anyone involved in the accident, I do know the challenges and the joys of making and growing a family. As my mind tried to rapidly process their surprising deaths, I couldn’t stop focusing on the two human beings in those photographs who seemed to love each other deeply and fully.
A few hours later, something unexpected happened. The collective grief I was experiencing along with so many other people in the world was joined by an emotion that completely blindsided me. I began to feel overwhelming uneasiness at seeing the countless Kobe Bryant life tributes at every turn that showcased the glowing highlights of his life on and off the court.
While I can certainly acknowledge all of the good this man put out into the world with his unparalleled basketball career, the love he clearly had for his wife and kids, and his charity work that positively impacted so many, I cannot forget that he was also charged with felony sexual assault back in 2003.
As I sorted through my mixed bag of emotions, I struggled to make sense of the chaos inside that was triggering me in a way I had never anticipated. All of a sudden, the memories of his court case washed over me like a tidal wave. I tried in vain to push them down, because all I was seeing online were heartfelt messages of love for the iconic athlete. And while I could definitely appreciate those whose lives were made better by Bryant, all I could focus on in that moment was the one woman whose life had been made worse.
The beloved athlete was never convicted of rape and the civil case was ultimately settled out of court, but the 19-year old woman who accused him of a brutal sexual assault was issued a lengthy public apology by Bryant himself. In it, the basketball legend explained that while he had initially believed their encounter to be consensual, he recognized through their communication afterwards that she did not. “After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels she did not consent to this encounter,” he writes in his 2004 statement to the victim.
While Bryant certainly went on to achieve great things in his career and personal life, the abuse he was publicly accused of had a ripple effect on so many others who have experienced sexual assault in their own lives.
We exist in a society that loves to glorify its public figures, so it makes total sense that there’s a new Kobe Bryant tribute popping up everywhere we look. The mass celebration has been so focused on this iconic athlete’s inspiring achievements that when Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez tweeted about Bryant’s rape case yesterday, she was quickly suspended by the newspaper. She also went on to receive 10,000 abuse and death threats from loyal fans of the basketball player.
I fully understand why Sonmez experienced an onslaught of outrage from the general public. Millions of people loved Kobe Bryant and followed his career religiously, and they’re empathetically reeling from his family’s tremendous loss. I too can appreciate that Kobe Bryant completely changed the game of basketball, was fiercely dedicated to helping young athletes, and seemed to care deeply about his wife and children. I can even personally admit that seeing images of him with his late daughter Gianna moved me to tears yesterday.
But as a sexual assault survivor, choosing to believe the darkest chapter of Bryant’s past is something that still haunts me to this day.
I want to be able to say this truth out loud and know that my conflicting emotions are as valid as any other person who mourns for him. I want to be able to talk openly about the most challenging area of this man’s life while also feeling immense grief and compassion for his untimely death.
Having complicated feelings about a celebrity does not minimize their humanity. Instead, it can allow us all to mourn in the most human way possible. What does have the greatest potential to dehumanize us all is when we start viewing others with an ethical polarity lens so narrow that it keeps us from remembering the entirety of someone’s character.
I believe that there can be enough room in our culture for supporters of Kobe Bryant to lovingly mourn his death and sexual assault survivors to feel any way they want or need. We can also individually experience both deep sadness about his passing and also struggle to make sense of his alleged former transgressions. And for survivors, it is imperative to make room for moments that trigger us and remind us of our own traumatic past.
Recognizing Kobe Bryant’s immense fallibility does not extinguish his greatest triumphs, and celebrating his life should not exonerate him from any wrongdoings. It’s when we leave no room for the ongoing discussion of Kobe Bryant to be as complex as the man himself that we run into overwhelming societal problems. More so, when we idolize a celebrity to the point of ignoring the immense pain they’ve inflicted on others, we also erase the experience of anyone who has been victimized in the way that his accuser was. And sexual assault survivors deserve more than that.