The internet is abuzz with indignation, outrage and the subsequent shrugs over Dylan Farrow’s open letter, published in the New York Times, telling her story of being sexually abused by Woody Allen. As a long-time fan of Woody Allen movies (as well as Mia Farrow as an activist and actress), and a fellow New York Jew who loves the ways he communicates the not-so-existential angst of my people, it’s was not easy for me to read her letter. Yet whatever twinges I experienced were a walk in the park compared to all those who have been sexually abused (betrayal #1), then silenced about it (betrayal #2).
In addition to sharing what she experienced, including the details of the abuse, Farrow calls us on lauding the abuser and marginalized the abused. She asks her to imagine the reality of what she experienced then and since then:
So imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter.
I know many people who have been sexually abused, some close friends, and some students who were brave enough to shatter the glass casing around them by family and culture, and tell their truths. I listened to stories of how much damage such violation does to a person’s sense of self, sense of safety, sense of trust for self and others, sense of body and soul. The dissociation often lasts for years, decades, a lifetime. I know beautiful men and women who were raped regularly by a close family member while everyone around them pretended nothing was amiss. I know people who, as small children, couldn’t speak up for fear of having their tormentors kill them.
For Dylan Farrow to speak up took enormous courage because she wasn’t just speaking up to her family (although that also takes outlandish bravery) but to our culture. “Woody Allen is a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse,” she wrote. If you doubt her, check out this 1992 extensive article in Vanity Fair that begins, “There was an unwritten rule in Mia Farrow’s house that Woody Allen was never supposed to be left alone with their seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan.”
The response to her letter proved exactly what she just said. Stephen King said, “There’s an element of palpable bitchery there” about Farrow’s letter. A long article by Robert B. Weide, who put together the film montage for Allen’s Golden Globe honor tells us how Mia Farrow took Andre Previn away from his wife, may have fooled around with Frank Sinatra while dating Allen, plus questions about 7-year-old Dylan Farrow’s consistency in her statements. Whatever truth there may be in this article, I point out that the writer was friendly with Allen and certainly not an expert on sexually-abused 7-year-olds. I find all these responses outrageous reinforcements of the patriarchy: good old boys pulling for good old boys by calling the girls crazy, bitchy, flawed, and invoking the who-are-we-to-judge-when-we-weren’t-there defense. There’s also the more common response of “Why is this even a news story?”
That’s the thing about abuse: it’s intimate in the worst kind of way, and we aren’t and can’t be there. It almost always comes down to an abuser saying, “Nothing happened. She’s crazy,” and the abused saying, “No, something terrible happened.” I’m not saying that some accusations aren’t false, but I believe most survivors who speak out are telling the truth. Why else put themselves in such a vulnerable place where they’re almost certain to be attacked, demeaned and betrayed all over again?
In an strong article I just read, “Woody Allen’s Good Name” by Aaron Bady, which very intelligently deconstructs many of the arguments against Farrow. He writes, “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.”
When a survivor like Farrow speaks out, it is and should be news because she’s challenging all of us to change our cultural habit of blaming the victim and sweeping abuse under the rug. That’s why, Robert B. Weide, in answer to your question about whether it helps the abused to speak out publicly, it matters in this case. Also, shouldn’t the decision to speak out or not be the survivor’s decision to make?
To end racism, it shouldn’t just be people of color who name it when it’s happening. To end sexual assault and abuse, it shouldn’t just be the survivors. So I’m writing this now, and I encourage all of us to do whatever we can to change this story so that this story doesn’t need to keep repeating itself.