The uneasy ambiguity of the Woody Allen case

Social media quickly takes sides, but it's the doubt that's the hard part

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 3, 2014 8:41PM (EST)

Woody Allen               (AP/Matt Sayles)
Woody Allen (AP/Matt Sayles)

I don't know if Woody Allen is a child molester or not. I wish I did. I wish there were a definitive way of knowing for sure, and then the appropriate participants involved could have justice and resolution. I wish these things were easier than a Team Woody or Team Farrow tweet. But the murky truths behind an accusation of sexual abuse aren't always clear-cut.

After 20 years of relative quiet, the questions over Allen's alleged behavior first erupted again last month after the director was celebrated at the Golden Globes, and both Allen's former partner Mia Farrow and their son Ronan took their case to social media. Ms. Farrow noted on Twitter, "A woman has publicly detailed Woody Allen's molestation of her at age 7. Golden Globe tribute showed contempt for her & all abuse survivors," while Ronan asked, "Missed the Woody Allen tribute – did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?" But the story really took off over the past weekend, when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof turned his space over to Allen and Farrow's daughter Dylan so she could tell her side of the story.

In her open letter, Dylan Farrow states clearly, "When I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me." She goes on to say that "For as long as I could remember, my father had been doing things to me that I didn’t like….These things happened so often, so routinely, so skillfully hidden from a mother that would have protected me had she known, that I thought it was normal." Allen meanwhile has called the letter "untrue and disgraceful."

What unfurled after the younger Ms. Farrow's letter was a storm of passionate and utterly certain responses from both sides of the "Did he or didn't he?" camp. Social media sentiment ran strongly in favor of Ms. Farrow's account of events. Lena Dunham tweeted, "To share in this way is courageous, powerful and generous. Please read." Writing in Salon, Roxane Gay said, "I know I would rather stand where I stand and eventually be proven wrong than support Woody Allen and eventually be proven wrong." On "Morning Joe" Monday, Mika Brzezinski looked at the evidence against Allen and declared, damningly, "He married his adoptive daughter when his wife found out they were having an affair." (Farrow and Allen were never married, and Soon-Yi Previn was never his adoptive daughter, but who cares, it's just television news, right?)

In his accompanying comments to Dylan Farrow's letter, Nicholas Kristof, who is a friend of Mia and Ronan Farrow, says, "None of us can be certain what happened." But he makes his point of view very clear when he declares, "The Golden Globes sided with Allen, in effect accusing Dylan either of lying or of not mattering. That’s the message that celebrities in film, music and sports too often send to abuse victims." But without certainty of "what really happened," there can be no certainty if someone is an "abuse victim."

Allen's defenders have been outspoken too. Robert Weide, who made a 2012 documentary about Allen, wrote a lengthy piece in the Daily Beast titled "The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast." In it he outlined a chronology of both Allen's relationship with his now wife Soon-Yi Previn and the accusations of sexual abuse of Dylan, including the inconsistencies in the narrative, apparent editing of Dylan Farrow's original videotaped claims, and Allen and Farrow's third child Moses' current assessment of the incident as "brainwashing."

Speaking on "The View" Monday, Barbara Walters came to Allen's defense, calling him a loving father. And writing in the Guardian, columnist Michael Wolff smarmily insinuated that the allegations have resurfaced "to establish Mia Farrow as a celebrity activist worthy of the world stage, and, as well, to launch a public career for her son Ronan." He went on to cynically declare, "In return for laudatory press coverage of her charitable work, and near sycophantic treatment of her yet-to-be-employed son, she would have had to agree to revisit her legendary scandal. That, and then some. The price of publicity for her and Ronan was, in effect, Allen." In other words, there's plenty of misinformation and emotion to go around on all sides.

I'm no Woody Allen apologist. I'm not even much a fan of his movies. I love "Annie Hall" and own a beautiful print of the opening lines of "Manhattan," but I haven't paid money to see one of his films in over 20 years. On the personal front, I think any man in his 50s who takes up with his girlfriend's teenage daughter – the sibling of his own three children -- is pretty goddamn creepy. But I know being creepy alone doesn’t make someone a pedophile. In fact, as Ayelet Waldman mused aloud on Twitter, being involved with a teenager and molesting a child are "2 different pathologies."

I also think Mia Farrow has her own history of unusual behavior around her family and her conflict with Allen. In 1992, one month after she learned Allen was involved with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, she allegedly bestowed Allen with "an ornate Victorian Valentine meticulously adorned with a photograph of Ms. Farrow and her children in the center. The picture included the three children she and Mr. Allen share, as well as Soon-Yi. Ms. Farrow had stuck steel turkey skewers through the hearts of the children and she had carefully slid a steak knife into her own heart." In 2005, she testified on behalf of Roman Polanski in his libel suit against Vanity Fair. Roman Polanski, by the way, is a man who has unambiguously pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl who has steadfastly maintained he drugged, raped and sodomized her.

The allegations Dylan Farrow details in her open letter first became public in the context of a brutal custody battle, mere months after Allen's relationship with Previn became known. As the Times reported at the time, "while a team of experts concluded that Dylan was not abused, the judge said he found the evidence inconclusive." A prosecutor said the case was cause for "grave concern" but never charged Allen.

There are things we know. We know Roman Polanski is a convicted sex offender who fled from justice. We know that Jimmy Savile got away with decades of systematic sexual abuse of multiple girls and boys. We know the Catholic Church spent years and years, and millions of dollars covering up for the child molesters in its ranks. And we can believe whatever we believe about Woody Allen and his daughter, but we don't know what truly transpired. For now, I lean toward the stance of a friend who recently summarized the entire Allen-Farrow debate as "an awful, messy, murky situation involving two people who seem like crazy, dreadful parents."

As my friend Chez Pazienza wrote over the weekend, there can be no question that Dylan Farrow is a woman firmly convinced of what happened to her. But for the rest of us, he writes, "We’ll never know whether the events she recalls as searing memories really happened in the way she describes." And that is the rub. You can believe she is telling the truth, or you can believe she is lying, or you believe she is telling the truth as she recalls it, perhaps recounting something that's eminently real to her but that may not have happened in that way at all.

Enough of Allen's personal life is public record that I have plenty of my own judgments about his behavior and his choices. I think the judge who long ago declared he had "no parenting skills that would qualify him as an adequate custodian" was on the money. But I also think that for a person to be accused of a crime is not the same as him being guilty of committing it. And there's no certainty, there's no satisfaction, in there. There's just the uneasy space outside of it. The space where so many of these kinds of stories of alleged abuse resides. Not in obvious villains and victims. In the dreadful, gnawing place of doubt.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Catholic Church Sex Abuse Dylan Farrow Jimmy Savile Mia Farrow Ronan Farrow Sex Abuse Woody Allen