The morning after Woody Allen was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, his son Ronan Farrow tweeted a question that re-awakened inquiry into the sexual abuse allegations made against the director more than 20 years ago.
“[D]id they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?” Ronan now-famously posed to his followers.
Like many people, I immediately fell down the rabbit hole. I’ve spent hours reading and thinking about the allegations that Allen had molested his daughter Dylan and sorting through my own and others’ reactions to those allegations. So many of us have a personal stake in this matter. The issue has particular resonance for me because of my own history with child sexual abuse.
When I was between the ages of four and five, I was molested repeatedly by a cousin in his late teens who had come to live with my family. I told a friend about it when I was 12, having by then gained some language to express the facts of what happened if not my feelings about it, and I told a few other people over the years as I continued to try to make sense of the past, but I never quite got a firm grip on it. The vivid memories and their implications lurked like the sea cucumbers I spied on the sea floor the first time I went scuba diving—mysterious and disgusting things I didn’t want my skin to come in contact with, something to hold my breath and paddle away from. By early adulthood I had grown into a reasonably well-adjusted person who had positive experiences with sex and romance, and although I had a particular interest in the dark side of life, I mostly didn’t want to dwell on this shadowy chapter of my own. I was very aware of the way those marked as victims were viewed by society—with kid gloves and pity on the one hand, with skepticism and dismissal on the other.
My attitude changed in my early thirties, when I learned that the boy who did this to me was now a man facing trial for molesting another little girl around the same age I had been. This news affected me profoundly. I had two overwhelming senses: a huge amount of guilt for not stopping the violation somehow, and a terrible relief that the crime was externalized, given life outside my own head. The charges against him were proof that something very bad had happened to me, and that it wasn’t allowed. As strange as this might sound, these things hadn’t always been perfectly clear to me.
My cousin was sent to prison. Although the accuser and the child would later recant, the courts maintained their original ruling. I ordered the hearing transcripts and read the original accusations, the medical and legal reports, and the child’s statements. These only reaffirmed my certainty that the original charges were correct, and I was grateful that the verdict held. I know charges of abuse are not always—are seldom— resolved clearly in the eyes of the law. Most never make it anywhere near a court.
For the past several years, I’ve been writing a book about my own experience, and in the process I’ve spent time researching child sexual assault, with a particular focus on how societal views of it have changed over the past 40 years. Having quickly gained a lot of emotionally charged knowledge, I sometimes feel overfull with it, as if it might seep out of my body involuntarily, burped like a gas. I’ve encountered certain facts so often that sometimes I assume much of what I’ve learned is common knowledge and doesn’t bear repeating. However, the current heated conversation around Woody Allen reveals I’m wrong about this. Many people’s assumptions about abuse in general are relatively unexamined and have basis in understandings that have shifted in the last 20 years or so, as more research in the field has been done and legal and therapeutic approaches have evolved.
Allen was accused of molestation during the custody case resulting from his split with Mia Farrow, which was prompted by Farrow’s discovery of Allen’s relationship with her 19-year old daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Due to the celebrity status and personal histories of the people involved, there’s no doubt that the allegations trail behind them an unusually baroque weave of complexities. I’m going to try to put aside for a moment the question of whether Allen actually molested his daughter or whether he should continue to receive accolades and awards if that is true. Instead, I’m going to present some typical responses to the accusations against him, gleaned from the thousands of comments I’ve read, and examine the way they mirror reactions to child sex abuse in general and reveal some common misperceptions.
Many people reacted to Ronan Farrow’s tweet as I did, with a big giant What? Up until that moment, we’d had no idea that Allen had ever been accused of molesting his young daughter, despite the fact that it was public knowledge. Some in this camp are surprised that there wasn’t a bigger bang, an exploding ink stain from a tampered-with clothing tag that would be impossible to miss, even to those who weren’t paying close attention.
Similarly, most of us don’t know how many victims and perpetrators of child sex abuse walk in our midst. Estimates are that one in four girls and one in six boys have been sexually abused. Most of these instances are not discovered or disclosed when they occur (the average age at which victims disclose is 12 years after the event), but some are.
And although many of us assume that once discovered, such a crime will trigger a strong response—that surely we’d hear about it within our community, situations would be changed, charges would be brought, protection or therapy would be offered to the children—very often, that’s not the case. Families frequently deflect the knowledge when it’s presented or accuse the accuser, and, although there’s been improvement in the last five years or so, institutions have commonly turned a blind eye—think of Penn State, Horace Mann, the Catholic Church.
Told Ya So:
Some people responded to the resurfaced allegations by stating their negative opinion of Woody Allen and his work: I loathe his movies; I tried and I tried but I never could stand Annie Hall; I always thought he was such a creep, getting the young pretty girl like a trophy. These comments suggest that Allen’s art hinted that something gross was wrong with him, and so whether or not the commenter had been aware of the specific accusations, he or (usually) she is not surprised by them. Indeed, seen in one light, Allen, with his thick glasses, high-waisted pants, and pasty complexion, does fit a stereotypical image of a child molester, the maladjusted pocket-puller lurking on the edges of the playground. But while some child molesters do fit this mold—the extracurricular coach at my son’s school who was booted for inappropriate behavior actually did wear bottle-bottom glasses and radiate something strange—in fact most abuse is perpetuated by a person a child knows well and trusts, and who is widely viewed as “normal” or even exemplary.
Approximately 90 percent of child sex abuse is committed by a family member of the victim or someone known and trusted by the victim’s family. A certain icky dweebiness combined with a trench coat is not a clear indication of anything, and our Spidey sense isn’t either. When we believe that we’ll sense a child molester when we see one, it can be harder to recognize and act clearly when reality doesn’t fit our expectations. It can be harder, even, to recognize what is abuse, or might be leading there: That’s just fondling. Just stay away from him when when you’re by yourself. I’ll keep an eye out, but I don’t think he means anything by it. Indeed, accounts of the Allen-Farrow family in a 1992 Vanity Fair profile make it sound like this was the dynamic around Allen’s relationship with Dylan years before there was discord between him and Farrow.