Sunday, February 09, 2014

thinking about dylan farrow and woody allen

This post is about sexual assault.

I have been reading online and via social media about Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen. In the 90s, Woody Allen's daughter Dylan, then 7 years old, told her mother, Mia Farrow, that Woody Allen sexually assaulted her. I remember hearing about it at the time, and thinking about how horrible that was, and wondering what happened, but not really wanting to know more. I was a new Mom at the time, and felt frightened and repulsed by the thought of anyone hurting a child in this way.

The story has been raised in the media again because Woody Allen recently received a Golden Globe Lifetime Achievement Award. His daughter Dylan, now an adult, spoke publicly for the first time about what happened. Here is what she said.

A week or so later, Woody Allen responded. Here is what he said.

A google search or a look at your facebook or twitter feed will lead you to dozens of editorials and blog posts about the controversy around this devastating incident. I have been thinking and thinking about it, and wondering what an ordinary person can or should do.

We will never know exactly what happened. There's lot's of discussion and opinion about that, without much light shed. I think for myself, it's beside the point. Here's what I am thinking:

I have to believe Dylan Farrow's account. Maybe I am wrong, and I am wrongly believing that Woody Allen did this horrendous thing. I would rather risk believing this wrongly than leaving a survivor of sexual assault to hang out to dry. Experts on both sides of the controversy can tell you about studies and statistics around wrongful accusations of abuse and manipulation of child witnesses. All of that pales in the light of what a story like this tells us about what is right and wrong, and what it means to be a victim of sexual assault.

I am choosing to think about this on a personal level. What does this situation say to people who have experienced sexual assault or harassment, or people who will be survivors of sexual assault in the future? Dylan Farrow describes her experience of being disbelieved and disregarded, while her famous and powerful father continued to live as a highly regarded artist. Her trauma and guilt have been with her since that day, while he has gone on to continue to live a good and happy life.

I have (thankfully) little experience with instances of sexual assault and harassment, and (blessedly) no experience with cases in which a child is involved. My indirect personal experience (as a friend and supporter) affirms the fact that survivors find themselves in a no-win situation. They are disbelieved, examined to determine if they did anything to provoke the assault, and isolated in their state of injury. Many (not all) people would rather disbelieve them because believing them is just too upsetting. When you read Dylan Farrow's personal account, then Woody Allen's description of the expert witnesses, you see what a person is up against if he or she comes forward with allegations of abuse.

What happened with Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow is not just about the high profile principles in this story. It serves as a cautionary tale for someone who has been assaulted. It tells friends and family who receive a report that maybe they should be skeptical, or at least that they need to caution the survivor that an investigation may be painful and unsuccessful. It helps explain why assaults go unreported. It illustrates the painful fact that the survivor will feel guilt for not protecting others who are vulnerable to an assault by the same perpetrator.

In short, it stinks. Taking a personal perspective, I have to remind myself to be open and aware. When someone says they have been harmed, they need acceptance and support. They need to be believed. They need the community around them to take action to make them know they are protected and valued. The same community needs to let the world know that sexual assaults are not acceptable, and that survivors are the priority for our care, attention and protection. We need to assume that the balance is tipped against the survivor when it comes to legal and societal response to their situation. We need to change that too.

Talking about it, not dismissing it because we can't be sure, is the first step. In my limited experience, I have been heartened to see hearts and minds changing through the experience of being a supporter and friend. I have seen individuals and groups taking accountability for improving safety for people who are vulnerable, and making ways for those who feel unsafe to ask for support. There's no way we can make predators disappear. We can adjust our thinking and actions to be better human beings when awful things happen.

This is what I'm thinking about as I think about Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen. I hope that we will all think about them, even though it is hard to do so.

question: how can we be better human beings?

mompoet - pondering

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