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Reckoning with Kobe Bryant’s complicated past

With his death, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to challenge my own rigidity in such matters

When I first heard the news about Kobe Bryant’s death, I was in disbelief. Though I am not an avid basketball fan, I understood his immense talent and cultural power. My first thought was for his wife, Vanessa, and their daughters. The magnitude of their grief felt unfathomable, and I have to believe that grieving in the public eye only amplified the tragedy.

Then I thought about the 19-year-old woman Bryant allegedly raped in 2003, a woman who was outed, silenced, and eventually settled with Bryant out of court. In a statement after the settlement, Bryant apologized and came about as close as any public figure ever has to acknowledging the harm he caused. “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual,” he said. “I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

We can never know how sincere Bryant was in this apology and whether it was orchestrated but it happened, publicly.

I was also thinking about other victims of sexual assault who were about to experience a public discussion about Bryant that would likely try to erase something that cannot be erased.

On Twitter, I said, “There are going to be a lot of complicated reactions to Kobe Bryant’s death but I feel all the sympathy in the world for Vanessa Bryant and their four daughters. 41 is so young. And he had a spectacular professional career.”

It was, especially for me, a neutral statement that acknowledged the complexities of Bryant’s death, his remarkable career, and the very real grief his family and fans were about to endure. Angry people raged at me about how I might feel if someone said, “There will be many complications,” when someone I love died. I have no idea what I would feel but I do know a false equivalence when I see one. I do know I wouldn’t be on social media caring about what strangers were saying. One man told me, “His daughter also died. Does that further complicate things for you? You heartless jerk.”

And indeed, yes, it does further complicate things for me, because that child was only 13 years old. She had no idea what her life was going to become but she was beloved and talented and her loss is immeasurable. What I cannot forget is that Bryant’s victim was someone’s daughter too. I refer to her as a victim because in his apology, Bryant acknowledged her view of their encounter. The tragedy of a child’s death does not undo her father’s mistake nor does his mistake make his untimely passing less tragic.

We are living in an inelastic age in which we have no tolerance for differing viewpoints. We demand unwavering allegiance to what we believe and when some people disagree with what you believe, they think harassment, violence, and even threatening murder are appropriate responses. My fiancee nearly had a panic attack as she read the death threats directed toward me after my Bryant tweet. The worst of those tweets were reported and the accounts were suspended but the fear they instilled lingers. I try not to let fear shape my writing, but it gave me pause as I considered writing about Bryant, redemption, reckoning, and the policing of public grief.

It is a galling state of affairs that it is dangerous to think publicly. Whenever a public figure dies, especially a beloved one, there is a cultural inclination to deify that figure, to erase all their flaws and misdeeds, to rewrite a human life into a perfect life by way of extravagant hagiography. There is also a cultural inclination to rigidly police the tenor of public grief. In the immediacy of grief, we don’t want complexity. We don’t want to mourn someone as they really were. We prefer to mourn the dead as tabula rasa onto which we can project the best versions of who we imagined them to be.

Bryant’s fans don’t want to consider that their hero had unheroic moments. They don’t want to have to create the emotional space to mourn someone despite their failings. It is not only his most adoring fans who take issue with how he is being mourned. Some people are furious that anyone is showing any sympathy for Bryant. In their minds, he committed a crime and should not be mourned or venerated. There is no space for complication in any direction.

I’m a survivor of sexual violence and perpetrators can rot in hell as far as I’m concerned. In truth, I too shun complexity. With Bryant’s death, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to challenge my own rigidity in such matters.

I have no sympathy for people who commit acts of sexual violence. I have no interest in thinking about what redemption might look like for them. That’s not my problem. I’m a survivor of sexual violence and perpetrators can rot in hell as far as I’m concerned. In truth, I too shun complexity. With Bryant’s death, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to challenge my own rigidity in such matters. I find myself trying to understand the intensity of this public mourning, and to extend empathy to someone to whom I would rather not. And yet, I’m not worried that I felt sadness about his death. I would be worried if I didn’t.

We do not yet know how to properly adjudicate matters in the court of public opinion. We do not know how to create space for complex realities where people can do both great and terrible things. We do not know how to create space for redemption. We simply lack the capacity to have nuanced, uncomfortable discussions about the fact that sometimes people we admire do terrible things and that we can acknowledge both their greatest accomplishments as well as their worst moments.

I do not know if Bryant tried, privately, to make further amends to his victim. After he was accused of sexual assault he lost some but not all of his endorsements. His reputation was damaged. Still, he was wildly famous. Before long, he regained his reputation. He continued playing basketball and accumulating wealth. He retired in glory and during his retirement he even won an Oscar and was working on an inspirational children’s book. He and his wife continued their philanthropic efforts. He created the Mamba Sports Academy. He coached his daughter’s basketball team. He was an attentive and present father.

Was he remorseful about his actions in 2003? Was his comportment in recent years redemption for his alleged crime? I am reluctant to believe it could be that easy because I know what trauma can do to a person. I believe the first and last person who should have a say on the matter of Bryant’s redemption is his once victim but I don’t dare hope that her voice, if she chose to speak up, would be heard over the roar of public grief.

It is unspeakably sad that Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other people died in a tragic accident. It is also unspeakably sad that there is little justice in this country for victims of sexual violence, that the rich and powerful can use whatever means at their disposal to bend the justice system to their will. What those who were so furious about daring to consider Bryant’s complex legacy are overlooking is that millions of people will mourn him. Is their adoration so fragile it cannot withstand far fewer voices seeing their hero as the man he was instead of the myth they imagine him to be?

Roxane Gay is the author of the best-selling books "Bad Feminist", "Difficult Women" and "Hunger", as well as "Ayiti" and "An Untamed State." Gay is also the creator of the recent anthology "Unruly Bodies" on medium.com.