Dylan Farrow, Woody Allen, and the Importance of Believing Survivors

In this guest blog post, Beth Sherouse discusses the importance of believing survivors--regardless of an alleged perpetrator's talent, influence, and community standing.

When Woody Allen received the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes several weeks ago, Ronan Farrow, Allen’s estranged son with former partner Mia Farrow tweeted, “Missed the Woody Allen tribute - did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?” And then the Internet exploded. In the weeks since Ronan Farrow’s tweet, the media have revived discussion of the 1992 controversy where, in the midst of a heated custody battle, Mia Farrow’s 7-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan, accused Allen of molesting her in Farrow’s attic. An investigation into the allegations was inconclusive, and Allen has denied them. But now, as Allen’s fans have rushed to his defense, Dylan Farrow has spoken out about her abuse in the New York Times. Before Ronan Farrow’s tweet, I had never heard of the allegations against Allen. I did know that Allen left Mia Farrow for another of her adopted daughters, Soon-Yi, when he was 56 and she was 19, which is a little creepy, but not illegal, and certainly not as horrifying as molesting a 7-year-old.

Several days ago, an acquaintance posted a link to a piece on The Daily Beast by documentary filmmaker Robert Weide, entitled “The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast,” accompanied with a comment declaring Allen “a national treasure.” Weide’s piece defends Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi, slut-shames Mia Farrow for her relationships with married men, and lists multiple reasons why he believes Dylan lied. Among those reasons, Weide raises the no-one-really-knows-what-happened defense, and claims, 

If Mia’s account is true, 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.

Weide attributes a level of pragmatism to Allen that those of us who are survivors or have worked with survivors know rarely enters an abuser’s mind. Weide also points to contradictions in Dylan’s statements to the police, which assumes that a traumatized 7-year-old should be consistent in her descriptions of acts that she does not even understand. Weide’s claims are incredibly problematic and unfortunately representative of a society in which survivors of sexual assault are treated with suspicion first and justice later.

Several days after Weide’s piece, New York Times blogger and activist Nicholas Kristof ran an open letter from Dylan Farrow on his blog. “For as long as I could remember,” Dylan recalls, “my father had been doing things to me that I didn’t like.” She recalls Allen grooming her with physical contact that made her feel uncomfortable and that any adult would recognize as inappropriate. “These things happened so often, so routinely, so skillfully hidden from a mother that would have protected me had she known, that I thought it was normal,” she explains. “I thought this was how fathers doted on their daughters. But what he did to me in the attic felt different. I couldn’t keep the secret anymore.” I’m sure that many survivors of childhood sexual abuse could have written these words themselves.

As a survivor advocate, I have learned the incredible stigmas and often insurmountable challenges survivors face—the skepticism, the accusations, the gaslighting, the legal system that denies justice to all but 3% of survivors. Like Wiebe and the rest of the world, I don’t know what happened in that attic that day, but unlike Wiebe and the rest of the skeptics out there, my default setting is not to assume she is lying. As Kristof said in response to Dylan’s letter, “hundreds of thousands of boys and girls are abused each year, and they deserve support and sensitivity. When evidence is ambiguous, do we really need to leap to our feet and lionize an alleged molester?”

Dylan was there and she does know what happened, and now she has told the world. For her and every other survivor of sexual assault and abuse, it is imperative that our reaction as a society is to believe such accusations, no matter how talented and influential the alleged perpetrator is. We must also realize that so often abusers are not simply monsters or saints. Sexual abusers can be pillars of the community, they can be beloved friends or family members, they can be popular musicians like R. Kelly, and they can be famous and talented filmmakers like Roman Polanski… or Woody Allen.

Beth Sherouse recently earned her Ph.D. in History from the University of South Carolina. She has been a gay rights activist for 10 years and has a passion for politics, local government, and rescuing basset hounds.