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.


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.

We view child abuse as political when it happens in more distant places. It's readily acknowledged, for example, that the abuse of wives and children in Afghan families is a human rights issue that merits attention not only in Afghanistan, but internationally. Closer to home, though, it can be harder to see. When people speak out about sexual harassment in the comics industry, as just one example that I'm familiar with, they often are told that they are making a big deal out of nothing, or that these sorts of interpersonal issues shouldn't or don't need to be aired in a public setting.

This is why the statement "the personal is political" is so central to feminism. Issues associated with abuse or oppression of women and children are labeled as "private" and therefore outside the sphere of public discussion. Thus, the Catholic Church convinced itself to cover up for so many rapes of children over so many years. Thus, Penn State was able to look the other way about Jerry Sandusky. Speaking about the crime was seen as shameful in itself; the institutions preferred to cover it up and let it continue rather than to consign it to the court of public opinion.

Farrow, for her part, has few options other than that court. Prosecuting the case now, 20 years later, would be difficult and expensive. But to remain silent, to treat it as a family matter, means that Allen continues on as he has—wealthy, powerful, widely admired, showered with industry awards and accolades.  It means that Farrow's life is erased; it means that what she says happened to her doesn't matter. Public opinion is the only way to hold Allen to any sort of account; it's the only way to make venues like the Golden Globes think twice, or three times, or more, before giving him awards for career achievements. It's the only way to make actors like Alec Baldwin consider Dylan Farrow before signing on to be in a Woody Allen picture. And it's the only way to make people think about child abuse when they ask, "What's your favorite Woody Allen movie?" You can't make child abuse visible if you don't make it public. And without visibility—as Farrow is aware every time she sees an ad for an Allen movie or someone wearing his face on a shirt—there is no justice.

As is probably fairly clear at this point, I think Allen is a child abuser. (I find Maureen Orth's recent piece in Vanity Fair, Jon Lovett's discussion, and Jessica Winter's article especially convincing.) I think the evidence is quite clear; if I were on a jury, knowing what I know now, I would convict.  I am aware that others can honestly disagree, and I respect that. But I do wish people would stop insisting that the conversation is inappropriate, or that it is somehow more virtuous to not take a side. If we all just stay above the fray, and insist that the existence of abuse here is unknowable—that, de facto, means that Allen wins. If no one is judging, if no one will discuss his family life, he can go on as he always has, and, presumably, keep collecting those lifetime achievement awards. Farrow is asking you to take a side and to see this as a public issue. If you don't, you should at least be aware whose wishes you are honoring, and whose you are not.