Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dylan and Ronan Farrow, and Woody Allen

So much is at stake in the recent events involving Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen. What could be worse than a sexually abused child, now grown-up, facing denial on the part of the perpetrator and others,  with accusations of falsifying reality?  Not only is she betrayed by someone on whom she has to rely, but her sense of reality is challenged, perhaps threatened and undermined, by people who tell her that she did not experience what she experienced.

Less horrifying, but still extremely disturbing, is the prospect of an adult being falsely accused of having perpetrated a monstrous act on a child. The adult's sense of reality, of what he did and did not do, is more stable and solid than a child's sense of the reality of her experience.  Nonetheless, as we know from Kafka, a persecutory atmosphere can drive a person crazy, undermining his sense of reality and of his own innocence.

With the stakes so high, there is a tremendous need to know what actually happened, but in some cases it is not possible to arrive at a final truth. The potential damage to a child of not being believed is greater than the potential damage to an adult, especially an acclaimed filmmaker, whose reputation is called into question or even destroyed. There is, therefore, a temptation to believe the child, to avoid the greater damage, and because children, even now grown-up children, may seem to have less reason to falsify reality, but the fact is in many cases we just can't sort out the facts, much less the reality of subjective experience which may not accord, exactly, with the facts.

In this posting, therefore, I will not attempt to sort out the facts, whether Woody Allen sexually abused Dylan Farrow, or whether Dylan Farrow falsified reality at her mother's instigation, or whether she simply imagined something that didn't actually happen for whatever reason. Instead, I want to focus on who the audience was for the statements of both Farrow and Allen, and why they chose to speak to that audience.

Both Farrow and Allen chose to speak to the general public. Why does it matter to each of them what the general public thinks, or believes?

Given the difficulty or impossibility of sorting out the facts, there is an understandable desire, on the part of both parties, to seek out witnesses who can validate one's sense of reality. In the case of Farrow and Allen, however, there are no direct witnesses.  So each seeks to persuade members of the general public of the validity of his or her allegation.  People who are persuaded to believe either Farrow or Allen substitute for people who had direct experience of what happened, leaving aside the fact that memory for events that were directly experienced is known to be quite malleable, prone to being influenced by a variety of subjective and emotional forces.

The opinion of the general public is important in part because it can be thought to represent the perspective of the outsider who is not caught up in the force field of the family.  Highly emotional situations in families or other small groups tend to generate micro-worlds, worlds of their own, in which each person gets lost in a general reactivity and emotionality that develops an ongoing and inexorable momentum. A person who is not caught up in these self-contained emotional worlds can seem to bring a relatively objective perspective. When the emotional force field is incestuous or otherwise abusive in one way or another, it is difficult for anyone, much less a child, to maintain an independent, objective perspective. Abused children identify with their abusers, sometimes alongside a sense that something is terribly wrong. People who are kidnapped and held hostage for long periods identify with their captors in what has come to be termed the "Stockholm Syndrome." Appealing to and adopting the perspective of the outside world, individuals, groups, or even the general public can be a way of preserving one's sanity and sense of self before one falls under the spell of the abuser or captor, or on the way out, in the recovery or healing process.

The perspective of an outsider, or the generalized outsider of public opinion can, however, be far from objective.  The opinions and attitudes of people in general are subject to influence from cultural forces that often operate silently, creating an appearance of objectivity by virtue of being widely shared. Widely shared opinions and attitudes can be a marker of virtue, or of membership in a community, or even of personal identity. Examples include widely shared condemnation of homosexuality, or premarital sex, or atheism. Nazi anti-semitism is just one recent example of widely shared public opinions that are far from dispassionate and objective. In such cases, the micro-environment of the family can, in fact, be the last refuge of sanity.

In many times and places, abused children seeking recognition of their situation encounter disbelief, or even accusation of having provoked their own victimization. Children commonly, and irrationally, blame themselves for many events for which they bear no responsibility.  Self-blaming is part of the egocentrism of childhood, and beyond. Children and abused women are commonly subject to community skepticism when they seek validation of their reality, especially when the perpetrator of abuse is a respected member of the community. Woody Allen's status as a respected filmmaker, recent recipient of a Golden Globe lifetime achievement award, seems to have been  a trigger for the recent allegations of abuse.  Respected female actresses who worked with Allen were called on to disavow the aura of respectability they might be thought to have conferred on him by association.

With the general public's opinion being seen as the arbiter of reality, one's sense of self, one's very sanity, can be thought to rest on public attitudes that can be objective, fickle, and/or biased. Thus, the battle for public opinion recently waged in the pages of Harper's, the New York Times, and elsewhere between Woody Allen, Dylan Farrow, and Ronan Farrow. Respected commentators like Nicholas Kristof enter the fray, putting their moral authority behind their opinions. In the age of mass media, public opinion can be influenced and manipulated with hitherto unknown speed and pervasiveness.  None of this gets us closer to the solid ground of truth, that which is beyond reasonable doubt,  about what happened in the Farrow-Allen family. Allegations of bad faith, of destructive and evil intent, seek completely to discredit the allegations and stated reality of the other side, to bypass the collision of realities.  If we resist demonization of one side or the other, we, especially we members of the general public, are left with only a collision of realities. And that feels very unsatisfactory given how much is at stake.

1 comment:

Dan and Rusti Levin said...

Thank you Dr. Altman for all these excellent posts, and in my opinion, they deserve many readers and thorough discussion. I wonder of course why am I the first to respond!

Just briefly, after feeling the same dissatisfaction you describe with this impossibly sad case, the way I put it to rest for myself was as follows:

Dylan is reminding us (and herself) that we should not forget the facts we already know; that is, Woody married Soon-Yi. That hugely provocative and destructive act was damaging to Dylan in a myriad of complex ways, and still is.

Dylan is right to feel that the public has forgotten that, because it has, for its own complex reasons. And Woody of course remains clueless and unrepentant regarding how he has hurt Dylan with his marriage, which is of course unsurprising given his character.

Therefore whether Woody abused and damaged Dylan is not in question. The proof that he has seriously damaged Dylan is in his marriage to Soon-Yi, an act of abuse and neglect in itself. Unpack that never-ending trauma from Dylan's perspective, and you will not need to have been there in the attic to witness what happened between Woody and Dylan. The marriage to Soon-Yi is enough in itself to tell you everything you need to know about the reasons for her despair.

Like all cases of abuse where there are 'no witnesses', the most important facts are right in front of us if we are not too afraid to look.

Daniel Levin, Ph.D.