Photo: Frances Silver
If you haven't read Dylan Farrow's viscerally affecting open letter in yesterday's New York Times, you should. As a matter of practicality it will help you to understand why Twitter has been on fire for the past 24-hours, with detractors and defenders of Woody Allen turning it into a virtual Battle of Pelennor Fields, and as a matter of conscience it's important to know the version of events of 21 years ago as told by the woman who was once the little girl at the center of them. Dylan not only details her alleged abuse at the hands of Woody as a single act, she hints at what she believes is the pattern of inappropriate behavior that led up to it. It's tough stuff, hard to read at times, whether you're a fan of Woody Allen or not.
I have a five-year-old daughter, and if anyone ever did anything to her like what Dylan Farrow alleges Woody Allen did, he'd be dead ten minutes after I found out about it. I say this because I want everyone to know that I understand what's at stake here and by no means take this subject lightly. There's no doubt that Dylan Farrow believes she was a victim of abuse. There's no doubt that Dylan Farrow was the victim of abuse. The doubt lies in exactly what kind of abuse she suffered and at whose hand.
Dylan's story is as riveting as it is disturbing, but the fact is we'll never know whether the events she recalls as searing memories really happened in the way she describes. This isn't a case of "attacking the victim," and to argue in good faith doesn't make someone a monster or a child sex abuse apologist; it makes him or her a realist who accepts that the family politics at play in the Woody/Mia custody battle which was ripping their family apart in 1992 were so brutal and ugly that unless there's evidence to back up that claim, every claim deserves to be questioned.
Yes, Woody Allen began dating Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, when she was approximately 19 years old and maybe you think that's creepy. But the fact remains that it was completely legal. Contrary to popular belief among people who are sure they know everything about this case and are therefore qualified to rage about it on Twitter, Soon-Yi was not Woody's daughter; Woody and Mia were never married nor did they even live together. What can't be denied is that when the relationship between Woody and Soon-Yi was revealed, it detonated a nuclear bomb in the middle of Woody and Mia's family and she was understandably furious about it. The members of that family then took sides and the battle lines have, for the most part, remained stable. There have occasionally been breaks in ranks, though, now that years have passed. Although he initially decried the relationship between Woody and Soon-Yi, Woody and Mia's adopted son Moses Farrow, who went on to become a family therapist, now thinks that Mia brainwashed his seven-year-old sister into believing she was assaulted. And before you dismiss this possibility, you should at least be willing to read the facts of the case, the opinions of those who followed the developments in the relationship closely throughout the years, and those who've spent a lifetime doing experiments with memory implantation.
Elizabeth Loftus is a psychologist and researcher at UC Irvine, and she's spent most of her career studying the power of suggestion, even self-suggestion, on our memories and what she's found is both fascinating and really not the least bit surprising. Basically, especially at a young age, we're highly susceptible to suggestion and memory manipulation, particularly by people we trust and wish to please, and the kind of story Dylan Farrow is telling isn't unusual during the total warfare of a custody battle, especially one as public as Woody and Mia's and concerning someone as volatile and demanding as Mia Farrow and with the mercurial and neurotic reputation of Woody Allen.
Here's what it comes down to: There are only two people who know what really happened between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow. The former has consistently proclaimed his innocence and tells one story; the latter continues to tell another, much more harrowing story. The facts of the case have always favored Woody, from doctors saying that Dylan was inconsistent in her detailing of what happened 21 years ago and that her story had a rehearsed feel to it, to the actual amount of time witnesses say Woody was alone with Dylan at Mia Farrow's home in Bridgewater, Connecticut on August 4th, 1992, a date which fell right in the middle of Woody and Mia's vicious custody battle and a place where he was surrounded by people who didn't much like him. He passed a lie detector test. He married Soon-Yi and they've been together for 17 years and now have a family of their own and there have been no other accusations of any impropriety from anyone. Dylan, meanwhile, sticks by her own version of events, and they may very well be true. Or, as difficult as it may be to accept, they could also be the product of severe manipulation at a very young age. Unfortunately, we'll never know for sure.
So what this all means for the social media mob is simply whom you choose to believe: which side will confirm your already tightly held biases, fit your cultural ideology, potentially provide a rallying cry in a cause for which you advocate, or just help you sleep at night. Like the battle lines drawn two decades ago between Woody and Mia, the battle lines on Twitter are now drawn between those who've gathered behind the banner of Dylan Farrow's column, which tells an indeed shocking personal story, or behind the banner of the Daily Beast article by Robert Weide, which lays out in detail the facts of Woody's relationship with Soon-Yi, motivations of Mia Farrow, and details of the case. It's a case that was decided two decades ago and which was only reignited, coincidentally, by Mia and Ronan Farrow's questionable shots across Twitter the night of the Golden Globes.
Understand something: I don't think there's an ounce of subterfuge in Dylan Farrow's decision to write the open letter she did or to make the claim she did 21 years ago. I don't think she's doing it to blackmail anyone or to bring fame upon herself. Other than the malice she has for Woody Allen, I don't think there's any malice in her words at all. I believe that Dylan believes she was sexually assaulted by her adoptive father. I also understand that there are those out there for whom this case is a cause célèbre because, indeed, there are plenty of women and kids who've been abused who are put in a position of no one believing them because there isn't enough physical evidence to back up their claim. These people argue in favor of Dylan from a place of emotion and as a show of solidarity, and maybe they should. But in this particular case, there's simply too much bad blood and destructive family politics at play and too little proof to light the torches and raise the pitchforks, demanding that Woody Allen be tried in court or, screw it, just thrown in jail 21 years after the fact.
None of this is Dylan Farrow's fault. I have no idea what really happened to her and neither do you. But she's a victim and a survivor either way.