Tonight, the New York Times has published an explosive open letter from Dylan Farrow, the adoptive daughter of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. In the letter, Dylan, a 28-year old writer and artist now living under a different name, accuses Woody Allen of sexually assaulting her when she was 7 years old. The letter is published on Nicholas Kristof’s blog and Kristof has written a follow-up column about it. As Kristof explains, the abuse allegations originally came to light in 1992. They were investigated, and “[a] Connecticut prosecutor said that there was enough evidence for a criminal case against Allen but that he was dropping criminal proceedings to spare Dylan.”
Dylan’s letter is well-written, moving, and brave. It also brings up a host of painful and complicated issues. First of all, let’s put the Nicholas Kristof issue on the table. Kristof has a penchant for writing about sexual abuse and exploitation in ways that make a lot of feminists uneasy. He often casts himself as a heroic rescuer of damsels in distress, and there’s a whiff of something like that going on here. At one point in his column, Kristof asks if Woody Allen is “honorable” — which, besides being a oddly Victorian turn of phrase, is also bizarrely minimizing. Would anyone ask if Jerry Sandusky is “honorable”? What Dylan Farrow alleges happened to her is a monstrous crime. “Honor,” which connotes stuffy, antique patriarchal moral codes out of another century, is a very strange way to look at it indeed.
But the main issue that most people who read both pieces will wrestle with is the credibility of Dylan’s accusations. Ultimately, of course, we will probably never know for sure, but articles by reporter Maureen Orth that appeared in Vanity Fair over the years, and that were admittedly Mia-friendly, provide some background and corroborating evidence (the 1992 article is here, and the 2013 one is here).
Also, it’s a little known fact, but Woody Allen has had at least one relationship with an underaged girl, an actress named Stacey Nelkin, who was 17 and a junior in high school when she became sexually involved with Allen in the 1970s. The Mariel Hemingway character in Manhattan is based on Nelkin. Nelkin has gone public about her affair with Allen and she’s mentioned in Marion Meade’s Woody Allen biography. Just because Woody Allen had at least one affair with an underaged girl doesn’t necessarily mean that he abused Dylan, of course. But it does make it more plausible.
On the other hand, Woody Allen does have his defenders. For example, Robert Weide, the director of a recent PBS American Masters documentary about Allen, makes the case for his innocence in this recent Daily Beast article. There’s quite a lot of distasteful stuff in it — for instance:
— All the cutesy “humanizing” detail about Allen that Weide injects, which is off-putting and completely inappropriate in a piece that concerns a crime as serious child molestation;
— Weide professing admiration for Mia Farrow one minute while portraying her as a vengeful, enraged schemer the next;
— Weide’s gullible belief that rich and powerful people would never be allowed to adopt if there were any doubts whatsoever that they’d ever committed abuse (read this stunning expose about how completely underregulated adoption agencies are if you have any doubts);
— And finally, Weide’s claims that he is merely “floating scenarios” when it’s clear from the outset that he’s Team Woody all the way.
In short, his piece is larded with quite a bit of smarm in the Tom Scocca sense of the word. And no, Stacey Nelkin is not mentioned at all. But Weide’s article also contains some important information that clouds the picture of Allen’s alleged guilt and deserves consideration. In the end, I’m not 100% certain what to think. And while, on the basis of what I’ve read, I don’t think I could convict Woody Allen in a court of law, I also believe it’s more likely than not that he did what Dylan claims he did.
The next question is what do those of us who consider — or used to consider — ourselves to be Woody Allen’s fans do with this information?
The gods must be messing with me, because not so very long along I was advocating a boycott of R. Kelly for his multiple alleged rapes of underaged girls. But you what? For me, making that call was really, really easy, because I am indifferent to R. Kelly’s music. Yes, I was far too glib in making that pronouncement, and the universe is clearly having its revenge.
But I have been a longtime fan of Woody Allen. He’s been a part of my life ever since I started paying serious attention to movies, back when I was in junior high. Movies like Annie Hall and Manhattan created, for me, a powerfully seductive vision of what life in arty, glamorous New York CIty could be like. Woody Allen’s films are among the main reasons I took off like a shot for NYC the first moment I was able, and never looked back. It would greatly sadden me never to see another Woody Allen movie again, especially if, hypothetically, he released a new one that critics acclaimed as a masterpiece. Of course, now, he’s long past his fimmaking prime, but who knows.
Normally, I’m deeply suspicious of artistic boycotts. I’m an art-for-art’s sake type to the bone, and I take pains to separate the artist from the work. In fact I’m often fascinated by artists — Kanye West and the late Lou Reed are two that spring immediately to mind — who aren’t particularly nice people. I never considered boycotting Roman Polanski’s work, for example. Nor would I dream of refusing to look at a painting by Caravaggio (who killed a man), or watch a movie by Leni Riefenstahl (who made Nazi propaganda films), or read a poem by Byron (who raped his
own sister wife). We do, of course, tend to enforce a double standard when it comes to artists from the past.
But that’s only part of why Woody Allen’s case seems different. Why do I feel, not only repelled by his alleged acts, but like I should boycott him, like it would be the right thing to do — even if, in the end, I know I’m unlikely to do it? Clearly, part of it is the power of Dylan Farrow’s testimony. It’s hard to dismiss these concerns when the victim’s anguish is so vividly expressed, so palpable. There’s also the nature of the crime itself. All sexual assault is heinous, but I think we’d all agree that there’s something particularly monstrous about assaulting your own daughter.
Finally, there’s the familiar Woody Allen persona, and the powerful sense of intimacy that developed between Allen’s onscreen persona and his audience. With Polanski, it was never anything like that. In films from Repulsion to Rosemary’s Baby to Chinatown to The Pianist, Polanski was a cold but brilliant technician — those films are chilly masterpieces all, with not a trace of personality (except in the sense of individual style) left onscreen.
But we thought we knew Woody Allen. Good ol’ Woody, neurotic New York everyman, everyone’s favorite schlemiel. Yet it turned out we didn’t know him at all. This first became clear at the time of the Soon-yi scandal, and Dylan Farrow’s Times piece paints an even more disturbing portrait. Of course, Woody Allen’s dark side was always hiding in plain sight. Manhattan is a film about a middle-aged man who has a pervy, creepy relationship with a high school girl. Annie Hall is about a man who can’t feel pleasure — he has a hole in his soul. Yet many viewers, myself included, brushed past that and saw only what we wanted to see.
I doubt I will boycott Woody Allen myself, personally, but I can hardly object to those who do. And I don’t know if I can ever feel the same about his work, after reading Dylan Farrow’s powerful testimony.
In the end, what I am left with is Dylan Farrow: in particular her obvious intelligence, and her courage. The courage is not just in surviving the hellishness of the abuse and its aftermath — she’s suffered an eating disorder, cutting behaviors, and post traumatic distress — but also in going public with her story. Part of the nightmare she’s experienced is having been victimized by someone who is so much more powerful than she is. It’s not even the usual grotesque imbalance of the child victimized by the adult, which is terrible enough, but a unique situation of a child being abused by a person who is extremely rich and world famous, who is protected and praised by many famous friends, whose name and image keeps popping up in the media whenever you least expect it. Can you imagine the horror?
Dylan Farrow’s bravery is to be commended. I hope that by going public, she finds renewed serenity and strength, and that her example gives hope to other survivors.
UPDATE: in response to some of the comments I’ve been getting, I wanted to add a couple of things here.
First of all, I strongly urge that people check out Aaron Brady’s blog post about the Dylan Farrow case inThe New Inquiry. It’s smart, thoughtful, and nuanced, and expresses many of the same feelings I’ve had about this matter.
Secondly, I see that some people are minimizing Woody Allen’s affair with a high school girl. No, it’s not the equivalent of sexually abusing a 7-year old — that goes without saying. But a middle-aged man having a sexual relationship with a 17-year old girl — who was a junior in high school at the time? That is not normal male behavior in contemporary American society, and those kinds of relationships often do lasting harm to the younger person involved in them. The power differential there is huge, and it’s even more so when you consider that Woody Allen was a rich, world-famous actor and director at the time, and the girl was just an ordinary middle class girl with acting ambitions. Woody Allen’s affair with her says some ugly things about his character and his sexual proclivities. It suggests that he gets off on extreme power differentials. That is why it relates to the Dylan Farrow case, and why I brought it up. If you still want to defend it and pretend it’s nothing, be my guest. Just remind me to keep my high school-age nieces the hell away from you.
Finally, I was asked on Twitter if I still support the R. Kelly boycott, which I’d advocated in an earlier post. As a blogger, I’m under pressure to get a certain number posts up by a certain time, and none of my posts are edited. So unfortunately, I’m not always as thoughtful as I ought to be.
But I’ve thought about this issue again, and on reconsideration, I retract my support for a boycott. If people want to boycott R. Kelly, Woody Allen, or any other artist, fine. But I think the best way to deal with objectionable public figures is to protest them. Protest them at public appearances. Refuse to invite them to appear or perform on TV or at other events. Refuse to grant them honors and awards. Dog them on social media — the way Twitter users turned #AskRKelly into a public relations debacle was genius.
In short, there are many ways to show strong disapproval of an artist that fall short of boycotting him or her. Personally, I’m more comfortable going the protest route as opposed to the boycott route.