Death is perhaps the biggest question that we as humans have tried to tackle. For millennia, we have asked and pondered: does anything come next? If so, what? And why? Who put it there? Can we delay it? Can avoid it entirely?
Books have been filled, dissertations written, lives dedicated to death and everything that does (or doesn’t) surround it. But we are yet to agree upon a single thing. And perhaps this is the reason that we so closely adhere to the rigid cultural rituals that we have developed for when someone passes away.
Unless a person was particularly heinous and evil, there is an unspoken expectation to posthumously celebrate and praise every single achievement and personal characteristic of the person who has died. You’ll often hear that ‘you mustn’t speak ill of the dead’; it is taboo and often seen to be in poor taste.
As a result, due to our complete collective and individual inability to have a measured response to anything, we feel the need to valorise the dead and see them as one-dimensional versions of themselves, particularly those who were in the public eye. And this is understandable, especially immediately after a tragic death.
But that leaves the questions: What about everything else? What about the people they hurt? The poor choices they made? The destruction they potentially left in their wake? And we saw this tension play out after the shocking announcement of basketball star Kobe Bryant’s death.
There was something about his death that made me recoil into myself. I’ve never watched basketball, sports generally bore me, and, before a few days ago, if you would’ve asked me to tell you one thing about Kobe Bryant beyond that he was a very famous athlete, I would’ve struggled.
Yet when I heard, or rather read, of his death I felt a wave of great sadness. And I think this is fairly normal, especially considering the suddenness of his death and the tragedy of his 13-year-old daughter – and budding basketball star – dying alongside him. Not to mention the deaths of two of her teammates, as well as their parents, the basketball coach, and the pilot.
Their deaths prompted an outpouring of grief from fans, teammates, celebrities, friends of Kobe’s, and sports commentators alike. There is something about the unexpectedness of the helicopter crash, of the lost potential of those girls, the youthful defiance and light in Kobe Bryant’s eyes that was abruptly put out. The tragedy is clear. It is palpable and impossible to avoid.
Obituaries and tributes focused on Kobe’s rare gift, his talent, his tenacity, his overwhelming achievements in sports and otherwise, his philanthropy and his family, the things that roll off the tongue easily. But when a few people pointed out, in various ways, the deliberate and careful omission of Bryant at his worst – a very compelling 2003 rape accusation that at the time was followed very closely.
During the criminal trial Kobe changed his story, at the start denying any contact at all with the victim, then claiming that he had indeed had sexual contact with her, but that it was consensual.
The girl, 19 years old at the time, had sustained multiple injuries with a bruise on her neck and tears and bruises on her genitals, with further evidence finding traces of his semen inside her and her blood on his clothing.
Like most women who come forward about a beloved celebrity, she faced the full force of the media and, at just 19 years old, had to deal with threats and a complete character assassination in front of the whole country. It was textbook, a real display of the unrepentant and unrelenting rape culture that seeps through every facet of our society. The case was settled in 2005 for a confidential payout.
Reading up on this case I felt so deeply for the girl in question, but my knee jerk reaction when I saw people bringing this up, was not of sympathy. It has to be said that I did not know about the case when I found out that he had died, I was 4 years old when it all happened and, as an adult, I have not had reason to find out.
But even so, my first thought was “now’s not the time”. A few days later, I have really sat with my thoughts and asked myself why my empathy immediately went to Kobe Bryant – all-star athlete, before it went to a young girl who faced something that was incredibly traumatic.
What is it about death that compels us to pretend that people are so much better than they may have really been?
It’s hard to accept that one body can host both the unsuspecting soft eyes and fatherly demeanour of Kobe Bryant, basketball star, and the alledgedly violent grasp of Kobe Bryant, a man accused of rape.
That is what we see here – the (for want of a better word) mundanity of sexual violence. It is not relegated to the world of the monstrous, the atrocious and the evil. It is not just back alleys and maladjusted lone wolves with stories that Netflix is probably buying the rights to at this moment. Yet whilst we think of Kobe Bryant, and the 8 others who died, we should think of that girl too.
Whilst we try to flatten the stories of the deceased, some stories refuse to be flattened. As much as we want it to be, the world is not a simple place and we cannot tell people how to grieve or who to think of as important. But we should be moving to a place where we can have honest discussions about the lives they lived, without callously mocking the dead and with a deeper consideration and regard for those who are still alive and affected by the alleged actions of those who have passed on.