HUGE TRIGGER WARNING: this post discuses childhood sex abuse in explicit terms. I will not shy away from detail, because rape culture feeds on silence. Sex abuse happens more often the less often we speak about it. Get prepared to be uncomfortable, or click away.
I was sexually abused as a child, and Woody Allen’s alleged abuse of his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow, is everywhere I turn, this week. Well, I have flashed back to my own horrible experience often enough to know that I can stand it, so I think that this time, I will put it to some use. I was once an abused child whose story was a central part of one of the ugliest divorces in history. You can take it from me, now that I have spent over a decade in therapy, processing all the feelings about all the memories and even all the gaps in my memory–
The Truth of what Woody Allen did to Dylan Farrow doesn’t matter. Not being members of a jury, we are under no obligation to look for guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Our obligation in this, as it always is with survivors of abuse, particularly children, is simple: we must listen to their stories.
Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times, has given us a chance to do just that by publishing An Open Letter From Dylan Farrow. The letter relates, in a few stark words, Dylan Farrow’s childhood sexual abuse by Woody Allen and her life since his very public breakup with her mother, Mia Farrow. And here is what shocks me, every time I think about it–this is the first time the public has heard from Dylan, herself.
Woody Allen has long enjoyed a platform as wide as the world to express every last feeling he has ever had. Dylan Farrow has had just under 1,000 words in one column in one newspaper. Why are so many people concerned with the repercussions of those words on his life? Why can we not stop to look, for just a moment, at hers?
It’s a common refrain that sex abuse should be “dealt with” quietly, lest the accusation damage the reputation of the (insert the implication: falsely) accused. But it doesn’t play out that way. Even before we find out whether the victim is telling the truth, and we rarely do, the accused almost always simply moves on with life, as though it had never happened. How many public allegations of rape or abuse have ruined the abuser’s life? R. Kelly’s pedophilia is a now a joke for late-night comedy, and his Wikipedia page has more details about his throat surgery than about the dozens of accusations of statutory rape and possession of or solicitation of child pornography made against him (note: he was fount not guilty one case that made it to court, and another was dropped after a judge ruled that the police did not have probable cause for the search that revealed the photos of underage girls on his digital camera). Kobe Bryant still plays for the Lakers, and he’s better known for fathering Kim Kardashian’s child than for the accusation of rape made against him by a hotel employee in 2003. A freshman football player won the Heisman Trophy last year, even under the “shadow” of accusations of sexual assault. Roman Polanski pled guilty to statutory rape (she was 13, he was in his 40s) in order to reduce the charges against him, but fled before sentencing and simply stays out of the United States to avoid being arrested. He continues to make films and accept awards for them from abroad. Woody Allen remains married to a woman who was a girl, and his adopted daughter, when their sexual relationship began. These men all have the following in common: they have all won the highest accolades and awards achievable in their careers while under strong suspicion of having committed sex abuse.
Not only is Woody Allen nominated for an Academy Award, but his nomination has brought his former girlfriend, Mia Farrow, and the daughter he abused under harsh public scrutiny. For lying. Maybe. For manipulating “the truth” to get more money in an ugly separation. Maybe.
Whose lives have really been “ruined” by Dylan’s story having been made public? Which–the accuser or the accused–ends up holding the shame at the end of it all?
From Dylan’s perspective: “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. I was terrified of being touched by men. I developed an eating disorder. I began cutting myself. That torment was made worse by Hollywood. All but a precious few (my heroes) turned a blind eye. Most found it easier to accept the ambiguity, to say, ‘who can say what happened,’ to pretend that nothing was wrong.”
Unlike Allen and his defenders, Farrow does not ask her readers to believe her. She asks, instead, that we stop telling survivors of sexual abuse to “shut up and go away.” She explains that her first ever public statement has been prompted by Allen’s Academy Award nomination and the publicity that has come with it. She says that “For so long, Woody Allen’s acceptance [by the world] silenced me. It felt like a personal rebuke, like the awards and accolades were a way to tell me to shut up and go away. But the survivors of sexual abuse who have reached out to me – to support me and to share their fears of coming forward, of being called a liar, of being told their memories aren’t their memories – have given me a reason to not be silent, if only so others know that they don’t have to be silent either.”
That’s it. Her entire agenda. She just wants to talk about it. Why not? This all became public in 1993! Surely, we have had time enough to process the shock that we can now handle listening to Dylan.
Now, I told you that this case haunted me. Here’s a big reason why: guess what happened in my life, in 1993?
Yes, that’s right–I was sexually assaulted.
In October, 1993, my parents were separated, and my mother was dating a man she introduced to me as David. I was nine or ten years old (I’m not sure if it happened before my birthday, or after), and at some point later that evening, David used the “party” (there was almost never any alcohol in my house–they were probably meditating and burning incense in my hippie living room) as a cover, while he came back to my room. Somehow, I ended up on the floor, on my back. He touched my chest and nipples, and put his fingers inside my vagina. It hurt. I didn’t bleed. He was in my house only once. He was in my room for no more than ten minutes. I didn’t tell anyone. I know now that my mother never knew what happened, but when she came in later to check in on me, I felt shocked and betrayed that she couldn’t see how much I suffered.
My mother couldn’t see what had happened, of course, because my body bore no marks of any visible damage. I didn’t understand what had happened to me, let alone why it had happened or what I ought to feel about it. I didn’t understand why my father was living in a hotel, then an apartment. My parents’ separation had been sudden, because they had been fighting for years. I hadn’t noticed any distinct change. Then, my dad was just living somewhere else. It ripped my world apart. David, whose full name I have never even heard, took advantage of my broken world. I don’t remember considering telling anyone; I didn’t think or reason. I just held it inside. I survived. My secret eventually wrapped itself in a protective ball of rage, guilt and terror.
If you have ever felt fundamentally and truly unsafe, then you know this: rational thought disappears, when you are afraid that you will not survive.
I will explain, in my next post, why my secret couldn’t stay hidden and how it became involved in my parents’ horrifically ugly divorce, years after my assault took place. For now, I will simply say that this story is different from the story I used to tell. I suspect that a few of you reading this will be feeling surprise at how it has changed. The heart of my story remains true, and it is the same. An adult man violated me, when I was a child, for his own sexual gratification.
I don’t want coos of sympathy. The event itself was worked through years ago. Reliving it doesn’t even make me cry, anymore. Stories like Dylan’s break my heart, though, because they paint such a clear picture of the devastation we cause survivors of abuse, when we demand their silence. It is hard enough to live with the physical, emotional and psychological trauma caused by sexual assault, without asking that survivors defend our credibility, too.
Please, ask yourselves, why is it so automatic to our media to question Dylan’s story? And not just hers, but all the women and girls in all the cases I mentioned, and all the cases you know about.
Why is the response still, after all these years, “Well, we can’t know what happened,” just as it was in 1993?
Why is her credibility, as fully-functioning member of society, instantly questioned?
Why can’t we just listen?
I believe Dylan Farrow. If you have any doubts, ask yourself where they came from. Were you manipulated into believing that the Great Genius, towering icon of Hollywood, was too harmless to have done such things?
Were you made suggestible by your youth, when you first began watching him onscreen? Are you perhaps inclined to feel defensive, because you find his Hollywood persona endearing?
Can we appreciate the art and believe that the artist belongs behind bars?
If we ask, what if Dylan Farrow was manipulated into believing a lie, then we must also ask–what if we are the ones who have been duped? It’s only fair to question both the guilt she asserts and the innocence he proclaims.
Isn’t it a bit backwards that we find it easier, smoother, simpler, to question the alleged victim?
A final note about Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine: Inspired by A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, Allen’s film removes the cause for the heroine’s ultimate decline into madness, leaving his audience with no one to blame but her. Guess what he removes? Her rape. He removes her rape, and then sets about convincing his audience that nothing she says can be trusted. Streetcar features, Blanche, who is clearly hiding a great deal, who has been shamed by scandal, and who adopts the attitude of a higher social class than she occupies. She is tragic, nonetheless, as her brother-in-law, Stanley, becomes increasingly barbaric in his effort to silence her, viewing her as a threat to his marriage and masculinity. Allen turns Blanche into Jasmine, still desperate and destitute, but far more calculating. There is an objectionable brother-in-law figure, but he poses no real threat to Jasmine. He seems downright hapless compared with Williams’s vengeful Stanley. There is no ruthless, relentless, attempt to keep Jasmine silent about the way life “should” be. Blanche is haunted by a scandal involving sexuality and an underage boy, but Williams makes it clear that men hold the true power when Stanley rapes Blanche and then denies that it ever happened, finally toppling her fragile mind into madness. While Williams makes very clear that any power his women possess can be erased by a man willing to use sex to gain power, the women in Allen’s Blue Jasmine attract and repel men as they please. These men are responsible for their behavior, good or bad, only in the sense that “boys will be boys,” as though it were only natural for men to drink too much, commit adultery and use physical violence as an outlet for their anger. By the end of the film, which explains much more of the past than Williams’s Streetcar, Jasmine seems entirely culpable for her destruction; she brings about her own insanity. Blanche is literally dragged from her sister’s home, but Jasmine walks right out the front door. To top it all off, I want to vomit just thinking about the scene in which Jasmine screams at the husband who has just announced his plan to leave her for their friends’ au pair, “She’s a fucking teenager!” It is her reaction to this news that brings about her own destruction, and Allen uses her own child to voice the opinion that this is a mistake worthy of blame and punishment.
Written and directed by none other than a man who left his adult partner for the teenager they had agreed to raise as their child. Remind me, again, why are we questioning Dylan Farrow, instead of demanding answers from Woody Allen?