The Woody Allen Debate Belongs in the Public Sphere

When an alleged victim of abuse tells her story to the world, it's not any more virtuous to ignore the controversy than it is to take a side.
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Woody Allen. Just saying the name now brings up a host of charges and counter-charges and floods of self-declared experts sparring clumsily with one another in comments threads. The public discussion of Allen's daughter’s allegations against him often amounts to a depressing, infuriating, callous way to deal with the issue of abuse. Unsurprisingly, many folks have responded by arguing that we should cut it out.

Dahlia Lithwick at Slate, for example, rails against the Court of Public Opinion, which is, she says, "what we used to call villagers with flaming torches." She adds, "So go ahead and tweet your truth or publicly shame someone who is tweeting hers, but don’t believe for an instant that this is how complicated factual disputes get resolved or that this will change hearts and minds about our woefully anti-woman, anti-victim culture." Alec Baldwin, who appeared in Allens's latest film, had a briefer, more visceral, but similar response when he responded to requests for a comment by tweeting, "“What the f&@% is wrong w u that u think we all need to b commenting on this family’s personal struggle? You are mistaken if you think there is a place for me, or any outsider, in this family’s issue."

Again, you can understand the logic behind those reactions. But both Lithwick and Baldwin gloss over an important fact. The person who wants this to be tried in the court of public opinion—the person who has invited, and even demanded, comment on the family's personal struggleis Dylan Farrow. And she's done so because she's well aware that the court of public opinion is the only court open to her. Comments threads and social-media discussions may be ugly and awful, but Farrow has made an informed and understandable decision that they are not as ugly and awful as child abuse.

In the very first words of her op-ed, Farrow insists that her readers engage, personally and individually, with her accusations.

What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me.

That couldn't be much clearer. Farrow assumes that you, the reader, have a relationship to Woody Allen; you care about him and you care about his films. And she says that that relationship, what you think about Woody Allen and about his films, needs to be reevaluated in the light of the fact that she says he sexually abused his seven-year-old daughter. She is telling you, and you, and you that you have an ethical duty to consider her experience when you think about Woody Allen.  She is saying that her family matters are, and should be, public. As Andrew Sullivan says of Farrow's opening and closing words, "These are sentences designed to do as much harm to Allen as he allegedly did to her—to pin the crime of child-rape onto every movie he has ever made, to obliterate his legacy as an artist by insisting that his entire oeuvre be viewed through the prism of his monstrousness."

You could see this effort as illegitimate or cruel—as "bitchery" in the poorly chosen words of Stephen King. But to see Dylan's op-ed that way, it seems to me, you have to assume that Farrow's version of events are wrong, and that Allen's are correct. If Allen did molest his seven-year-old daughter, then that's a public and, indeed, political issue, and Farrow's anger is not even a little bit out of proportion.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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