“Beware of Young Girls”: Woody Allen, Dylan Farrow, and the Problem with Looking for Innocence

photo by Terry Richardson

photo by Terry Richardson

More than twenty years have passed since Woody Allen was accused of sexually molesting the seven-year-old daughter he had adopted with his long-time girlfriend, Mia Farrow. Allen and Farrow had announced the end of their more than decade-long relationship just a few months earlier, following the revelation that Allen had begun a new relationship with Farrow’s adopted 19-year-old daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. At the time Farrow brought charges against Allen, the two were also going through a contentious and very public child support and custody battle. The sexual abuse charges were eventually dropped and Allen was never prosecuted. But while the cloud of suspicion never completely left Allen—doubtlessly due in part to the severity of the charges, but also because Allen eventually married Previn, making it impossible to forget that particular part of the scandal, while the molestation charges faded from public memory—the director has neither stopped making movies nor winning accolades for his work past and present. And so for many people—especially those under the age of 35, who were too young to be engaged in the initial media frenzy in the early 90s—Allen might have represented a man of moral ambiguity, but he wasn’t generally thought of as being in the same league as Roman Polanski or, say, R. Kelly. Over the weekend, this all changed.

The case has been brought up again in the media lately, first when Vanity Fair published an article in November by Maureen Orth, in which she spoke with Mia Farrow and eight of her children (including Dylan) about many things, including the molestation charges. Orth had written about the family before and interviewed Farrow in a 1992 article for Vanity Fair in which Farrow spoke in no uncertain terms about what she believed to be Woody’s guilt. However, Orth’s most recent article garnered attention mainly for the revelation that Farrow’s ex-husband Frank Sinatra—and not Allen—might be her son Ronan’s father, because while twenty-year-old charges of sexual abuse are not really something that make for good dinner party conversation, looking for hints of Sinatra in Ronan Farrow’s startlingly blue, deep-set eyes is a game that everyone can enjoy. This is understandable, of course, if not exemplary of the very best in human nature. But what can you do? These subjects make people uncomfortable, so they ignore them. These situations make people hug their own children closer, but when are their children going to be alone with Woody Allen? Never. It is easy—the easiest—to stick our heads in the sand, especially when the case at hand is not as clear-cut as others, especially when the alleged abuser made movies like Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters. But Orth’s most recent article was only the beginning of a renewed interest in Allen’s past. At the Golden Globe Awards in January, Diane Keaton accepted a lifetime achievement award on behalf of Allen, and her signature loopy speaking style felt awkward and horrible during her speech (which was capped off by a painful rendition of a song associated with the Girl Scouts), but the real drama came from tweets by both Mia and Ronan Farrow, which pointed out that Allen had been accused of molesting his seven-year-old daughter, charges which she publicly corroborated in Orth’s most recent article.

On Saturday, Nicholas Kristof posted an open letter from Dylan Farrow, the now 28-year-old daughter whom Allen was accused of molesting. Kristof—who is a friend of both Mia and Ronan Farrow’s—posted Dylan’s letter because, while he says that “none of us can be certain what happened,” he also feels that “when evidence is ambiguous, do we really need to leap to our feet and lionize an alleged molester?” And for Dylan herself, the impetus to release the letter seems to be not only the Golden Globes Award, but also the continued canonization of Allen as one of film’s great auteurs. Dylan writes, “It felt like a personal rebuke, like the awards and accolades were a way to tell me to shut up and go away. But the survivors of sexual abuse who have reached out to me—to support me and to share their fears of coming forward, of being called a liar, of being told their memories aren’t their memories—have given me a reason to not be silent, if only so others know that they don’t have to be silent either.” Dylan’s letter serves a dual purpose, not only because it demonstrates the power of a survivor’s voice, but also because it forces the readers to question their own complicity in ignoring serious accusations in favor of watching Crimes and Misdemeanors one more time.

The response to Dylan’s letter was swift and varied. Many people (including Lena Dunham and Tavi Gevinson) were instantly supportive of Dylan, and celebrated the courage it took to go public. Many more were dismissive and resorted to saying things like “there are two sides to every story” and speculating that Mia Farrow had virtually tricked her daughter into making the accusations, and permanently implanted the false memories in Dylan’s head. In the sort of fascinating sickening twist that affirms the existence of rape culture, the same people who were demanding that Allen’s innocence be presumed, were also instantly labeling Mia guilty of brainwashing her daughter, because there is no possible way that a man could molest a child and then lie about it and get away with it. As Aaron Bady wrote in an excellent essay for The New Inquiry, “In a rape culture, there is no burden on us to presume that she is not a liar, no necessary imperative to treat her like a person whose account of herself can be taken seriously.It is important that we presume he is innocent. It is not important that we presume she is not making it all up out of female malice. In a rape culture, you can say things like ‘We can’t really know what really happened, so let’s all act as if Woody Allen is innocent (and she is lying).’ In a rape culture, you can use your ignorance to cast doubt on her knowledge; you can admit that you have no basis for casting doubt on Dylan’s statement, and then you can ignore her account of herself.”

In effect, those that insist on Allen’s innocence can not do so without insisting on the guilt of both Mia and Dylan Farrow. Robert Weide, a filmmaker who shot a lengthy documentary on Allen, wrote a defense of the director a few days prior to Dylan’s open letter. Weide—who claims no real bias toward Allen, other than, you know, having made money off a film that he made about Allen—sought to defend Allen from the post-Globes backlash by first pointing out that Soon-Yi Previn absolutely, positively never EVER was Allen’s biological daughter (which, cool point and everything, but not, you know, the point), and also that he thinks Mia Farrow probably implanted false memories in her daughter’s head in order to get revenge on Allen. So! What proof does Weide have? Well, Weide writes that Farrow supported Roman Polanski when Polanski sued Vanity Fair for libel. Which, you know, obviously, if Farrow can be friendly with one sexual predator, why can’t she forgive another? Makes no sense! And also, Farrow’s brother is a convicted child molester, which is a fact that Farrow doesn’t discuss very much on twitter, leading Weide to believe…what, exactly? Unclear, other than that Weide really wanted his readers to know that Farrow’s brother is a child molester. Finally, Weide wants us to know that (more than 40 years ago!) Farrow broke up the marriage of Andre Previn and Dory Previn, which possibly led to the hospitalization and electroshock therapy of Dory, but definitely led to Dory writing the song “Beware of Young Girls” about Mia’s seduction of her husband. And again, what’s the point of Weide recounting this information, other than trying to shame Mia, and by extension, Dylan? I haven’t the slightest idea.

One of the primary reasons that victims of sexual abuse don’t speak out about their experiences is that they are frequently called liars. And, of course, they are not just called liars. They are called sluts. They are told they were asking for it. They are thought to be complicit in their own debasement. If the accused is a family member, the victims are often told to keep it private and to handle it within the family, which is not so dissimilar from what Cate Blanchett said when asked about Dylan’s call on her and other actors that have recently worked with Allen to address the accusations. And in the case of public figures, any information that might be available about the people involved can become “evidence” in the trial by media. In this particular situation, Allen’s art becomes an alibi of sorts for him, because we know him through his films, we know that he can’t be a monster. But for Farrow, her decades of humanitarian work—to say nothing of her acting career—are dismissed in favor of exposing sensational parts of her past, and moralizing about her romantic decisions, negating her voice and that of her daughter Dylan’s in the process, while the man who released Small Time Crooks and Curse of the Jade Scorpion out into the world gets lauded as an obviously innocent genius.

I don’t know what Woody Allen did or didn’t do to his daughter twenty years ago. But I do know that there are very few sexual abuse victims who are willing to share their experiences, and that the silencing of those voices is something that we should all stand against. And I can’t help but wonder why Weide linked to Dory Previn’s song “Beware of Young Girls” in his article. Was it just to shame Mia about her past? Or was it some kind of a twisted statement about who the real predators are, “the young girls who come to the door, wistful and pale”? Because there’s something missing in that song. What’s missing in that song is the man. What’s missing in that song is the fact that while Mia Farrow was 24-years-old, Andre Previn was 41, and so was fully complicit in breaking up his marriage. What’s missing in all the defenses of Woody Allen is that he was an adult man who had full agency in every morally questionable and downright morally indefensible situation with which he has been involved in or accused of. What’s missing in many of the things being written about this subject is that, while none of us really know what happened so many years ago, the problem with looking for innocence in such a corrupt situation is that, when no definitive answers to the big question can be found, guilt is almost automatically assigned to the accuser. What’s missing in all too many cases of sexual and child abuse in this country is the voice of the victim. With Dylan Farrow, we have that voice. It’s the least we can do to listen to it and consider what she says without immediately looking to prove the innocence of a man who made some good movies. (Which, really. Only a handful are very good anyway. Never forget Scoop.) Now is not the time, though, to be looking to prove anyone’s guilt or innocence, rather it is a time to listen to what is being said about this case, and think about what it means about the countless cases of abuse that occur and never get reported. Silencing Dylan Farrow could mean silencing countless other young women and men, and that is exactly the wrong message to send, because it is exactly what every powerful, predatory man wants. Don’t let them get what they want.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen