Why Woody Allen Deserves the Benefit of the Doubt

Why Woody Allen Deserves the Benefit of the Doubt

Why Woody Allen Deserves the Benefit of the Doubt

A society hot for punishment is quick to play judge and jury. But there’s nothing feminist or radical about pretending to know the truth.


In November 1992, Vanity Fair published an article about the bitter breakup of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen that concluded: “A gripping courtroom drama may be in the making, one that would undoubtedly give tabloid TV its highest ratings ever. Or things could be settled overnight. Left unresolved, however, is the healing process.” The timbre of that conclusion, a combination of hoped-for salaciousness and therapeutic cliché, is typical of its author, Maureen Orth, a journalist breathless for the lurid detail, who years later would relay as fact any story of priestly perversion an accuser or his personal injury lawyer fed her.

Trampling on an accused priest’s due process rights doesn’t matter to a lot of people, even civil libertarians. Ordinarily, an overgrown gossip column with pretensions wouldn’t matter either, except that this one, “Mia’s Story,” was angled to popularize a claim of child sexual abuse against Allen; and now, twenty-two years later, its gossip, innuendo and selective quotations have been presented as the evidence-never-entered in the criminal-trial-that-never-was by writers, bloggers and Twitterers hungry to play the role of stand-in for the prosecution.

I will not play stand-in for the defense, because there is no defendant. What there is, amid the shards of human experience on display, is a confrontation with malleable memory, with love and cruelty, with suffering as spectacle and our own feeble attachment to something without which any of us would sink in an era hot for punishment: the benefit of the doubt.

For those just tuning in: in January, as Woody Allen was being honored for lifetime achievement by the Golden Globes, his reputed son, Ronan Farrow, took to Twitter to call him a child molester. Ronan’s sister Dylan then wrote an open letter telling of her life of pain as a result, she says, of her adoptive father’s assault when she was 7. Nicholas Kristof, a friend of Ronan and Mia Farrow, exploited his New York Times platforms to broadcast the letter. He called it news. Dylan, now 28, had spoken with Orth a few months earlier, but her disclosures in Vanity Fair were eclipsed by her mother’s odes to Frank Sinatra, and suggestion that Ronan, now a mini-star soon to debut on MSNBC, might be Sinatra’s son. A friend told People that being thus “overshadowed,” on top of the Globes tribute, spurred Dylan forward. The Times, shameless as any tabloid but without the rough honesty, must have seen green. Then its editors gave Allen the chance to argue his innocence—something that, were this a real trial, would require no proofs.

To a society jacked on the politics of personal indictment and the pastime of instant opinion, this modern Grand Guignol has been like catnip to Fluffy. Websites have run interactive features saying “Do You Think Woody Allen Is Guilty? [Yes] [No] Vote,” and hordes of people, knowing little, mistaking more and presuming much, have weighed in, mostly to damn Allen. The techno age meets the eleventh century, when verdicts were determined by which side mustered the most supporters to court. MSNBC’s producers must be giddy.

And yet outside the clattering sound machine, Dylan’s and Woody’s statements read as testaments of the aggrieved. It is possible that they both are.

The original allegation arose as Farrow and Allen, who had always lived separately but shared legal parenthood of three children, were in the midst of dissolving their affairs. Days before they were to sign a custody agreement, Allen is said to have molested Dylan in an attic of Farrow’s country house, on August 4, 1992. A week later, he sued for custody of all three children, a bold or naïve act for one under suspicion of a heinous crime. Allen made vehement denials and was never charged. The only legal forum for the airing of accusations would be the custody trial. Allen lost. The court’s opinion—he hadn’t been much of a father, and the judge was not convinced by investigators’ conclusions that Dylan had not been abused—now pops up online as proof of Allen’s criminality. Records of the 1993 trial are sealed, but sworn testimony reported contemporaneously provides as much murk as light (see a timeline at TheNation.com).

The truth is, we don’t know the truth. And there is nothing high-minded or radical or feminist in pretending that we do. There are, however, principles.

History matters. Moral panic was in the air-conditioning system of the culture when this family drama began. The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (1988) had inspired therapists, self-help groups, valid and crackpot theories, accusations, trials and family ruptures. Incest, as feminist psychologist Janice Haaken observed, became the name for the many problems of women that “had no name,” in Betty Friedan’s 1963 phrase, and still don’t have names enough. Recognizing this does not diminish the reality of child abuse, sexual or otherwise; it is simply a social fact. In 1990, when the McMartin Satanic ritual abuse case finally ended in acquittals in Los Angeles, dozens of women and men were in jail elsewhere for fictional abuse. In 1992, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation was established to support families falsely accused and to study the ways memory may be manufactured and then overwhelm a person. The Pulitzer Prize for fiction that year went to Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which pivots on memories of father-daughter incest.

We don’t know if Mia Farrow was influenced by any of this. We do know that when she told a therapist that Woody Allen was “satanic and evil” shortly before Dylan made her allegation, the time was rife with sexual fears about children; and often, as shown in Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker’s extraordinary 1995 book Satan’s Silence, “what came from the mouths of babes were juvenile renderings of grownups’ anxieties.”

Memory matters, and isn’t a tape recorder. It is, as Elizabeth Loftus described in a TED talk last year, “more like a Wikipedia page—you can go in there and change it, but so can other people.” Loftus, a renowned psychologist and memory researcher, has conducted numerous, striking experiments that have implanted false memories in subjects, who later recall them with the same conviction, detail and emotion as people with real memories. In the daycare cases, children encouraged to confabulate suffered grievously for their “memories.” False memories don’t just disappear with age.

We know Dylan Farrow’s memories are real to her, and harrowing. Beyond that, nothing. It’s possible, Loftus says, that “the seeds of suggestion were planted before August 4, and then watered afterward,” when her mother questioned her lengthily and investigators compelled her to repeat and repeat.

Love matters, and isn’t simple. Soon-Yi Previn is Mia Farrow and André Previn’s daughter. It was unloving for Soon-Yi to take up with her mother’s boyfriend when she was in college in late 1991. It was unloving for Woody to take up with his children’s sister—and selfish not to foresee the bomb it would drop in the family while he was still part of it, albeit unconventionally. In honesty, though, anyone who has known love’s madness must pity all three in this triangle.

People behave badly; they all did. It was unloving for Mia to invite the other children into her pain; to rage against Soon-Yi and Woody openly from January 1992, as her estranged son Moses describes; to make the family an emotional armed camp. It was unloving—perverse, actually—to infantilize Soon-Yi, the eternal child at 20; to speak of incest and hang a sign saying “child molester” on a door of the room where Woody slept at the country house when visiting in July 1992 to celebrate Dylan’s birthday.

We don’t know how this rage affected Dylan; surely, we must pity the child. How does a child who sees her mother’s agony, who wants to please her, love her?

Children matter. Orth et al. insist Allen was being treated for “inappropriately intense” behavior with Dylan. A child psychologist was talking to both parents, and her relevant quote about Allen’s behavior is, in full, “I did not see it as sexual, but I saw it as inappropriately intense because it excluded everybody else.” Playing favorites among children is not good. Attaching the whiff of sex to it is worse.

There is a creepiness to the way so many who write about this case luxuriate in suffering, hang on every insinuation, wring from it the dirtiest conclusion. This too is the legacy of moral panic: in the guise of defending the child, children had to be sexualized. They could not be looked at naked, photographed in the bathtub, kissed all over, without raising alarms. Adults could be arrested for that, and were, with the result that every child’s body, no longer innocent in delight, became a potential crime scene.

We don’t know if it was sinister that Allen let Dylan suck his thumb, or read to her in bed in his undershorts, or knelt in front of her as she watched TV. We know how his actions were interpreted by others who believed or had heard for months that he was a sicko for loving Soon-Yi.

Doubt matters. Something horrible happened to Dylan, but there are many ways to horrible. A prosecutor who drops a case but convicts by press release is not a hero. Doubt is not the refuge of monsters. It is the enshrined right of all, who tempt fate believing they shall never need the benefit of it.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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