One of the most striking things about Allen v Farrow – the four-part HBO documentary about the child sexual assault allegation made against Woody Allen in 1992, and the civil suits, criminal investigations, and ugly media blitz that followed – is how familiar it all is. In part this is because the events covered are by now three decades old, and have been extensively discussed in the press, most impressively by Maureen Orth in Vanity Fair, and by Dylan Farrow, the daughter Allen allegedly molested when she was seven years old, in the New York Times. But the allegations are also familiar because of how closely Allen’s alleged conduct hews to typical patterns of abuse.
True, there are elements of the story that are decidedly not normal. Most accused child sexual abusers are not famous movie directors, as Allen is. Most cannot promise their victims roles in movies in exchange for their compliance, as Allen allegedly did. Most do not commit their abuse in the attics of quaint Connecticut country houses, while multiple babysitters and a full-time live-in French tutor scour the grounds, looking for the child, as Allen allegedly did. But many of them do the other things that Dylan says Allen did, and in the circumstances that she says he did it: they use the child’s trust in them and their power within the child’s life to acclimate the victim to more and more explicit sexual contact. They isolate them from other family members, and eventually they abuse them, all the while promising rewards for their cooperation and silence. In its examination of Dylan Farrow’s account of her childhood relationship with her adoptive father, Woody Allen, Allen v Farrow documents this pattern with an unwavering detail that makes the series difficult to watch, and Dylan Farrow herself very hard to not believe.
Some critics have said that Allen v Farrow feels formulaic, too much like other #MeToo stories. If that’s true, it is because sexual abuse of the kind alleged in the series is itself a deeply formulaic phenomenon, with recognizable patterns. These patterns are not difficult to identify even if you’re lucky enough to have only a tangential exposure to sexual violence. Perpetrators are usually men, and victims are usually women or girls. The victim is usually someone close to the attacker, but lower on a social or institutional hierarchy – she has less money, or less seniority, or less privilege, or she’s younger. In the aftermath of the abuse, the plot becomes even more reliably grim: she is usually disbelieved, or blamed, or told what happened to her was not really that bad, or told that she deserved it, or told that she’s delusional. Meanwhile, she will watch as her perpetrator’s perspective on the abuse is seen as more interesting and credible.
But Allen v Farrow, like other narrative works that present sexual abuse stories from a victim’s perspective, attempts to interrupt the usual progression of a sexual violence storyline – abuse, disbelief and dismissal – by introducing the potential for a different plot point: vindication.
The particular kind of abuse that Dylan alleges against Allen, incest, also has recognizable patterns. “Incest” is a term that often implies consent, or at least some sort of mutuality, but in reality, incest is what happens when the power imbalances inherent in the family structure are harnessed as a tool of sexual assault. Most often, incest is committed by older male family members against younger female family members – by fathers against their daughters, that is, or by older brothers or cousins against younger female children. In a typical case, the abuser proceeds through several phases in his relationship to the child: first grooming, then isolation, then abuse, then blame. Dylan’s account, presented in Allen v Farrow, is eerily textbook. According to Dylan, Allen first besieged her with attention, affection and praise. He suggested to her that he, and not her mother, was her primary and most trustworthy parent. Then he began to abuse her, committing acts that became more and more physical and sexually suggestive. He would allegedly cuddle her in her underwear, cup her buttocks with his hand, and instruct her on how to suck his thumb. Then he allegedly molested her in the attic. Then he denied it. Check, check, check, check.
But also central to the formula of incest abuse are the denial and disbelief of those around the child victim. Dylan’s mother, Mia Farrow, did not react this way. Instead, she took Dylan to a pediatrician, and videotaped her describing the abuse – footage that is played in the documentary series to haunting effect. Allen says that his sexual relationship with Mia’s daughter Soon-Yi, which she had discovered the previous winter, drove Mia into a state of vengeful delusion, and that this is why she accepted Dylan’s account of abuse. But there is another way to interpret the relationship between the two events: after the discovery that Allen had been sleeping with one of her other daughters, Mia was able to interpret Dylan’s accusation not as unfathomably atypical of Allen, but as a part of a pattern. If anything, this is the element that makes Dylan’s story of sexual abuse unusual: when she told her mother that she had been molested, her mother believed her.
Why does belief of survivors continue to be such a rare and surprising twist in the story of a sexual abuse victim? Maybe because to believe a victim’s account of incestuous abuse means to share in the burden of her pain, and that burden is one that most people do not feel capable of carrying. Denial is easier when acceptance feels impossible. The frequency of incest is hard to measure, but one study found that one in 20 families with a female child have had an incident of father-daughter incestuous abuse. In blended families like Farrow’s, the rates are significantly higher: one in seven such families have had an incident of stepfather-stepdaughter incestuous abuse. But in spite of this disturbing prevalence, public discussions of incestuous child abuse remain taboo. Perhaps the banality of this particular evil is one that many of us still can’t look at clearly.
Allen, of course, assigned himself his own role to play, both in his movies and allegedly in his real life. He cast himself as bumbling, neurotic, flawed and inadequately masculine, and all of this was meant to endear him to his viewers, and to those around him, as adorably maladjusted. But in his films, these personal flaws always need to be redeemed by the end of the 90 minutes, and Allen’s character is nearly always compensated for the pain and humiliation of neurosis with sexual access to a woman – usually one much, much younger than him. In the movies, his neurotic, self-doubting persona is what makes him seem too weak and shambolic to really commit harm, and also what makes it seem narratively appropriate that he always gets the girl.
In Allen v Farrow, the film-makers spend extensive time chronicling the theme of much older men paired with much younger women in Allen’s work, visiting draft scripts housed in the Allen archives at Princeton that show him repeatedly revising downward the ages of his movie love interests. A montage plays of scenes from his movies in which Allen kisses actresses young enough to be his daughters or grandaughters – Juliette Lewis, Mira Sorvino, Mariel Hemingway. They trace, too, the same theme in his life, chronicling his real-life relationships with much younger women such as the teenage model Christina Engelhardt. She appears on camera, now a grown woman, to recount how she began a relationship with the adult Allen when she was in high school, an event she says has damaged her.
Allen’s art and his life are not identical, but any attempt to totally separate the two becomes difficult, if not outfight foolhardy, when the artist so transparently uses his art as an avenue for wish fulfillment. The series suggests that for Allen, in his films and in his life, the alleged sexual abuse of women and girls was a conciliation for his sense of emasculation, but also that his performative emasculation proved a useful cover for his abuse. This is a recognizable formula, too – a repetitive, unimaginative and damaging one.
The very repetitiveness and predictability of sexual abuse are part of why the disbelief of women is often expressed as a refusal of pattern recognition. According to Allen and his defenders, his art is fiction and not representative of his inner psyche, his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn is loving if unconventional, other women who have accused him of impropriety when they were young are either lying or overstating their harm, and Dylan’s account is a lie concocted by her scorned and vengeful mother. It’s possible that all this is true, but to believe that you would have to believe in a long series of implausible coincidences, vast conspiracies of female vindictiveness and lies, including multiple incidents of perjury, and remarkable and consistent bad luck on Allen’s part. It would require you to believe that Allen’s prolifically inappropriate behavior towards Dylan was all a misunderstanding, and that Dylan herself, now an adult, has been living a lie for decades. These propositions are fantastical and unlikely, like something out of a movie. At a certain point, the refusal to see a pattern in Allen’s art and alleged conduct transforms into complicity.
If there is a singular takeaway from Allen v Farrow, it is the danger of this willful ignorance. The series is the most rigorous and detailed look at the case from Dylan’s perspective yet. It is fiercely and defiantly loyal to her, and as a document of the experience of abuse and its aftermath, it is moving, elegant, and sensitive. The last episode in particular pays touching attention to Dylan’s full humanity, the adult life she has had the tenacity and strength to build in the aftermath of what happened to her.
But the documentary is also hemmed in by the need to justify this loyalty, to pre-emptively address the counterarguments that will be made by Allen’s defenders and to explain, over and over again, why believing Dylan is reasonable. If #MeToo narratives can be said to have their own formal conventions, this is one of them: the constant need to anticipate the skepticism of a doubting audience, and to legitimize an accusing woman’s story with the credibility of investigation, institutional support and the testimony of male experts. It’s a reasonable stance for the series to take, but the very necessity of this approach can be dispiriting. After all, a series like Allen v Farrow would not have been necessary if the public had believed Dylan in the first place.