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.