In defense of Woody Allen… sort of

I have to admit that my first response upon reading Dylan Farrow’s open letter was a rather inappropriate one: I found myself thinking ‘who does she think she is? Bush?‘ As I said, not the most appropriate, or charitable, of responses under the circumstances, but the thing is that while I have no way of knowing whether or not her allegations are true, I found her attitude of ‘if you are not with me you are against me’, and her assumption that the fact that one of the most influential filmmakers of the past half century -a man who is fast approaching eighty, and who was never charged with a crime, let alone convicted- was being presented with a lifetime achievement award was all about her to be more than a little jarring.

No, I’m not denying that her hurt is real, nor am I denying that she is convinced that what she is saying is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In fact I’m not even denying the possibility that the events may have unfolded just like she says they did. I wasn’t there, so I can do nothing but speculate. What I do know is that our memories are seldom as reliable as we like to think they are, so I can’t help but to feel that her story -a story I personally feel has a few too many holes to be entirely believable- shouldn’t be enough to damn the man… especially not in light of the climate of hatred that is likely to have permeated the Farrow household at the time, a climate of hatred that seven-year old Dylan wouldn’t have had the means to recognize, defend against, or escape.

Oh, that doesn’t mean that we should hail Woody Allen as some sort of saint or anything like that. As most people, I believe that even if there are no legal impediments to such a union, common decency would seem to suggest that you should cross your children’s half-siblings off you list of potential love interests, and the fact that he chose to pursue such a relationship in the first place speaks of a level of self-centeredness that I find, or rather found, truly appalling. Things get a little more complicated, however, when the fact that, in spite of its rather inauspicious beginnings, his relationship with Soon-Yi has been going strong for well over twenty years is factored into the equation. That means that, even though something of that yuck factor still remains, it was clearly not the mindless fling it was assumed to be at the time, so that maybe we should let the happy couple move on with their lives (or rather we should move on with ours, because I suspect that they did that a very long time ago, and don’t particularly care what we think).

The problem is that keeping Dylan’s allegations separate from the instinctive sense of ickiness that is triggered by her father’s relationship with Soon-Yi can be difficult. Simply put, it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that while it is safe to say that a pedophile is a creep, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a creep is a pedophile… and the fact that in too many people’s minds Woody Allen has most definitely been labeled as ‘a creep’, makes it all too easy to assume that Dylan’s allegations are true.

So what do we have here? A creep sexually abusing his seven-year old daughter, or a young girl that was a pawn in the middle of one of the most acrimonious and public custody battles anyone can remember, and whose memories of those days are likely to be more than a little distorted? That’s a question that’s bound to remain unanswered, though I have to say that while as far as I can tell there is room for plenty of doubt when it comes to the former of those possibilities, there is a lot less ambiguity when it comes to the latter (of course, it could also be a matter of ‘and’ rather than ‘or’).

Anyway, the thing is that at the time Mia Farrow chose to use her children as pawns, she made it abundantly clear that she was willing to do whatever it took to bring Woody Allen down, and we can only speculate on the question of whether she was doing it for Dylan’s sake, or if Dylan was the pawn she chose to sacrifice in her attempt to get back at him. Either way it is fair to say that Mia’s attitude -and not just Woody’s relationship with Soon-Yi- has to be taken into account when trying to make sense out of what happened back then, and of how those events may have shaped the adult Dylan’s perceptions.

No, that doesn’t mean her allegations should be dismissed out of hand, but given how serious the charges she is leveling against her father happen to be, I believe that Woody Allen deserves the benefit of the doubt. Simply put, the fact remains that there is no evidence other than Dylan’s own words, and moving as they may be, those words are nowhere near enough to change the fundamental equation here.

Oh, I get why the fact that a sexual abuse cases, especially those involving children, can be so difficult to prove infuriates us at a fundamental level, why is it that they offend our sense of fairness and trigger our desire to protect the most vulnerable. I understand why we have an almost instinctive need to rush to those children’s defense, and that the idea of challenging their accounts seems all but unthinkable. The problem is that false accusations are fairly common (especially in the course of bitter custody battles and the like), and given that you can’t really prove a negative, justice demands that the burden of proof remain on the side of the accuser. That’s why it is innocent until proven guilty, and not the other way around. I’m not saying that a child’s version of the events can never be compelling enough to be believed, or at least cast a significant amount of doubt -in fact, except for allegations that surface in the course of a divorce, where I tend to be a little more cautious because there is a side that stands to gain from the allegations, I usually side with the victim- but the problem is that, as far as I’m concerned Dylan’s account doesn’t even come close to reaching that particular threshold.

Why do I say that? Well, to begin with we have her open letter, a letter she claims she only decided to write upon hearing of his latest Oscar nomination. The problem is that this letter does not exist in isolation. It comes after months of her mother and her brother beating on the war drums and waging a very public, one sided, media campaign that was clearly intended to bring these allegations back into the forefront, a campaign in which she herself had been an active, albeit minor, participant up to this point. In other words there is something that doesn’t add up in the narrative that seeks to portray her as a woman who suddenly reached her breaking point and decided that the time had come for her to speak up. In fact that open letter comes across as something closer to an intended final blow in a well orchestrated campaign that has been going on for a while.

Is this perception accurate? Again, I don’t know, but in my mind it does a lot to detract from Dylan’s credibility (as do a number of inconsistencies that have been pointed out elsewhere, such as the claustrophobe in the attic scenario, the fact that there have been no other allegations before or since, and the time and place of the alleged incident). In the end we are left with a choice, we can go with her emotional appeal, and say evidence be damned, or we can acknowledge that the evidence is just not there and acknowledge that, distasteful as it may be at times, it is the accused who should be granted the benefit of the doubt.

Yes, once upon a time there was a chance that this one might have been settled in a court of law, but that chance has long since passed. Twenty years ago someone -either Mia or the state attorney- decided not to press charges, effectively denying Dylan Farrow her day in court and Woody Allen the chance to clear his name. That was not Woody Allen’s decision, and I suspect it wasn’t even what he deemed the best possible outcome, as it has left him living under a cloud of suspicion for well over two decades. That is a position that the internet, where gossip instantly becomes fact, where there are no rules of evidence, no presumption of innocence, no editorial review, no fact checking, and where everyone can have a forum (though few of us, especially those of us that, in Dylan’s own words, ‘don’t have money or publicists or limos or fancy apartments in Manhattan’ could hope to land some prime real estate in the New York Times), makes that much more perilous.

So back to the basic question, did he do it? My gut tells me that the answer to that particular question is no, but that’s just a personal opinion based on nothing but what’s out in the media. The problem is that the fact that I, and pretty much everyone else, have already made up our minds doesn’t mean that this scandal will go away any time soon, and even though Woody penned and published an open letter in the New York Times today rebuking Dylan’s account, and finished it with these words:

This piece will be my final word on this entire matter and no one will be responding on my behalf to any further comments on it by any party. Enough people have been hurt.

we already have Dylan’s reply to that particular statement:

Woody Allen has an arsenal of lawyers and publicists but the one thing he does not have on his side is the truth. I hope this is the end of his vicious attacks and of the media campaign by his lawyers and publicists as he’s promised. I won’t let the truth be buried and I won’t be silenced.

In other words, even though one side is refusing to engage, it looks like this one-sided media war has a long way to go.

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