Dylan Farrow's Letter Tells Us What Our Culture Needs to Learn: To Believe Survivors.
This photo of Dylan Farrow, by Frances Silver, ran with her open letter in the New York Times.
Dylan Farrow, daughter of filmmaker Woody Allen, did an incredibly brave thing this weekend: She told the story of how Woody Allen sexually abused her when she was seven. In doing so, she is actively resisting our cultural dictates about sexual assault, which encourage silence, shame, and denial.
The allegations against Woody Allen have often been discussed—Farrow's brother Ronan succinctly pointed out how the abuse was left out of Allen's Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award highlight reel this year—but this is the first time that Farrow has published her story.
Appearing in The New York Times both in print and online, Farrow’s letter is honest, powerful, and damning of our entire mainstream cultural response to sexual assault. “What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?” she opens. “Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me.”
Farrow tells us how the train incident was the culmination of a long string of abuses by Allen; why the abuse seemed normal to her and why she finally told her mother; how the ongoing veneration of her father silenced her (“It felt like a personal rebuke, like the awards and accolades were a way to tell me to shut up and go away”); and how our culture—the media, entertainment industry, court system, and medical professionals—have failed her and others like her. "Woody Allen is a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse," she writes. “Sexual abuse claims against the powerful stall more easily. There were experts willing to attack my credibility. There were doctors willing to gaslight an abused child.”
Farrow’s story is, rage-inducingly, a common one, only remarkable in that her family is famous. Farrow's experience happens to a jaw-dropping number of children and teenagers: one in six women in America experience sexual assault and 44 percent of victims are under age 18. The cultural response to the initial "allegations" against Woody Allen, and now Farrow coming forward, is only a hyper-magnified example of how our society treats survivors who tell the truth about what happened to them.
You needn't look far to see the culture of denial that is hard at work when survivors come forward to tell the truth about what happened to them. Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist who published Farrow's open letter and wrote his Sunday column about it, is trying to support Farrow but writes that "Allen’s defenders correctly note that he denies the allegations, has never been convicted and should be presumed innocent." Melissa McEwan of Shakesville hits the nail on the head about Kristof's apologist stance: "He deserves the presumption of innocence" has absolutely no place in an introduction to a survivor's story for this simple reason: "He deserves the presumption of innocence" is fundamentally incompatible with "She deserves to be believed." Which, of course, she does.
Robert B. Weide, executive producer of the popular HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm and director of a PBS documentary about Woody Allen, recently published an article titled "The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast" on The Daily Beast (it appeared before her open letter in The New York Times but he tweeted on Sunday essentially that he stands by everything he wrote). Weide's piece is purportedly an informed, nuanced "weighing in" on the allegations that Allen sexually abused his daughter. But the article is actually just a very long apologia for Allen. For example, Weide skeptically notes that he's observed Allen with his daughters, and he doesn't really seem like a child molester:
"The only parent-child tensions I’ve been privy to are that his girls think their father’s mean for not letting them have a dog, and that he’s an idiot for not knowing how to work a computer. Lest anyone accuse me of being in Woody’s pocket, I’ll confess that I side with his kids on both counts."
Weide is not at all "blaming the victim," he says. "I’m merely floating scenarios to consider, and you can think what you will." Weide is skeptical about the veracity of Dylan's allegations, because:
"It means that in the middle of custody and support negotiations, during which Woody needed to be on his best behavior, in a house belonging to his furious ex-girlfriend, and filled with people seething mad at him, Woody, who is a well-known claustrophobic, decided this would be the ideal time and place to take his daughter into an attic and molest her, quickly, before a house full of children and nannies noticed they were both missing."
Only in a culture of denial and shame about child sexual abuse can it seem reasonable (and printable) that Weide "floats different scenarios" based on his own assumptions about how sexual assault happens and by whom.
On the same day Farrow published her open letter, The Hollywood Reporter ran an article headlined "Dylan Farrow's Op-Ed Targets Woody Allen But Could Hurt Cate Blanchett More." The article opens:
"Is Cate Blanchett's best actress Oscar for her performance in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine as assured as most people believe? Probably—but being called out on the New York Times' website for associating with an alleged child molester certainly won't help her cause."
The implication is clear: we're not so much worried about the survivor of sexual assault, but other people and their careers. It's reminiscent of television newscasters worrying about the poor teenage boys in Steubenville whose lives were going to be ruined because they'd sexually assaulted a teenage girl and weren't going to get away with it.
According to Weide, the whole thing is "a hornet's nest that had remained somewhat dormant over the past 20 years." And, for Woody Allen, the "accusations were old business."
So how has Farrow been doing all these years? Has it been, for her, a hornet's nest lain dormant, old business? As she writes in her recent letter:
"That he got away with what he did to me haunted me as I grew up. I was stricken with guilt that I had allowed him to be near other little girls. I was terrified of being touched by men. I developed an eating disorder. I began cutting myself." Last year, Farrow was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). "Each time I saw my abuser’s face—on a poster, on a t-shirt, on television—I could only hide my panic until I found a place to be alone and fall apart."
Last year, my brave, beloved partner was also diagnosed with PTSD as a result of years of childhood sexual abuse. "When I tell people I've been diagnosed with PTSD, they assume I was in the military. They don't understand it," she told me a few days before Farrow published her open letter.
My experience has been that people don't know how sexual abuse in childhood can impact a person into adulthood. I certainly didn't understand it. When my partner had what many would have called a breakdown last year, I struggled to understand. I, like the culture I live in, was in denial. When she had hours-long panic attacks that Valium couldn't touch, I anxiously wrung my hands in confusion and resentment.
"Are you cold?" I would ask her. No, she would say. "Then why are you trembling uncontrollably? I don't understand." I wanted it to stop, because it scared me, because I didn't understand what was happening.
One morning at 5 a.m., after hours of uncontrollable trembling, sweating, and writhing on our bed, she asked me to take her to the emergency room. The ER doctor essentially told my partner to get a grip. I hadn't slept all night and was crying from exhaustion. "Look at your partner," said the doctor. "Look at what this is doing to her." The ER doctor, like the rest of society, wanted my partner's PTSD symptoms to Just. Stop. Already.
I didn't understand then, as I do now, how the body can lock up trauma, bury it deep inside you to protect you, and how that tightly-locked capsule can burst years later and leave you writhing in panic on the bathroom floor, trembling violently from head to toe. I wish I had understood it then. I would’ve been better equipped to support her from the get-go, rather than having to learn alongside her as we both struggled to understand how her vomiting every morning for two years in her 20s was actually directly linked to things that had happened nearly two decades ago. And how denial and shame can make the original trauma happen “over and over and over again, because it’s never set free,” as my partner put it.
One of the bright, glaring, non-negotiable truths I have learned, though, is to believe survivors. Believe them, even if they don't remember everything. Believe them, even if they remember almost nothing. Believe them, even if the person they say raped them seems like the nicest person in the world to you. Believe them, even if it shatters your whole world to do so. Believe them, even if they don’t want to share details, or press charges, or ever talk about it again. Believe them, even if their story sounds implausible to you. Believe them, even if you don't want to, even if it breaks your heart.
Why, even after Farrow has bravely told us in painstaking detail what happened to her, do we still have a cultural propensity to insinuate she is lying to us? Why is it so much easier to believe that Mia Farrow would “brainwash” Dylan into thinking she was abused as part of a custody battle revenge plot than to believe she is yet another survivor of an epidemic of sexual violence? Why are people still calling Weide’s pile of B.S. on The Daily Beast “thoughtful” and “interesting” and “terrific” and “persuasive” after the person Woody Allen sexually abused told us what happened to her?
In Dylan Farrow’s case, we are doubly primed to disbelieve her: first, because she is daring to speak out in a climate that is hostile for survivors, and second, because her father is famous and well-liked. As Farrow notes in her open letter, money, fame and power will protect sexual assailants even when the person they sexually assaulted shouts from the rooftops the truth of what happened. Woody Allen fans don’t want to believe he sexually abused his daughter because they want to keep on loving his movies and want him to keep making them. And Hollywood, like its fans, has largely given Allen a pass and continued to reward him. Farrow rightly takes big-name celebrities like Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin to task for helping send the wrong message about child sexual abuse: “the message that Hollywood sends matters …for others [who] are still scared, vulnerable, and struggling for the courage to tell the truth.”
Mainstream U.S. culture teaches us to do our very best to deny the horrors of child sexual abuse. Mother Jones, in their piece about Dylan's open letter, said her story "wasn't easy to get through." Of course it's not. Of course we want to deny the things that happen to children that should never happen to them—should never happen to anyone, no matter their age. It's absolutely and completely heartbreaking, and we should fight like hell to make sure it never happens. But if it does, and a survivor tells us what happened to them, we need to quit it with the traumatizing apologist denials and learn how to say, “I believe you.”
Caitlin Carmody is a writer, activist, and student who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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