I was 17 when the allegations that Woody Allen had abused his daughter Dylan Farrow first surfaced. I’d never seen one of his films – and haven’t enjoyed any of those I’ve subsequently watched – but I knew straight away whose side I was on: Team Woody all the way.
I just knew, as did everyone else, that mad, vengeful Mia Farrow had made up the whole thing to punish Allen for his relationship with Soon Yi Previn. Like everyone else, I felt sorry for Dylan, not because I thought she’d been abused, but because she had Mia for a mother. No wonder Woody left her. No wonder Soon Yi betrayed her. What a horrible, twisted individual Mia must be. Back then, I already considered myself a feminist, but I resented Farrow for putting on such a stereotypical performance of woman scorned. She had, I felt, let us all down.
Twenty years later the same story’s still running. Some of us have learned, through hard experience, to question it, others have not. Some of us believe this is the only thing that can make sense. After all, there is logic, of sorts. We already have our villain – angry, unforgiving Mia – and as for the idea that Allen could be an abuser after all? Well, that’s just too weird.
Today I read a piece in the Guardian, in which Michael Wolff – biographer of Rupert Murdoch – explains to all those tempted to give Dylan (but most of all Mia) the benefit of the doubt that the abuse allegations are just media spin. This is because, while we might not know what happens behind closed doors, we do know that once stories are out there in public, it’s all a game:
Here’s a certainty: When you play out your personal dramas, hurt and self-interest in the media, it’s a confection. You say what you have to say in the way you have to say it to give it media currency – and that’s always far from the truth. Often, in fact, someone else says it for you. It’s all planned. It’s all rehearsed. This is craft. This is strategy. This is manipulation. This is spin.
How true, Michael, how true. That’s one in the eye for all those ignorant “young women” joining in “a Twitter-wide celebration […] of the unknown but suddenly famous Dylan”. They’ve just fallen for the drama, got a little carried away. Or at least, that’s what Wolff thinks. I think what’s happening is very different. I think these women are the ones analysing the media narratives that surround us, while Wolff’s the one uncritically accepting everything he’s been told.
Wolff may consider himself an expert on “media and modern life” but every one of these women could have written the same piece he has just done. I bet they know the whole story backwards. They know exactly how women’s testimonies are set against a dominant narrative, which insists that they are deceitful, malicious or deluded, acting out in front of an audience whose attention they want to grab (“Mia is, at this point in her career, not a Vanity Fair worthy subject,” Wolff informs us, the implication being that no wonder she’s vying for a bit of scandal). If you are a woman reading this, and you have experience of abuse, you’ve heard it a million times before. That’s where the knee-jerk urge to support Farrow arises from; from our knowledge, not of what happened twenty years ago, but that if we were the ones speaking, and we were telling the truth, what is happening to Dylan would be happening to us, too.
People would not believe us, because that is what always happens. It’s happened to us, and it’s happened to our friends, and we know that it will keep on happening until we accept that when women speak, they tell their own stories. We are not submitting rough drafts, waiting to see if they meet with the approval of men such as Wolff, who have ready-made templates into which to insert them. These are our words, shaped by our experiences. They can’t be rewritten just because the traditional story is the one everyone’s familiar with.
When a woman uses the #ibelieveher hashtag, she’s bound to get mocked. Some man, somewhere, will spot it and think “well, how can you believe her? How can you possibly know?” So then she’ll get a lecture on distinguishing facts from feelings and this lecture will entirely miss the point. #ibelieveher is not a statement of fact, but an act of granting validity to another’s testimony. Such a gesture matters as long as those who claim to have been abused are positioned as intruders, trespassing on the precious truth of the accused. We don’t allow ourselves to see two possibilities, two narratives which should each be approached as new. There is the truth – which the accused owns by default – and there are exceptions (rare exceptions, we tell ourselves). The world of the accused has substance; that of the accuser is, to use Wolff’s words, “a confection.” Making an accusation is seen as disruptive, an attack on our reality; the reality of the abuse survivor does not have to become one in which we share. We can contain it. Our favoured narratives permit us to do this.
I write this, not to question any legal presumption of innocence, but to ask why we continue to allow a legal necessity to operate as a cultural truth. I can think of many reasons for this: self-protection, habit, misogyny, the fact that it’s easiest not to have to maintain the existence of two alternative realities simultaneously. None of them are good enough if the outcome is people still believing flesh-and-blood testimonies can be dismissed with truisms about celebrity culture and the media. They can’t. The impact an accusation of abuse has on the reality we know should not in itself discredit the accuser. Perhaps there is something wrong with our knowledge of reality. Perhaps we don’t need tiresome explanations of “how the world works” but to listen to those living in this world, and change our views accordingly.