Crimes and misdemeanors: Woody Allen and what we get wrong about sexual abuse

Whether Woody Allen is guilty or not, response to the allegations against him reveals a wealth of misconceptions

Published February 6, 2014 1:00PM (EST)

THE MORNING AFTER Woody Allen was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, his son Ronan Farrow tweeted a question that re-awakened inquiry into the sexual abuse allegations made against the director more than 20 years ago.

“[D]id they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?” Ronan now-famously posed to his followers.

Like many people, I immediately fell down the rabbit hole. I’ve spent hours reading and thinking about the allegations that Allen had molested his daughter Dylan and sorting through my own and others’ reactions to those allegations. So many of us have a personal stake in this matter. The issue has particular resonance for me because of my own history with child sexual abuse.

When I was between the ages of four and five, I was molested repeatedly by a cousin in his late teens who had come to live with my family. I told a friend about it when I was 12, having by then gained some language to express the facts of what happened if not my feelings about it, and I told a few other people over the years as I continued to try to make sense of the past, but I never quite got a firm grip on it. The vivid memories and their implications lurked like the sea cucumbers I spied on the sea floor the first time I went scuba diving—mysterious and disgusting things I didn’t want my skin to come in contact with, something to hold my breath and paddle away from.

By early adulthood I had grown into a reasonably well-adjusted person who had positive experiences with sex and romance, and although I had a particular interest in the dark side of life, I mostly didn’t want to dwell on this shadowy chapter of my own. I was very aware of the way those marked as victims were viewed by society—with kid gloves and pity on the one hand, with skepticism and dismissal on the other.

My attitude changed in my early thirties, when I learned that the boy who did this to me was now a man facing trial for molesting another little girl around the same age I had been. This news affected me profoundly. I had two overwhelming senses: a huge amount of guilt for not stopping the violation somehow, and a terrible relief that the crime was externalized, given life outside my own head. The charges against him were proof that something very bad had happened to me, and that it wasn’t allowed. As strange as this might sound, these things hadn’t always been perfectly clear to me.

My cousin was sent to prison. Although the accuser and the child would later recant, the courts maintained their original ruling. I ordered the hearing transcripts and read the original accusations, the medical and legal reports, and the child’s statements. These only reaffirmed my certainty that the original charges were correct, and I was grateful that the verdict held. I know charges of abuse are not always—are seldom— resolved clearly in the eyes of the law. Most never make it anywhere near a court.

For the past several years, I’ve been writing a book about my own experience, and in the process I’ve spent time researching child sexual assault, with a particular focus on how societal views of it have changed over the past 40 years. Having quickly gained a lot of emotionally charged knowledge, I sometimes feel overfull with it, as if it might seep out of my body involuntarily, burped like a gas. I’ve encountered certain facts so often that sometimes I assume much of what I’ve learned is common knowledge and doesn’t bear repeating. However, the current heated conversation around Woody Allen reveals I’m wrong about this. Many people’s assumptions about abuse in general are relatively unexamined and have basis in understandings that have shifted in the last 20 years or so, as more research in the field has been done and legal and therapeutic approaches have evolved.

Allen was accused of molestation during the custody case resulting from his split with Mia Farrow, which was prompted by Farrow’s discovery of Allen’s relationship with her 19-year old daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Due to the celebrity status and personal histories of the people involved, there’s no doubt that the allegations trail behind them an unusually baroque weave of complexities. I’m going to try to put aside for a moment the question of whether Allen actually molested his daughter or whether he should continue to receive accolades and awards if that is true. Instead, I’m going to present some typical responses to the accusations against him, gleaned from the thousands of comments I’ve read, and examine the way they mirror reactions to child sex abuse in general and reveal some common misperceptions.


Ignorance: Many people reacted to Ronan Farrow’s tweet as I did, with a big giantWhat? Up until that moment, we’d had no idea that Allen had ever been accused of molesting his young daughter, despite the fact that it was public knowledge. Some in this camp are surprised that there wasn’t a bigger bang, an exploding ink stain from a tampered-with clothing tag that would be impossible to miss, even to those who weren’t paying close attention.

Similarly, most of us don’t know how many victims and perpetrators of child sex abuse walk in our midst. Estimates are that one in four girls and one in six boys have been sexually abused. Most of these instances are not discovered or disclosed when they occur (the average age at which victims disclose is 12 years after the event), but some are. And although many of us assume that once discovered, such a crime will trigger a strong response—that surely we’d hear about it within our community, situations would be changed, charges would be brought, protection or therapy would be offered to the children—very often, that’s not the case. Families frequently deflect the knowledge when it’s presented or accuse the accuser, and, although there’s been improvement in the last five years or so, institutions have commonly turned a blind eye—think of Penn State, Horace Mann, the Catholic Church.

Told Ya So: Some people responded to the resurfaced allegations by stating their negative opinion of Woody Allen and his work: I loathe his movies; I tried and I tried but I never could stand Annie Hall; I always thought he was such a creep, getting the young pretty girl like a trophy. These comments suggest that Allen’s art hinted that something gross was wrong with him, and so whether or not the commenter had been aware of the specific accusations, he or (usually) she is not surprised by them.

Indeed, seen in one light, Allen, with his thick glasses, high-waisted pants, and pasty complexion, does fit a stereotypical image of a child molester, the maladjusted pocket-puller lurking on the edges of the playground. But while some child molesters do fit this mold—the extracurricular coach at my son’s school who was booted for inappropriate behavior actually did wear bottle-bottom glasses and radiate something strange—in fact most abuse is perpetuated by a person a child knows well and trusts, and who is widely viewed as “normal” or even exemplary. Approximately 90 percent of child sex abuse is committed by a family member of the victim or someone known and trusted by the victim’s family. A certain icky dweebiness combined with a trench coat is not a clear indication of anything, and our Spidey sense isn’t either.

When we believe that we’ll sense a child molester when we see one, it can be harder to recognize and act clearly when reality doesn’t fit our expectations. It can be harder, even, to recognize what is abuse, or might be leading there: That’s just fondling. Just stay away from him when when you’re by yourself. I’ll keep an eye out, but I don’t think he means anything by it. Indeed, accounts of the Allen-Farrow family in a 1992 Vanity Fair profile make it sound like this was the dynamic around Allen’s relationship with Dylan years before there was discord between him and Farrow.

Separation: People who do like, or love, Allen’s work often argue that we should separate the art from the artist. I don’t disagree; especially if we are able to do the reverse, and separate the artist from the art, not grant him any greater benefit of the doubt than we would another human. But we have to acknowledge that this is difficult, just as it’s difficult for us to recognize warning signs or baldly stated declarations of inappropriate behavior when they concern someone we know, trust, love, admire, or depend on to pay the bills and keep things running smoothly. If we like the art, if we like the love or the family unit or the school community or just generally the way things are, we can feel guilty if the person at the center of it has committed a heinous crime. Shouldn’t I have been able to see that or sense it? How could I have let him in? kept dropping her off? To avoid those personal feelings of guilt, we can get extra invested in casting doubt on or minimizing the allegations. When that’s not possible, we can conveniently forget about them. Look how many celebrities, including Mia Farrow, have supported Roman Polanski in various ways since he pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a child under 14. Look how many families continue to invite the pedophile to gatherings.

Innocence: Some people believe that in the case of Woody Allen, there’s no need to separate the art from the artist because the artist is innocent; or, at the very least, he should be regarded as such until proven guilty. Director Robert B. Weide, a friend of Allen’s, wrote an essay on The Daily Beast in late January that has been widely referenced by those in this camp. As Weide points out, the abuse was investigated as part of the custody hearing, and the team found no evidence of wrongdoing. No criminal charges were ever pressed. This part of the story is enormously complex—the battle raged for years, and various judges and prosecutors and teams and committees ruled various ways. (If you’re going to read Weide, you also have to read Maureen Orth’s November Vanity Fair feature on Mia Farrow that goes into detail about the lead-up to and aftermath of the accusation.) Many people argue that those of us on the outside looking in can’t be privy to what happened, so we have no choice but to let the matter go in the absence of a legal ruling. They say Woody Allen should be free to move through the world without these old accusations being lobbed at his head again and again.

As I was writing this essay, Dylan Farrow published an open letter to The New York Times in which she tells her story of the abuse and its aftermath. She’d already been quoted at length about it in Orth’s recent Vanity Fair article, including the devastating effect it had on her to feel disbelieved, but I thought that the urgency of a dedicated letter appearing in the midst of the reawakened controversy might shift perceptions. Based on the comments I’ve read on dozens of response pieces posted since, it appears that it largely did not. Those who believe that Allen is innocent, or at least may well be, continue to argue that the allegations against him were part of an extremely contentious custody battle. They point out that Farrow had recently discovered Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi and was enraged at him at the time she made the recording of Dylan stating what Allen had done to her, which became a big part of their custody trial. They say Farrow could have coached Dylan into making the accusations, that the coaching of a suggestible child could be so effective that, even as an adult, she remains deluded about her own experience.

None of that is impossible, but it’s far less likely than people seem to believe.

It’s a common assumption that accusations of sex abuse are frequently used as a weapon, especially in contentious custody battles, and that an aggrieved mother can turn a child against a father. To many people, this possibility seems obvious. For example, a number of people have stated that as soon as they learned that the charges brought against Allen happened after Farrow found the nude pictures of her older daughter in his home, they questioned Dylan’s veracity. Judges themselves are likely to be on high alert for false accusations brought during a custody hearing. However, research shows that it is not more common for accusations made during custody battles to be proved false than it is for any other sex abuse accusation, which is to say that it’s not very common at all. “Most studies show that only between 1% and 6% of allegations are maliciously fabricated,” according to a well-documented fact sheet by Child Abuse Solutions. The few accusations that are proved groundless are more than 15 times more likely to be brought by fathers than by mothers, who research shows make only 1.3% of the small number of custody-related malicious accusations that exist.

Research also shows that children are not nearly so suggestible on the topic of sex abuse as previously believed, especially school-aged children. In the past 40 years, children’s testimony has gone from being inadmissible in a court of law to being not only allowed as evidence but sometimes used as the sole evidence in cases involving sex abuse, which is notoriously difficult to prove (physical proof is rarely present even in cases of vaginal penetration).

Child testimony is a complicated area and legal and psychological experts take it seriously. Research is ongoing. One thing studies have revealed is that some inconsistency is common when children are questioned repeatedly about sexual assault. Twenty-three percent of all children who disclose sexual abuse recant at some point in the investigations. As pointed out by Weide and others who cast doubt on her reliability, Dylan was among this group—during one early questioning session with a doctor, she pointed to her shoulders rather than her genitals when she was asked where Allen had touched her. But the research shows that the large majority of those who recant had been telling the truth when they first told of abuse—that embarrassment, confusion, shame, and fear of consequences can lead them to back off temporarily, and that this is especially likely to happen when the accused is a parent held in low-esteem by the non-offending parent.

Similarly, doubt has been cast on Dylan’s statements because of her affect in some of the recordings made of her as a child—she’s said to seem uninterested and bored, stiff, coached. Children’s advocates point out that although we might expect children’s testimony about sex abuse to be highly emotional and involve expressions of anger, shame, and pain, this is often not the case, especially when the abuse has occurred at the hands of someone close to child. Depression can flatten a victim’s response. Today, in an enlightened courtroom, a temporary retraction of an account of sexual assault and a deadened responsiveness under investigation would probably not be enough to cast doubt on a testimony.

Of course, this case never was tried in an enlightened courtroom or any other criminal court. A guilty verdict in a child sex abuse case can ruin a person’s life, and so extreme care must be taken in arriving at it. And it’s dangerous for the public to see itself as an extension of the law. But despite the fact that we shouldn’t be the ones holding Allen and Dylan’s fate in our hands—and we aren’t, especially when it comes to Allen—I still think our thoughts and opinions on this story matter. When we eventually turn away again from the gaudy celebrity pileup, whatever side we have come down upon, if any, it’s important to remember something: research shows that if a child discloses sexual abuse, chances are very, very good that no matter how young he or she is, how angry his or her parent is at the accused, how numb or stiff he or she seems discussing it, how willing she or he is to back off from the claim at any one point, how little physical evidence there is, that child is probably telling the truth.

Ick: Plenty of people just don’t want to wallow in this kind of mud, and if they’ve dipped their toes in it accidentally during the last few weeks, they’re anxious to wash it off. They point out that we’re talking about an inconclusive hearing for something extremely distasteful that happened very long ago to an overrated neurotic/cultural treasure. Let’s look away, and keep ourselves clean. That’s what I ended up doing 20-some years ago during the public breakdown of Allen and Farrow’s relationship, and why the accusations regarding Dylan came as a surprise to me now. And that’s what, although we swear we wouldn’t, many of us will do again when the suggestion of child sex abuse rises from the ocean floor and hovers just beneath the surface of our lives—which it very well may, especially for those of us with children. I suspect this is true even of people who make impassioned declarations about what should happen to Woody Allen’s penis and where he should rot for how long. I think encountering child sexual abuse up close is what being in battle must be like, or otherwise coming face-to-face with the imminent prospect of one’s own demise: no matter how much you might have planned for the moment, you don’t know how you’re going to react until it’s upon you, very likely looking nothing at all like you had imagined.

When Orth’s Vanity Fair piece came out in November, the big cultural takeaway was that Ronan Farrow, handsome soon-to-be talk show host, might be Frank Sinatra’s son. The several pages of the article devoted to reexamining the sex abuse allegation and featuring Dylan’s first public words on the matter were largely ignored, at least according to my headline surfing and social media feeds. It appeared the world was happy to let the accusations against Allen stay under the rug where they’d been swept in the ’90s, even if his alleged victim was an adult now and could offer something new on the topic. It took Allen’s lifetime achievement award and sharp words from Mr. Maybe Blue Eyes Jr. to focus public attention back on the horrible things that a young girl said were done to her by her famous father.

We can be absolutely sure about very little in most cases of sexual assault. This particular case will never be settled in any legal sense or to many people’s satisfaction. But by being willing to look at this uncomfortable picture and to monitor our own responses to what we see, we have the chance to learn.

In her letter, Dylan Farrow said something that struck me. “That he got away with what he did to me haunted me as I grew up. I was stricken with guilt that I had allowed him to be near other little girls,” she wrote. I have lived with a similar guilt. I am very grateful to her for drawing heat to herself and increasing the conversation around this difficult issue, because I’m optimistic that the more attention that is paid to child sexual assault, the better results there will be for more children in the end.

By Zoe Zolbrod

Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir "The Telling" and the novel "Currency." Her essays have appeared in Salon, Stir Journal, The Weeklings, The Manifest Station, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Rumpus, where she is currently the Sunday co-editor. Born in Western Pennsylvania, she now lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband and two children.

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Child Abuse Dylan Farrow Mia Farrow Sexual Abuse The Weeklings Vanity Fair Woody Allen