Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Woody Allen, Certainty, and the Death of Nuance

Woody Allen
I have to begin this post by saying that I'm a Woody Allen fan. I have loved his films for a very long time, and I love them still. There is no way that I can claim not to have a bias in this issue. Unless you've been living in a cave for the last few days, you probably have seen the recent flurry of pieces dealing with accusations that Allen molested his daughter Dylan (now named Malone) in 1992. This was sparked just after the Golden Globes, where Mia Farrow and her son Ronan tweeted comments about Allen's alleged crimes after a tribute to him aired during the ceremony. The story exploded once the New York Times published a heart-wrenching essay written by Dylan Farrow about her claims against her father.
And then the Internet exploded into a massive argument, as the Internet is wont to do. At this point, it seems to me that popular culture in general has devolved into a less funny version of Even Stevphen from the Daily Show.   In this case, the opinion split into two categories, those certain Dylan's claims are true, and those certain that Allen is innocent until proven guilty.

I've thought about this issue for a while, with people who know I'm a fan asking me how I feel about this issue, as if my opinion even mattered. I decided to review all the facts I could find on the case, and I found myself reaching an opinion and even more interestingly, reaching an opinion on having an opinion in this age of blogs, tweets and anonymous Internet forums.

The facts are that in 1992, Mia Farrow discovers Allen is having a relationship with her 21 year old adopted daughter Soon-Yi when she finds explicit photos of her taken by Allen. Of course, the discovery prompts a split, and a bitter and ugly custody battle ensues over the children that Allen and Farrow adopted together, including Dylan, then 7.
In August of that year, during the custody battle, Allen visits Farrow's home and spends between 4-10 minutes alone with Dylan in an attic, which is when the sexual assault is supposed to have occurred. Farrow videotapes Dylan's claim, though there are numerous stops and starts in the video when viewed later. An investigation into the charge begins. During this time, Vanity Fair publishes an article telling Mia's side of the story, and the article claims that Allen's relationship with Dylan was always bizarre, and includes an assertion from a nanny that she observed some of this bizarre behaviour. Allen offers to take a polygraph regarding the abuse claims, and passes. Also, another nanny comes forward and states that she didn't see any unusual behaviour, and suggests Mia might have tried to pressure her into making claims she did.

After seven months, the investigation concludes. Child abuse experts from Yale-New
Haven hospital conclude that the abuse didn't happen, that Dylan was either fabricating it, or it had been implanted by her mother. Allen loses his custody battle, and while the judge says he doesn't know if the molestation happened or not, he doesn't consider Allen to be a good father, and he finds the report from the experts inconclusive. A prosecutor claims that he had "probable cause" to charge Allen and an arrest warrant had been drawn, but he decided not to move forward, partially for fear it would further damage Dylan. In 1997, Allen marries Soon-Yi, and the two have been married ever since, and have adopted two daughters, both now in their teens.

These are just a few of the facts of the case, there are many more, of course. For much of the intervening years, the allegations of molestation receded into the background, forgotten by many. However, the recent attention has brought all this up again, and what blows my mind is the way the argument gets framed.

Those that support the claim made by Dylan tend to accuse those that support Allen's version of events of demonizing the victim. Let me start off by saying that I don't know if Dylan's claims are true or if these are falsehoods imagined by her or implanted by her mother (either accidentally or maliciously). In any case, this woman deserves nothing but our sympathy because either way, her life has been forever impacted by this. But my questioning the story of the victim, in this particular case, doesn't mean that I think victims who make these claims shouldn't automatically be believed. Of course they should. And those investigations should be taken as far as they possibly can to ensure we get justice for the victims. If the prosecutor in this case is to be believed that he felt they had enough evidence to proceed, then not doing so has clearly turned out to be a failure of this young woman.
And in a way, it's also a failure of Allen, if his claims of innocence are to be believed. Being accused of what he's accused of is perhaps the most damning charge in our society. To be accused of preying on children is a charge that never goes away, no matter what exoneration may follow. In case you think these kinds of allegations are always true, I'd refer you to the McMartin case. These kinds of cases are far, far less common that cases where the victim's charges are true, but they do happen. An investigation might have finally vindicated Allen, if he truly is innocent. He has certainly behaved as if he is, submitting to and passing a polygraph, never prevaricating, never softening or altering his message.
Mia Farrow
My point is, no one will ever know. And my decision to not boycott Woody Allen does not mean I think we shouldn't believe abuse victims, nor does it mean I think it's impossible that the allegations are true. For anyone who isn't a Farrow or Woody Allen, this is a matter of opinion. And this is where the Internet, and our current society,  gets crazy. Because at some point, we as a people started to believe that our opinion is the only opinion, and those who disagree are wrong, stupid or morally inferior. My personal decision to continue to enjoy Allen's art doesn't mean I support child molestation, or that I don't support victim's rights. It doesn't mean I don't think Allen's decision to have a relationship with his partner's adopted daughter was a wise and appropriate move, even though based on all evidence they seem to have a happy marriage 22 years later. It simply means that I have looked at all the facts that I'm privy to, and formed an opinion. It's not truth. It is not better than anyone's opposite opinion. Am I biased because I like his art? Absolutely. Are others biased in the opposite direction because they don't? Absolutely.

But what I largely take issue with is this idea that how I feel about this particular case is indicative of how I feel about child molestation and victim's rights in total. That my uncertainty about this victim's specific story indicates that I support "blaming the victim". Child abuse experts, investigators, lawyers and judges charged with investigating this very case couldn't come to a consensus about what happened, couldn't even agree that the abuse ever happened at all, so how could anyone who has been reading Vanity Fair think they know what occurred? There's a dearth of critical thought and discourse that is happening in our society, one that has eroded our ability to look for nuanced solutions to complicated issues.

We are now a society of people who are all-certain, all the time, with very little reason to be so and even less inclination to question our preconceptions with research, critical thought or civil discourse. From politics to legal issues to Miley Cyrus' twerking, we all just scream at each other immediately without taking more than five seconds to post to twitter, without listening to one another or without respecting that we don’t have to agree. It's made me less likely to speak about an issue like Woody Allen unless I'm talking to people who'll agree with me because I don't want to be shouted at for advocating child abuse, and how can anything good come from people not talking to each other?

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