Woody Allen’s Innocence Should Be A Feminist Cause
The push to declare that #TimesUp for Woody Allen has been gaining traction. Jeff Daniels, who starred in Allen’s 1985 film “Purple Rose of Cairo,” and Peter Sarsgaard, who appeared in “Blue Jasmine,” have just joined the list of actors publicly siding with his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow, who has called for Allen’s shunning based on her accusation that he molested her when she was seven. Natalie Portman also reiterated her support for Dylan in a much-praised recent Buzzfeed interview, pointedly refusing to voice regret at the apparent end of Allen’s career.
Yet the recent debates suggest that the harsh judgment on Allen is less about facts than about the commandment of the #MeToo moment: “Thou shalt believe women.” And the complex realities of this case make it clear that such dogma is not a path to justice.
I did not expect to revisit this story so soon after my column last month about the allegations against Allen. But the Twitter exchanges that followed led me to more research on the events of 1992-1993, when Allen was first accused of sexually assaulting his and Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, and to some largely overlooked facts and details that favor his claim of innocence.
Perhaps the most striking forgotten facts have to do with the chronology of the Allen/Farrow breakup and the allegation of sexual abuse.
The alleged assault on Dylan was reported on August 5, 1992—about eight months after Farrow had found out that Allen was sleeping with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Given this gap, New Yorker editor Jessica Winter has argued that “the timeline of the events” undercuts Allen’s claim that the accusation was a product of rage and revenge.
But the real timeline is a bit more complicated. Surprisingly, Allen’s and Farrow’s 12-year relationship did not end at once after her discovery of the affair. Instead, Allen assured Farrow it was over between him and Soon-Yi. Both were reluctant to give up their professional collaboration, and as Farrow later told Oprah Winfrey, she still loved Allen at the time. (Marion Meade’s biography, “The Unruly Life of Woody Allen,” published in 2000 with an updated edition in 2014, provides a good overview of this time period.) While things between Allen and Farrow grew increasingly strained, it was not until June 1992, about seven months after Farrow first found out about Allen’s infidelity with Soon-Yi, that they publicly confirmed their breakup.
Just one month after their public break-up, in early July, Farrow was horrified to find out that Allen and Soon-Yi were not finished after all. Soon-Yi, then about 21 (her exact birth year is unknown), had left her job as a summer-camp counselor and returned to New York. Farrow also learned from camp administrators that Soon-Yi had received frequent calls to the camp office from a man who was obviously Allen using a fake name.
Dr. Susan Coates, the psychologist who had been seeing Allen, Farrow, and their children since 1990, later testified in the child custody case that Farrow called her on August 1 to rail against Allen. According to Dr. Coates, Farrow called him “satanic and evil” and pleaded with Coates to “find a way to stop him.”
Four days later, Farrow called again—this time to say that Dylan had reported being sexually abused by Allen.
Thus, the accusation against Allen came swiftly on the heels of Farrow finding out that Allen was still involved with Soon-Yi, a revelation that by all accounts left Farrow shattered and enraged.
Another bizarre episode took place in mid-July, some three weeks before the day Allen allegedly molested Dylan. At Dylan’s seventh birthday party at Farrow’s Connecticut home, Farrow got angry at Allen for “hovering” over Dylan too much, by which she meant that he had stood behind Dylan and helped her blow out the candles on the cake.
The morning after the party, Allen, who had stayed at the house overnight, found a note in Farrow’s handwriting pinned to the door of the guest bathroom near his room. It read, “Child Molestor (sic) at Birthday Party! Molded then abused one sister now focused on youngest sister Family disgusted”
So, three weeks before the alleged molestation of Dylan, Farrow called Allen a child molester, explicitly projecting his sexual relationship with Soon-Yi onto his father-daughter relationship with Dylan.
This incident clearly shows that the two issues were tied in Farrow’s mind. It also lends extra weight to a key argument in Allen’s defense: that he’d have to be suicidal to choose that particular time and place to molest Dylan. Not only was he in hostile territory, but he had been put on notice that Farrow already saw him as a suspect for that very crime.
Of course, this doesn’t prove Allen’s innocence. People sometimes do extremely irrational things. But it is certainly a factor in judging the probability of his guilt. What’s more, these circumstances provide some context for a fact often mentioned as corroboration of abuse: the testimony of Alison Stickland.
Stickland, a babysitter for Farrow’s neighbor and longtime friend Casey Pascal, was at the Farrow home with Pascal’s children that afternoon while Farrow and Pascal were out shopping. Later that evening, she told Pascal that she had seen something that alarmed her: When she walked into the television room, Allen was “kneeling in front of Dylan with his head in her lap facing her body” while Dylan sat on the couch “staring vacantly” at the TV. It was Pascal’s call the next day that prompted Farrow to question Dylan.
It’s impossible to know, especially from a 25-year distance, whether Stickland saw something compromising or misread something innocent. But if the people around Farrow were primed to see Allen as a sexual predator, the babysitter’s reaction could certainly have been influenced by these suspicions.
To be sure, the incident with the note can also be interpreted far less favorably to Allen: as confirmation that Farrow had long had suspicions about his behavior with Dylan (despite allowing him to legally adopt her in 1991). But a closer look at the record suggests that much of the narrative of Allen’s alleged erotic obsession with little Dylan is based on distortions and omissions.
For instance, the 1992 Vanity Fair feature “Mia’s Story” by Maureen Orth asserts that “Woody, wearing just underwear, would take Dylan to bed with him and entwine his body around hers” and “would have her suck his thumb.” These claims, from “sources” close to Farrow, are presented in a way that not only makes Allen’s behavior sound creepily sexualized, but implies all this was happening around the time Allen and Farrow began to see Dr. Coates—when Dylan was five—and perhaps later as well.
And yet the summary of facts in the custody ruling by Judge Elliott Wilk, who was anything but friendly to Allen, offers a far more benign version of his conduct even while noting that it upset Farrow. The document states that during a trip to Paris together, Farrow was bothered by Allen “spending his play-time in bed with Dylan, by his reading to her in his bed while dressed in his undershorts, and by his permitting her to suck his thumb.” Dylan was then between two and three years old.
Or take the notion that Allen was in therapy with Dr. Coates for “inappropriate behavior” toward Dylan at the time of the abuse allegation. I myself, in my last column, repeated the inaccurate claim that the counseling was initiated because of such behavior. In fact, documents from the case show, Allen and Farrow had begun seeing Dr. Coates because of issues with their son Satchel and his lack of bonding with Allen. (Satchel is now journalist Ronan Farrow, semi-acknowledged by Mia Farrow to be the biological son of the late Frank Sinatra.) Later on, the therapy extended to Allen’s interaction with Dylan. While testifying at the custody trial, Dr. Coates explicitly stated she did not see anything sexual in this interaction; she simply felt that the affection Allen lavished on Dylan was too intense, making excessive demands on her and excluding the other children.
The investigations and legal proceedings that followed the accusation are a very tangled web, with no resolutions and with far more questions than answers.
For instance: Orth’s 2014 listicle of “10 undeniable facts” about the abuse allegation states that “Allen refused to take a polygraph administered by the Connecticut state police.” Yet Allen’s lead attorney at the time, Elkan Abramowitz, issued an emphatic denial by email in response to my query. “The answer,” Abramowitz wrote, “is a categorical no: he was neither asked, nor did he refuse, to take a polygraph test administered by the Connecticut State Police.” When I contacted Orth to ask for the source of the information, she replied in an email that it “came from multiple sources and was fact checked (sic) by Vanity Fair.” (Allen passed a lie detector test administered by a prominent examiner hired by his own legal team, Paul Minor.)
There’s also the question of why Connecticut prosecutor Frank Maco, who famously declared that he had enough evidence to charge Allen, decided not to go ahead with the case. Maco said he did not want to further traumatize Dylan; but it is also likely that he knew the odds of a conviction were not good. In his ruling on the custody suit, Judge Wilk wrote that “the evidence suggests that it is unlikely [Allen](though adding that he was not certain abuse did not occur “Allen”) by Andy Thibault in Connecticut Magazine, highly sympathetic to Maco and hostile to Allen, quoted Maco as saying that he could not get Dylan to talk about the abuse after the Yale-New Haven clinic investigation and that she would not have made a good witness.
The expert opinion was mostly on Allen’s side. Both Dr. Coates and Dr. Nancy Schultz, a clinical psychologist who had also treated Dylan, believed she had not been sexually abused. (Judge Wilk speculated that their judgment was “colored by their loyalty” to Allen, who had paid their bills in the past; but it should be noted that loyalty notwithstanding, Dr. Schultz did not support Allen’s custody bid.)
There is, of course, the Yale-New Haven Hospital Child Sexual Abuse Clinic report, which concluded that Dylan had not been sexually abused. While detractors have faulted it for discrediting Dylan’s account because of minor inconsistencies in her statements at different times, the head of the team, Dr. John Leventhal, testified that the discrepancies were quite substantial. He also noted that whenever Dylan spoke of the alleged abuse, it was always in the context of voicing her distress about her father’s relationship with Soon-Yi and about “her poor mother.”
New York Child Welfare also dismissed the abuse charge; but this episode, too, goes to show what a rabbit hole this case is. The original caseworker, Paul Williams, claimed that there had been pressure from City Hall to clear Allen, and that he was reassigned because he wouldn’t play along. (New York City officials investigated these allegations, with no results.)
Was Williams—whose work on the case had taken some odd directions, such as entirely baseless inquiries about possible teenage incest between Allen and his sister—a gutsy whistleblower or an out-of-control zealot? It’s one of this story’s many unanswered questions.
Obviously, this is just a brief overview of a multilayered story that would take a book to tell with any degree of completeness. (Some key details were brought to my attention by David Fuchs, an eccentric but well-informed Internet sleuth whose insights are much appreciated. For full disclosure: Fuchs made a modest donation to my crowdfunding account for independent journalism.)
None of this settles the question of whether the allegations against Allen are false. In my view, the most probable scenario is that none of the principals are lying: Allen did not sexually molest Dylan, but both Dylan and Mia Farrow sincerely believe he did.
But ambiguity and nuance get lost in the tide of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Portman talks about the importance of “believing women about their own experience;” Rebecca Hall, who has expressed regret for working in two recent Allen films and donated her wages, says that we may never know the truth but it’s enough for her that “a woman felt indirectly invalidated” by her choices.
Anyone who says she or he was a victim deserves to be heard. But no one has an absolute right to be believed or publicly validated. People, including women, do (sometimes) lie about sexual assault. People, including women but especially children, do have false memories of sexual abuse. If the truth of an allegation can never be known, why is “invalidating” one side worse than invalidating the other?
One irony of this saga is that the 1990s version of gender politics played a role in the original case. Judge Wilk, known as a champion of progressive causes, took explicit umbrage at Allen’s suggestion that the accusation was a product of Mia Farrow’s vindictiveness, calling it “the stereotypical ‘woman scorned’ defense.” (By this logic, one could condemn the allegation against Allen as invoking stereotypes of the lascivious Jew defiling a fair-haired gentile girl.)
In the 2010s, a much more powerful feminist wave has turned the tide against Allen. Even before #MeToo, in 2016, Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Robert Weide could not get any mainstream outlet to run his response to Ronan Farrow’s anti-Allen column in The Hollywood Reporter—apparently because editors felt Weide’s piece relied on “maligning Mia Farrow’s parenthood and character.” Never mind that questions about Farrow’s character are highly relevant to the case.
The imperative to believe and support women is not feminism—at least, it’s not if feminism is about gender equality, rather than putting women on a new pedestal. And it is certainly not justice.
Besides, those who support the presumption of innocence are not just, as some charge, reflexively siding with men. I have also written in defense of day care workers, mainly women, whose lives were devastated by a child sex abuse panic in the 1980s (a panic victim feminists helped stoke). I have even defended Lena Dunham, whom I heartily dislike, when some weird sexual humor in her 2014 memoir “Not That Kind of Girl” was twisted into claims that she had molested her baby sister as a teen.
For some things, Allen deserves condemnation. I fully agree with Judge Wilk that his behavior in the Soon-Yi affair was reprehensible (though I think the judge was too soft on Mia Farrow). I too find it appalling that Allen never considered the likely harm to his children when he bedded their half-sister by adoption.
But I am writing in Allen’s defense for several reasons. As a human being and a citizen, I don’t like seeing people’s lives and careers destroyed by an accusation-equals-guilt mentality. As a feminist, I don’t like the idolatry of female victimhood.
And as a journalist, I believe that we should not be guided by the embrace of faith, but by the pursuit of truth.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and is the author of “Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.” Follow her on Twitter, @CathyYoung63.