It’s not my intent to argue Woody Allen’s guilt or innocence. For better or worse, plenty of other people have done that already. I’d rather focus on part of Dylan Farrow’s open letter that addresses the many other sexual assault survivors out there who are still afraid to tell their stories.
Farrow’s open letter is harrowing, painful, clear, challenging. It’s the letter someone writes after many years of suffering, having finally found a stable position of strength and support to speak from. Her story is not an easy one to tell, whether or not the accused is famous and beloved. According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, “an average of 60% of assaults in the last five years were not reported”. I personally have several friends who have never even told their families about the sexual assault they experienced. Many of them have horror stories of mental health professionals regarding them coldly and skeptically once they tried to tell their story. A perusal of Project Unbreakable on Tumblr (though it certainly deserves more than a perusal) quickly illustrates how often victim testimonies are met with hostility and skepticism by families, friends, medical professionals, and police.
It’s understandable to an extent. Most cases of sexual assault are made by individuals the victim knows personally, and more than likely the friends and family know this person, too. It’s hard to accept that a person you regarded as “good” and safe has sexually assaulted someone you care about. On the scale of insensitive responses, at best the loved one tries to find out if there’s been a misunderstanding and at worst the loved one accuses the victim of lying or deserving it.
This is part of the reason it matters so much that Farrow was able to publicly share her story on her own terms and that as fellow humans our first response is to listen. If you already decided that you knew what happened before reading her statement, you are just as guilty of bias as the “lynch mob” you rail against. If you already decided you knew what happened before reading her statement, you are part of the problem.
We need to have space in our society for victims to speak and to be given the benefit of empathetic doubt. Even if the account given by Farrow is not factually true, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she is a liar. Instead, let’s consider that she is a woman who genuinely, unwaveringly believes that she was molested by her adopted father when she was seven years old. This account is supported by her mother and brother. There is no evidence and no legal recourse.
That is tragic. That is common. Whether or not it happened, she has carried a terrible pain and fear inside her throughout her whole life. The evidence of suggestibility of children does not exonerate Allen or condemn Farrow. If anything, it simply further implies that Farrow is not the scheming, lying cow some have claimed her to be. She has suffered. There is no justice for her, as there is no justice for many sexual assault victims.
Farrow is certainly a victim, but as the result of which moral transgression specifically, that’s less concrete. In any case, her action – an attempt to tell her story, to tell the truth – should be regarded as brave. It is brave.
Some responses have been disheartening. Stephen King, whose opinion I typically appreciate, described Farrow’s letter as containing “palpable bitchiness” on Twitter. Somewhat anonymous voices in the comments sections of various articles and on Twitter have suggested that she just wants attention. One response that I found particularly unsettling was the vehemently argued position by some men that we absolutely cannot trust the testimony of sexual assault victims because otherwise men will become the victims of false testimony.
That’s certainly a possibility, and it does happen. Does that make it okay for sexual assault victims to carry the burden of injustice themselves? Why is it always better for a sister, a wife, a friend to be doubted rather than her attacker? The power distribution is blatantly lopsided.
Imbalances stand a chance to be rectified when they are acknowledged and discussed. The article written by Patrick Perion, A Child Abuse Investigator’s View of The Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow Case, addresses issues of miscommunication and ignorance about child abuse investigations. You don’t need to be an expert to realize that people are more likely to react poorly to something they refuse to acknowledge except when immediately faced with the crisis at hand than if there’s public, on-going discussion aimed at awareness and fairness.
Aaron Bady’s Woody Allen’s Good Name makes a similar point: “In the court of public opinion, a woman accusing a great film director of raping her has no credibility which his fans are bound to respect. He has something to lose, his good name. She does not, because she does not have a good name. She is living in hiding, under an assumed name. And when she is silent, the Daily Beast does not rise to her defense.”
The Daily Beast article being referred to here is the one written by Robert Weide. Weide demanded that we consider the known facts before sending Allen to the firing squad, certainly a righteous demand to be made. However, Weide gave himself away when he published Farrow’s new name, the name around which she has built her stabilized life. If he was truly empathetic to her, whether it’s deeply rooted manipulation from her mother or sexual assault from her father, he would have respected the privacy of her name.
He wouldn’t refer to alleged sexual assault as “shall we say, touch[ing] her inappropriately”, as if he was, shall we say, re-hashing a conversation about sexual exploits between two consenting adults in a movie. And why did he use quotations when referring to the anticipated accusation that he is blaming the victim? Jessica Winter’s Don’t Listen to Woody Allen’s Biggest Defender outlines the problematic tone of Weide’s piece very well.
These are passive acts, yet still potent. They speak volumes. They speak to sexual assault victims who still cannot tell their story without once again being victimized by those who should listen. If we cannot listen and then speak without diminishing the person brave enough to share their account of the truth, how can we hope to assist in the healing of a society that has too long ignored the varied, nuanced, and profound suffering of its own people?
Lena Dunham put it best when she said, via Twitter, “The response to the response to the response doesn’t matter. What matters is that a victim spoke and, in doing so, reversed her victimhood.” And then in a following tweet, “We should be thankful to Dylan. We must begin to heal, to change the way in which we process and respond to stories of abuse.”