Why Young Sexual Assault Victims Tell Incoherent Stories

As soon as children make allegations, they're forced to take a crash course on a very daunting topic. This puts them at a huge disadvantage—and their attackers count on it.

In the heated debate over Woody Allen, there is one thing people seem to agree on: The public can never be sure what exactly happened that day in 1992. Dylan Farrow says her father led her into an attic room and sexually molested her. Allen insists he’s innocent. His supporters—including his friend and documentarian Robert B. Weide, who defended him in The Daily Beast last weekend—argue that a review of the evidence may even suggest that Farrow’s mother planted false memories in her mind. Meanwhile, publications like Jezebel, Salon, and The New Republic have tried to take a balanced perspective, reminding readers that the truth is unknowable.

Yet there is something inherently imbalanced about a child abuse case. The very secrecy that makes the truth “unknowable” is an instrument of the crime. With no witnesses or credible legal evidence, the “he said/she said” conundrum prevails. The assailant knows this, and he can use it to his advantage. As soon as children make allegations, they enter a world filled with adult concepts—ideas they themselves don’t entirely understand. In order to even tell their stories, they have to learn a new language, putting vague, undefined feelings into unfamiliar words. The whole drama plays out in a grown-up context, which means the grown-up always has the upper hand. Neutrality never even has a chance.

I know this from personal experience. When I was 8 years old, I was molested by a much older cousin while he was babysitting. He spent hours taunting me and my 5-year-old sister, threatening that if we didn’t behave he’d unzip his pants. Then he led me into the bathroom while my sister watched TV. He fastened the latch on the door, which was higher than I could reach, and ridiculed me when I didn’t want to do the things he told me to. So I did them . He kept me there with him, locked in the bathroom, until it was time for bed.

But he and I are the only people in the world who know for sure what happened. I can’t prove a single word of it, and my cousin was never charged with a crime. I am grateful that my parents took the situation so seriously, and I haven’t seen him since. Like Woody Allen, he moved on. He has a house, a wife, and a kid.

As so many writers have reminded us, Allen is not a convicted criminal. Even Nicholas Kristof emphasized this in his introduction to Farrow’s February 1 letter: “It’s important to note that Woody Allen was never prosecuted in this case and has consistently denied wrongdoing; he deserves the presumption of innocence.” And Allen’s defenders continue to remind the public that an independent investigation by a Yale medical team found no reason to conclude the charges were true. Furthermore, they insist, Dylan’s stories were inconsistent and rehearsed.

The problem is that if young victims can be dismissed for sounding inconsistent and rehearsed, then the whole game is rigged from the beginning.

Farrow says that when she first told her mother what Allen had done, she “didn’t know the firestorm it would trigger.” That was my experience as well. In fact, it was my little sister who brought the story to light—when she asked my parents if they’d ever heard my cousin threatening to unzip his pants, I was angry at her for acting like a little kid. I thought keeping quiet meant I was acting like an adult. I bought into my cousin’s cool teenage cachet; although I felt wrong about what had happened, I assumed the problem was me.

When my alarmed parents sat me down to draw out every detail of what had happened, trying to construct a timeline and zeroing in on specific actions and body parts, I was terrified by their seriousness. The conversation was such an important one that we had it sitting right where we were when my sister brought up the subject: on the stairs. It’s hard to give an accurate account of something when you’re under that kind of strange pressure—when the facts are suddenly so palpably urgent that you can’t even move to a chair. The seeds of “narrative inconsistency” are planted right then, before you even know why the story matters.

This is why amassing evidence in childhood sexual assault cases is a dirty game. My parents filed a police report a few days after the incident, and I was questioned by a state investigator. She came to my school one morning, pulling me out of class for some fabricated reason that struck me even then as bogus. I remember sitting there with her for a long time. When she steered the conversation toward the investigation, she started to ask if I knew the clinical words for my private parts. She very carefully explained that there were no wrong answers, and that I was not in trouble. But I phrased my answers in a way that would deflect follow-up. I was acutely aware that I was the only person in my class who had to do this, and that the game of “Heads Up, Seven Up” I was missing was probably a lot more fun.

After I'd spoken with investigators and my parents, I am sure my account sounded just as rehearsed as Dylan Farrow's. The story was mine, but the words were new to me. I had to internalize a context and vocabulary based on the way adults interacted with my story. I had to learn which details were the most important. In short, I was pushed through an intensive course on a daunting topic very, very quickly. If this was also Dylan Farrow’s experience— if her mother also had to teach her what all of this meant and why it was serious—then that was a very different thing from being “coached.”

My parents chose not to torment me by moving forward with criminal charges, and we probably never had a case. But 19 years later, I know two things. I know that all of it absolutely happened— and I know that there is absolutely nothing I can do to prove that I was not a confused kid who invented a convoluted story.

You might sense that I’m biased toward believing Dylan Farrow. You’d be right. Her letter was so strikingly familiar— right down to the dutiful storytelling interrupted by clinical gloss-overs— that I find it difficult not to believe her. But I also know that if Woody Allen had gone to trial and I were on the jury, I would have declared him not guilty. Chances are, the other jurors would have found him not guilty, too. Crime and law are grown-up games, and they need to be played according to grown-up rules.

But the fact that we will never know what really happened in this case does not make me feel neutral. It makes me feel furious. The entire legal paradigm favors adults. Whether or not Woody Allen abused Dylan Farrow, untold numbers of  children are sexually abused. And in an overwhelming number of cases, the adults responsible could never be found guilty in any court of law. The deck is stacked against victims from the start. Which, of course, is exactly what their abusers count on in the first place.