Why Does Dylan Farrow’s Letter Have Us So Riled Up?

It’s not what we’re debating, it’s HOW we’re debating the Allen-Farrow family saga that is most unsettling.

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From the moment Dylan Farrow published her open letter on Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog on Saturday afternoon, accusing her father, Woody Allen, of sexually abusing her when she was seven years old, the Internet shattered. For the rest of the weekend, people were posting and reposting her piece on Facebook and RT’ing on Twitter, saying they believed her. Saying they believed she believed she was abused but didn’t think it was true. They were pinpointing holes in her story. Declaring they always thought Woody was a creep, a sociopath. Parsing Woody Allen’s film work for evidence of his dark side. Renewing the argument over whether his relationship to Soon Yi had been inappropriate, incestuous, disgusting. Recalling his predilection for teenage girls (he was involved with a high-school junior named Stacey Nelkin in the 1970s, on whom Mariel Hemingway’s Manhattan character was reportedly based). Reposting the Daily Beast essay “The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast” by the filmmaker’s documentarian Robert Weide, published on January 27, defending him against Mia and Ronan Farrow’s tweets during and after the Golden Globes broadcast. And trolling the Internet for a host of reaction pieces published within a few short hours of Dylan’s letter—and scrolling through the comments—to either fortify an argument or figure out how to feel. Because, let’s face it: This is a big old confusing shit show.

I’m not here to add to the pile or try to make sense of it because it’s futile: This family saga is a minefield. I should, however, get a few things out of the way. One: Woody Allen’s films made me fall in love with New York and are among the reasons I moved here, and I can’t suddenly disavow my lifelong passion for his work. Two: I don’t understand why Dylan used an open-letter format and directed her anger at the public and Hollywood, as if we were all somehow complicit in the abuse (I thought Alana Newhouse’s essay, “Who Is Responsible for Dylan Farrow’s Pain?” articulated a lot of questions that lingered for many of us). And three: Though I hate blaming a mother for anything, because we moms always get such a raw deal, I do think Mia’s historic slipperiness with facts undermines Dylan’s credibility. 

But none of these things has anything to do with whether I believe Dylan Farrow. I was among those who quickly posted her letter on my Facebook feed. And I was among those absolutely stunned, and quick to defend her. If the story is as Dylan describes, that the Connecticut D.A.’s office didn’t want to prosecute her powerful father because they wanted to avoid the humiliating prospect of putting a seven-year-old on the stand, then adult Dylan was certainly on trial now, now that she’s put her testimony out there for the public to read. And her celebrity filmmaker father has once again seemingly eluded trial.

Never mind all of this; we’ve beaten this conversation to death all weekend long. I mean, why are we all so invested in it that we spent all weekend debating it? Well, I can think of a lot of reasons: We thought we knew Woody Allen because he gave the impression that he was revealing so much of himself in his films—for decades—and we fell in love with his persona, despite and even because of his neuroses. So this feels like the worst kind of betrayal for longtime fans. Because no one wants to believe someone is capable of committing such a crime as sexually abusing a child—their own child, especially. Because we’ve heard rumors for years and Dylan finally kicked open the door and revealed the gruesome details. Because people have very strong feelings about her mother, Mia. Because people have strong feelings about Woody’s relationship with Soon Yi. And on and on.

And so we were enraged and overwhelmed with grief and anguish, about people we thought we kind of knew, at least in our fantasy world, and now we don’t even have that. And then that rage and grief took on a life of its own. And I wonder if we were even still talking about Dylan and Woody. Because, very quickly the tenor of the debate stopped being about the people in specific and more about the idea of sexual abuse, victimhood, and adoption, and I was astonished by not a few things: How quickly even the smartest, most educated, and sensitive among us were saying that we didn’t believe her, that people have historically lied about sexual abuse. Why is she telling us now? How curious, even opportunistic, that this is happening before the Oscars, when her father’s most recent film Blue Jasmine, is up for three awards. And the distancing technique some have used by insistently referring to her as Woody’s adoptive daughter, as if it somehow makes theirs a less legitimate family connection.

Why are we still talking like this about families? Do we really think abuse victims are liars? Do we really not understand why victims of sexual abuse, especially by family members, don’t come forward? Do we put them, not the perp, on trial? And do we really think children who are adopted are less related to us than biological children? Jesus Christ, what is wrong with us? You may call me out for appearing to merge two separate issues that don’t belong together. Except that in this conversation, they have repeatedly been spoken of in tandem. A man—a very powerful man—has been accused of sexually abusing his “adoptive” daughter. As if it matters whether she was adopted. The girl is his daughter from the moment he adopted her. Even if they are estranged from each other. The end.

Now, we may never find out what happened in the Farrow-Allen household (I realize the couple didn’t live together, but they had children together). Only they know what happened. But I do know this much: A lot of abuse victims never speak up, or when they do, they don’t press charges against a family member. Because they suffer all over again by taking a huge risk. Because they have to make a case, and ensure everyone believes them—their family, a jury, a judge. And then they have to hope that perp—be it the father, uncle, brother, cousin, grandfather—goes to prison. Because if he doesn’t, well, then what happens? So perhaps we should not be so quick to judge the victim, to presume she’s lying, to pull out statistics and cite the rare instance when a victim has lied. More often than not, she hasn’t.

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