Too often, we have deferred to the powerful and doubted the weak, creating impunity and injustice.
Four years ago, when Woody Allen was given a lifetime achievement award by the Golden Globes, Dylan Farrow curled up in a ball on her bed, crying hysterically. Then she wrote an open letter for my blog (nobody else seemed to want to publish it) describing how, when she was 7 years old, Allen allegedly sexually assaulted her.
“That he got away with what he did to me haunted me as I grew up,” she wrote. “I was terrified of being touched by men. I developed an eating disorder. I began cutting myself. That torment was made worse by Hollywood.”
We now know that Hollywood was hiding many such secrets, and was quite uninterested in accountability for powerful bullies. After she bared her soul, Dylan was met with much “vitriol and disbelief,” as she put it.
“There were days when I thought, ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake, I should never have opened my mouth,’ ” Dylan told me the other day.
But in the last few months, the #MeToo movement has changed that. “I am so sorry, Dylan,” Mira Sorvino wrote. Ellen Page declared, “I did a Woody Allen movie, and it is the biggest regret of my career.” Actors are donating earnings from Woody Allen movies to sexual-assault organizations, and Amazon is said to be considering canceling its distribution of his movies.
All this has been “incredibly healing,” Dylan said.
Frank Maco, the Connecticut prosecutor who oversaw the case in the 1990s, told me that he watched Dylan recently on “CBS This Morning” and was impressed by how the little girl had grown up to be “strong and determined.” He reiterated what he had said at the time: that he had probable cause to bring a criminal case against Allen (who was Dylan’s adoptive father) but couldn’t justify putting a fragile child through a brutal trial.
Maco added that both Dylan and her mother, Mia Farrow, had appeared to be honorable and truthful. “Mia Farrow acted as nothing more than a concerned mother,” he said. “There was no indication that this was a fabricated story.”
I’m a friend of Dylan and her family, so I’m not an unbiased observer. But over the years, I have reviewed the evidence, and on balance it persuades me. The most important contrary point is that an evaluation team from Yale New Haven Hospital concluded that Allen had not sexually abused Dylan, but it was sharply criticized by other experts. Meanwhile, the New York judge in the Mia Farrow-Woody Allen child custody case ruled that although he couldn’t be sure whether the sexual assault itself had occurred, “Mr. Allen’s behavior toward Dylan was grossly inappropriate.”
That judge, Elliott Wilk, noted that on the day of the alleged assault, a baby-sitter saw Allen with his head on Dylan’s lap, facing her body. A tutor soon afterward found that Dylan wasn’t wearing her underwear. And nobody has explained where Dylan and Allen went when they both disappeared as the baby-sitter was searching for them — except Dylan, who says that that’s when the assault happened.
Meanwhile, it turns out that Allen’s private notes over the decades are “filled with misogynist and lecherous musings,” showing “an insistent, vivid obsession with young women and girls,” according to Richard Morgan, who sifted through Allen’s 56-box archive and recounted his findings in The Washington Post.
There is always a risk that meticulous scrutiny of a long career leads to cherry-picking and finding whatever we’re looking for, especially for somebody trying to be creative and funny. I reached out to Allen through his publicist but did not receive a response. He has consistently denied the allegations of abuse, and in October he warned against allowing “a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere.”
Indeed, the certainty of the Dylan Farrow case is that there has been a gross injustice: Either an innocent man’s career is being destroyed, or a victim has been unfairly doubted since she confided in her pediatrician about an assault when she was 7 years old.
I asked Dylan whether there was any chance that this was a false memory, that she had been brainwashed.
“No,” she said flatly. “I think it’s more logical almost that the people who accuse me of being brainwashed are brainwashed themselves by the celebrity, the glamour, the fantasy, the pull they have to Woody Allen, their hero on a pedestal.”
The larger point, she said, is not her own suffering over the years, but the need to listen to victims.
That’s where we have systematically failed — with gymnasts, with Harvey Weinstein’s victims, with the Catholic Church and with innumerable girls and boys suffering anonymously at the hands of abusive coaches, relatives, family friends or bosses. One demographer’s new estimate is that at least three-fourths of women worldwide have been sexually harassed.
Yes, false accusations happen, and we must struggle to balance rights of victims against those of the accused — but it should be obvious now that we haven’t gotten that balance nearly right. Too often, we have deferred to the powerful and doubted the weak, creating impunity and injustice.
The problem is not only abusers but more broadly a society that often disbelieves or scorns those crying for help, like that young woman curled up on her bed crying during the Golden Globes. I’ll leave her with the last word:
“What needs to change,” she said, with a teary firmness that comes from 25 years of pain, “is our response.”