Metanarrative and the Woody Allen Sex Abuse Case
I’ve been cruising the web over the past few days, reading all the publications, blog posts and social media comments responding to Dylan Farrow’s open letter accusing Woody Allen of sexually molesting her as a child. Despite the deluge of commentary, opinion is strongly polarized. I am less interested in the truth value of the claims made (because all are subject to dispute) than in the social map of the narratives about this case. What is at stake in them? Why such outsized heated reactions? I detect two master narratives:
1) “Poor Woody and That Lying Bitch”
The liar in this story isn’t primarily Dylan, it’s Mia, who implanted the false charges in Dylan’s mind out of revenge for Woody’s affair with her older daughter. The primary foundation for this tale is the fact that Allen was never prosecuted (despite the fact that the judge found probable cause, but decided not to prosecute because of Dylan’s fragility), along with the finding by doctors and psychologists (at least one on Allen’s payroll) that the child was not molested (though the doctor prepared to testify had not interviewed Dylan, and when collective notes were requested by the court, they were mysteriously destroyed). In this story Allen is the victim of a smear campaign by a vindictive lover. Mia is the villain, Dylan disappears into the background as a duped child with implanted memories. The case is considered as part of the wave of “false” or “implanted” memory accusations made against innocent people that began in the 1980s. Sometimes Allen is compared to the defendants in the notorious McMartin preschool case and its ilk (though most, not all, of those defendants were relatively powerless women, daycare providers who were convicted and given very long sentences).
2) Powerful Men Get Away With Murder—and everything else too.
This account takes Dylan at her word. One version circulates the basics of the “believe the children” mobilizations that have surrounded mass accusations of sexual abuse. Another version parses the facts of the case, pointing out that reports of Allen’s inappropriate, obsessive behavior with Dylan were made by babysitters and family friends before the scandal broke. The allegation that Woody was being “treated” for questionably intimate behavior with Dylan before the split with Mia is cited as evidence against the “implanted” and “false” memory stories. In this account, Allen gets away with abusing Dylan because he is a powerful man with enormous social and financial clout.
Clearly, I have stacked the deck here because I am persuaded by the latter story. It gels with my world view and my reading of the pile of articles about this case. Nonetheless, I am hyperaware of the social power of false allegations of sexual violation, from racial lynching to the McMartin and other cases. And from the Salem witch trials forward we have ample evidence of relatively powerless people using false hot button charges to get revenge on the powerful. I can never go along with any “believe the children” or “believe women” campaign—to wit: Scottsboro.
In addition, I don’t think that all sexual contact between adults and children is horrific, unthinkable, horrible, unimaginable. That line of thinking follows a maneuver that Gayle Rubin (in her 1984 essay “Thinking Sex”) called the fallacy of misplaced scale. When such contacts can only be represented as life ruining catastrophes, then accusations must be aggressively denied at all costs, and accusers can launch moral panics that create terrible environments for rational justice. Again from Rubin: the most gentle caress can be equated with brutal rape. I do not think adult/teenager consensual sex should be illegal, and I don’t think all adult sexual conduct with younger children is singularly horrible, necessarily worse than the other abuses children routinely suffer at the hands of adults. I don’t think all the accused Catholic priests are guilty, or that all of their alleged crimes are horrifying, even as I enjoy seeing the patriarchal church I grew up in burn.
So I don’t make any truth claims for my opinion. I simply and humbly believe that the actual concrete evidence, as unreliable as every piece of it is, suggests that Dylan is telling the truth. Implanted and false memories have been responsible for bogus prosecutions and social hysteria. But the details described by both Dylan and observers before the reported assault—Woody putting his thumb in her mouth and his head in her lap, bringing her to bed with him in his underwear—are not the kinds of fantasies produced by children or parents making things up. They are the mundane details of routine boundary violations that often lead to further violations. And the time line just doesn’t fit the “Mia put it in her head for revenge” story. The trouble started long before the affair with Soon-Yi was discovered.
Arguing with the Defend Woody Brigade online is quite bracing—the defenders very quickly default to insults. I guess there is something about defending the relatively more powerful in these social conflicts that brings out verbal aggression as a reinforcement of that power. The extent of rank misogyny among them also alarms me. On the feminist threads, I find a split between the sloganeering faith-based invocations of Dylan’s truth, and much more nuanced and mutually respectful discussions of the reliability of memory, the social impact of charges of sexual abuse, the historical resonances of this case.
Of course, there is the occasional default to the meta-narrative: Men Are Pigs. In this case, I am sorely tempted by that one!
Read Next: Jessica Valenti on what it means to defend Woody Allen