Yesterday, Dylan Farrow—the adopted daughter of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow—published an account, on Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog, of the sexual abuse she says she suffered as a young girl at the hands of her famous father.
The post is moving and horrifying. And yet, the entirety of its premise is wrong—and in an important way. The piece is written as an open letter to the public, at whose feet Dylan Farrow lays blame for the continued adulation of her alleged abuser. She also calls out “Hollywood,” and in particular several actors who have worked with, or are friends with, Allen. One could hardly argue that the famous and the powerful aren’t given passes upon passes for every shade and shape of misbehavior. But that’s not what happened here. Someone is responsible for Dylan Farrow’s pain, but it is not the public.
In Farrow’s own words: “After a custody hearing denied my father visitation rights, my mother declined to pursue criminal charges, despite findings of probable cause by the State of Connecticut – due to, in the words of the prosecutor, the fragility of the ‘child victim.’ Woody Allen was never convicted of any crime.” Something is missing here, as it seems at the very least unclear that there were charges that could be pressed. But at least for argument’s sake, let’s take Dylan Farrow at her own word. If true, Mia Farrow’s decision not to press charges makes clear and obvious sense. She was, according to this account, protecting a fragile and traumatized child—which would have been nearly anyone’s top priority.
But that decision still had a major consequence in the court of public opinion: It disabled our ability to judge anyone either way, and it solidified this as an endless he-said-she-said. As Dylan Farrow notes: “Most found it easier to accept the ambiguity, to say, “who can say what happened.’” But this isn’t because people are callous or cowardly, as Farrow seems to be arguing. It’s because we, as private citizens, are not imbued with the right to pass these judgments. Instead, we maintain a court system for this, in which evidence is presented and sifted and adjudicated by a judge and a jury who are empowered to determine questions of guilt or innocence. Imagine if Mia Farrow had pressed charges and Allen had been convicted and gone to prison. Does anyone think, for one second, that he’d be the recipient of a Golden Globes lifetime achievement award?
And indeed, if anyone abrogated their civic duty, it was not the public. “That he got away with what he did to me haunted me as I grew up,” Farrow writes. “I was stricken with guilt that I had allowed him to be near other little girls.” She has one thing wrong here: *She* did not allow this; she was a child. But indeed, if we are to believe this story, her mother did—perhaps for entirely understandable reasons. But still: the person who, inadvertently or not, protected Allen from facing public judgment is the person who prevented him from ever being formally judged.
Again, I am not arguing that Mia Farrow made a mistake when she declined to press charges. I am simply saying that in doing so, she assured that the public would never have clear grounds on which to judge either side. Whatever the facts, it seems clear that everyone involved has experienced a toxic family psychodrama. But it is ultimately a private one. And the public’s resistance to declaring the guilt or innocence of any of the participants, as painful as it may be for Dylan Farrow or her mother or Woody Allen or anyone else, is in fact exactly the right moral choice. Dylan Farrow is angry and frustrated that no verdict was ever rendered in her case—and she should be. But the address for this cri de coeur is not us; it’s her mother.
Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.