Speaking Ill of the Dead

NOTE: I’ve never done this before. These are thoughts I shared with readers of my newsletter, but I got so many replies that I thought I should share it here, too, where actual discussion could occur.

When news broke of the helicopter crash that killed Gianna Bryant, two of her teammates, three of their parents, Kobe Bryant (Gianna’s father and coach of the team), another coach, and their helicopter pilot, my Twitter feed blew up. The overwhelming majority of posts expressed grief, loss, and praise, all centered around Kobe Bryant. He was a phenom with whom many people I share social media space came of age. A minority of posts focused on Bryant’s history as a person accused of sexual assault against a 19-year-old hotel worker in the early 2000s. These were not generally people who wanted to relitigate the case (which had been dropped). Instead, they were joining virtual hands with survivors of assault who might find it difficult to watch an alleged perpetrator be eulogized so universally across virtually every media platform available. (The dynamic on my Twitter feed was probably nothing compared to the one sparked by Felicia Sonmez’s tweet of a story from 2016 about the 2003 allegations, which I read about in this thoughtful piece by Iskra Fileva.)

So strong is the cultural tendency to erase the histories of the dead and replace them with sanitized stories that I’ll admit, despite having no special feelings about Bryant myself, when I saw some of those posts my first reaction was to feel sorry for his family and only second to recognize the trauma that such eulogizing can cause.

This goes far beyond Kobe Bryant’s story. Ordinary non-celebrity people who have done terrible things to others die every day, and frequently they are lionized for a time. Sometimes all their bad deeds are erased, at least in conversation. There is a strong tendency to say only good things about the dead in this society and it silences those who have been hurt. It renders invisible the harm done to others. Instead, it encourages us to think of people as entirely good or entirely bad, something that feeds illusions and stereotypes and prevents us from understanding the complexity in those we’ve lost. 

There are no perfect victims, and none of us is equal to the worst thing we’ve done. This is important to remember all the time, but there is no better time to be reminded than in the days after someone has died. Moments like those are moments for reflection on the nature of lives themselves.  Bryant’s history as someone who committed sexual assault* does not negate the value of his support for women’s sports. And his laudable support for women’s sports does not in any way reduce the horribleness of his having sexually assaulted someone. Both of those things can be true at the same time. A person can be monstrous in some ways and benevolent in others. An honest accounting is a loving act, not a betrayal of someone’s memory, and if we can practice this with the dead it will be easier for us to do it when it matters even more: with the living.

*While the charges were dropped, I believe that Bryant committed the acts in question and so I am referring to him that way, and not by his legal status of alleged assailant.

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