This is what scares me about serving on a jury. This is why I’d never want to be a police detective, or a prosecutor, or work in any field where lives and reputations depend on quick and sure recognition of liars. I tell myself I’m a great judge of character and that I know the truth when I hear it—but the truth is, there are liars whose skill at evasion greatly overpower my skill at detection. And this means that with some cases, some real-life examples of horror and depravity, I’m unlikely to ever know the truth.
In the case of Woody Allen and his adopted daughter Dylan, someone is lying. I just don’t know who it is.
In August 1992, when Dylan was 7 years old, her parents Woody Allen and Mia Farrow were going through an ugly, acrimonious break-up. In the midst of that, Allen visited Farrow and her many children (some of them, not all, were also Allen’s) at the family’s country home in Bridgewater, Connecticut. This was just a few months after the public revelation that Allen, then 55, was leaving Farrow for her 22-year-old daughter Soon-Yi (who’d been adopted by Farrow and her then-husband, composer André Previn).
Those facts are not in dispute. What happened next very much is.
Either something unspeakable happened in that house, specifically in the attic—or, if you’d believe Allen’s version, nothing untoward happened at all. Either Allen utterly betrayed the very ideal of fatherhood, or Mia Farrow molded and used her daughter as a pawn in a family’s disintegration.
As repugnant as it is (no matter which version is true), it’s not at all an unusual scenario. It’s being played out right now, in courtrooms and behind closed family doors, all around the world. The difference here is that from 1992 right up to the present day, this one is being played and replayed in tabloids, talk-shows and online, in front of us all.
In late January, Robert Weide, who’d directed a PBS documentary on Woody Allen, authored a Daily Beast piece on this story, coming down definitively on Allen’s side. In particular, he cited both inconsistencies in Mia Farrow’s statements and actions, and court records which found the allegations “inconclusive;” to suggest that Woody Allen had been unfairly accused. In much the same vein, Allen himself has just published an op-ed in the New York Times, which he says will be his “final word on the matter.” Like Weide, he paints Farrow as a manipulative liar; like Weide, he cites as convincing the fact that he, Allen, took and passed a lie-detector test, while Farrow refused to submit to one.
On the somewhat more objective side, Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth gives us 10 Undeniable Facts About the Woody Allen Sexual-Abuse Allegation. Regarding that lie-detector test, she informs us that Allen refused to take one administered by the Connecticut State Police, instead sitting for one performed by his own legal team. She also mentions several disturbing examples of Allen’s behavior, particularly toward young Dylan.
Perhaps most compelling of all, and the spark that has reignited this controversy, was An Open Letter From Dylan Farrow, which appeared in Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog on February 1. She was writing, she said, as response to Allen’s Academy Award nomination, and she began with words that can only chill you: What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? Before you answer, you should know…. She followed that with an account of what she says happened in that attic, and other examples that, if true, make Woody Allen nothing less than a monster.
In the end, none of this is evidence. All of it is allegation and counter-accusation. All of it, once again, makes me thankful that no one is relying on me to discern the truth. All of it tempts me mightily to shrug and say— “What difference does it make? It’s a family affair, it’s not my family, and I have no way of knowing what really happened.”
Except…that’s too easy. And too much is at stake. Either an actress whose work I’ve enjoyed has falsely accused a man. Or a director whose work I’ve (somewhat less) enjoyed is and should be beneath my contempt.
Which leads me to the question of what I would do if I could know the truth. Would I feel compelled to eschew the work of someone I knew to be guilty? Could I separate the art from the artist? In 2009, McKenzie Phillips published High On Arrival, in which she made horrible, explosive allegations against her deceased father, musician John Phillips. I read the book, I believe her, and I’m now convinced that John Phillips was the worst kind of scum. Yet I still enjoy his music. What does that say about me?
It’s an uncomfortable question, but I’m not sure it’s a very relevant one as long as I’m stuck in this limbo of not knowing the truth. But in regard to that, I’ll finish with one last personal anecdote:
In 1997, a police captain in my Northeast Ohio hometown was arrested for the murder of his wife. The evidence against him seemed overwhelming, and the general opinion of most people I spoke with was that he was guilty. I guess I felt the same way.
The verdict and sentencing was carried live on local radio, and I was listening. I remember very clearly the statement he delivered before being given a life sentence. He said, “You’ve convicted an innocent man.” He was very convincing, at least to me, and I recall that this was the first time I realized I couldn’t rely on my own ability to discern liars from truth-tellers.
About a year ago, his conviction was overturned based on DNA evidence, and he went free after 15 years in prison. I think, but I cannot be sure, that this validates the uncanny feeling I had that when I heard, “You’ve convicted an innocent man,” I was hearing the truth.
Throughout the Allen/Farrow trial-in-public I’ve been reading conflicting accounts, and with almost all of them I’ve had that I can’t know the truth feeling of detached helplessness. Almost all of them. It was only when I read Dylan Farrow’s open letter that something inside me told me I was reading the truth.
Here’s how she ended it: Imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter. Are you imagining that? Now, what’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?
I think she’s telling the truth. I think Woody Allen sexually abused her. I think that makes him a criminal, a degenerate, an outcast, and an outlaw. I think he should never again be celebrated as a filmmaker, but instead should be pilloried as a predator.
But—and here’s the crux of the matter—I can’t be sure. I could be wrong. I can only hope for some eventual resolution of this thing, whereby the liars are exposed, the guilty are punished, and the victims, somehow, find comfort. And I can only be thankful, once again, that no one is depending on me to make that happen.