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Understanding The Woody Allen Abuse Scandal — To The Extent That We Can

In this Dec. 29, 2011 file photo, Woody Allen is photographed during an interview in Beverly Hills, Calif. Dylan Farrow, the adopted daughter of Allen and Mia Farrow, penned an emotional open letter, accusing Hollywood of callously lionizing Allen, who she claims abused her. The letter revived in stunning detail an allegation more than two decades old. (Matt Sayles/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this Dec. 29, 2011 file photo, Woody Allen is photographed during an interview in Beverly Hills, Calif. Dylan Farrow, the adopted daughter of Allen and Mia Farrow, penned an emotional open letter, accusing Hollywood of callously lionizing Allen, who she claims abused her. The letter revived in stunning detail an allegation more than two decades old. (Matt Sayles/AP)

Let’s begin with the stipulation that no one in the commentariat knows what, if anything, happened in a Connecticut attic 21 years ago between Woody Allen and 7-year-old Dylan Farrow. To begin anywhere else would make us complicit in the high-minded hysteria we have witnessed in the last few weeks.

Truth might be the first casualty of war, but supposition is the principal currency of cyberspace. It has to stop when something this important is at stake. The eradication of the sexual abuse of children will not be achieved by taking sides in a decades-old celebrity case about which we know little and our opinions are formed less by the facts than by our own political sympathies.

But we no longer live in the real world; we live in the cyber world, where any story can be resuscitated at any time for the entertainment of the masses, no matter the effect on the very real people involved.

In the firestorm that has erupted online since Allen received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Golden Globes, facts have been the commodity hardest to access. It is certainly true that in 1992 Mia Farrow accused Allen, her longtime romantic partner, of molesting their adopted daughter and that the movie actor/director denied the crime. She produced a tape recording of Dylan describing the abuse. He countered that an impartial Yale-New Haven Hospital medical team found no evidence of molestation. Everyone noted that the accusations arose during a vitriolic custody battle, the backdrop of which included the fact that Woody Allen had left Mia Farrow to live with, and eventually marry, her adult adopted daughter, Soon Yi Previn.

No charges were ever filed against Allen.

In the real world, except for the principals, that would have been the end of this sad family saga. But we no longer live in the real world; we live in the cyber world, where any story can be resuscitated at any time for the entertainment of the masses, no matter the effect on the very real people involved.

All it takes is a tweet.

Mia Farrow and her son, Ronan, tweeted their dismay during and after the televised Golden Globe celebration of Allen’s career.


Dylan followed up in Nicholas Kristof’s column in The New York Times, denouncing Hollywood and specific actors by name for embracing a man she considers a pedophile.

The pundit class got in gear. Woody was being pilloried by a jealous, manipulative bitch. No, he was being defended by a sexist, sycophantic acolyte.

Point. Counter-point. Blah, blah, blah.

If there is an unambiguously bad guy in this case it is not Woody Allen or Mia Farrow. It is Frank S. Maco, the state's attorney for Litchfield County who claimed there was probable cause to indict Allen but declined to prosecute to “spare” Dylan the trauma of a trial.

He did Dylan no favors. A courtroom cannot resolve the question of childhood sexual abuse — we have counselors and clergymen to help us with that — but it can adjudicate the question of guilt. It is imperfect but the best system yet devised to find some sense of justice for the accused and the accuser. Without it, both are left with a deepening commitment to their own deeply felt narrative of what did or did not happen. Without it, the wider community is reduced to being marginally informed partisans in a political and media spectacle.

By offering his column as a platform for Dylan Farrow, a family friend, to express her pain, Kristof showed more compassion than judgment.

How is this better than the days when any child who accused an adult of sexual assault was discounted as overly imaginative? When any woman who spoke up against her abuser was accused of conniving to get a leg up in a divorce proceeding? Haven’t we learned, through hard experience, to distrust our prejudices and rely on a systematic presentation of evidence?

Sadly, in this case, one of the nation’s finest columnists facilitated the ugly voyeurism. By offering his column as a platform for Dylan Farrow, a family friend, to express her pain, Kristof showed more compassion than judgment. A journalist who has spent much of his career advancing the cause of victimized women and girls around the world had to know that a readers’ poll could not resolve this particular case. He should have encouraged Dylan to submit her essay, under her own name, to The New York Times and let editors wrestle with the question that Kristof chose to avoid: what does fairness demand of serious journalism in the digital age?


Related:

Eileen McNamara Cognoscenti contributor
A Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for The Boston Globe, Eileen McNamara is the author of "Eunice, The Kennedy Who Changed the World," to be published in April 2018.

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