Two weeks ago, after An Open Letter From Dylan Farrow hit the press, a virtual village of millions lit their torches, grabbed their pitchforks, and carried a tarred-and-feathered film legend Woody Allen through cyberspace to the nearest tree for a public hanging.
As is often the case with notorious lynch mobs, however, things are not always what they seem, and a careful examination of the facts calls for more restraint. Such is the case, I believe, with the lynch mob that would condemn Woody Allen.
I see the allegations by Dylan Farrow quite differently than do the social media masses. I have spent the past twenty years working first as a prosecutor and then for the past decade running the Ohio Innocence Project. Through the Ohio Innocence Project, I have investigated many, many cases involving alleged false child molestation accusations. I’ve studied the psychological research and worked with some of the nation’s top experts regarding the conditions that can give rise to false allegations, the susceptibility of children to suggestion, implanted false memories, and the zeal with which we humans typically cling to false memories once implanted.
While I, of course, cannot be certain about what happened any more than those who would condemn Allen on the spot, I can say this: Some of the earmarks of a false allegation can be seen in this case. There are reasons to be concerned, just as many of the investigators and child psychologists were so gravely concerned when they closely interviewed the seven-year-old Dylan Farrow back in 1992 and told the authorities they believed the allegations were false.
Human Memory: If the Abuse Didn’t Happen, Does This Mean that Dylan is Lying?
Many of the Woody Allen critics have asked the question, “Why would Dylan lie after all these years? She has nothing to gain at this point.” This type of question completely misses the point.
Contrary to popular belief, human memory is not like a video camera, which records what happens and then plays it back verbatim later. Rather, our memories are like quicksand, constantly shifting and moving underneath us. Cognitive psychologist and leading memory expert Dr. Elizabeth Loftus makes the analogy to Wikipedia. Not only do we constantly edit our own memories (usually without realizing that we are doing so), but others edit our memories as well, even implanting false ones without us knowing it. Study after study shows how easy it is for false memories to be implanted, particularly in children. Anyone who doubts this phenomenon should watch this 15-minute video, and read the sources here,here, here, here, here and here.
Once a false memory is implanted, the subject cannot tell the difference from a real one, and will often “remember” intricate details that did not happen. The subject will typically cling to the false memory with confidence throughout his or her lifetime.
The prevailing belief in the early 1990s, when this story first broke, was that children would not make up false allegations of sexual abuse. We have subsequently learned after uncovering hundreds of wrongful convictions in this area, however, that children typically don’t “make up” false charges, but rather, can have false memories implanted merely by the suggestion of well-meaning but over-excited adults. The environment where this occurs typically includes certain common factors, such as the parent who “discovers” the abuse is in a state of extreme anger or a panicked state as a result of a dispute with the adult who is later accused (such as when a divorce or custody battle is brewing); the interviewing process is not conducted by a professional trained in protecting child memory, but rather, by someone who is excited, suspicious, or paranoid, and who asks leading questions and inadvertently makes suggestions to the child; or the questioning occurs in a hysterical or “witch-hunt” type environment.
There is evidence to support the idea that Dylan Farrow’s allegations against Woody Allen may have arisen in circumstances where these factors were present. The allegations arose months after Mia Farrow learned thatWoody had started a relationship with Mia’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi (who was either 19 or 21 at the time–her birth in Korea was undocumented). Mia was reportedly beyond enraged with Allen, and became quite unstable at the time as well (she allegedly repeatedly threatened Allen’s life and even staged her own fake suicide).
This is not to take shots at Mia Farrow. She was understandably extremely distraught and had good reason to hate Woody Allen. I bring this up simply to describe the atmosphere under which the allegations may have arisen, because they mirror the atmosphere that is present in many false allegation cases. Indeed, in a staggering 81% of the documented wrongful convictions in child sexual abuse cases listed in the National Registry of Exonerations, false accusations arising under such circumstances were the cause of the wrongful conviction.
Later, the Connecticut State Police brought in a team of psychiatrists and child molestation investigators from Yale-New Haven Hospital, who after a six-month investigation determined that Dylan had not been molested byWoody Allen. Why? It appears that Dylan could not tell a consistent story when not being coached by her mother (a big red flag), and many signs pointed to the fact that the original allegations had come about as a result of coaching (including a video recording of the allegations that Farrow allegedly directed by stopping and starting the tape and “coaching up” a disinterested young Dylan).
Since then, various witnesses have described the pressure that Mia Farrow brought to bear on all of the children–and even nannies–to go along with the story. Mia’s son Moses, now tellingly a family therapist, described what he called “brainwashing” by Farrow, adding:
“Of course Woody did not molest my sister. My mother drummed it into me to hate my father for tearing apart the family and sexually molesting my sister. And I hated him for her for years. I see now that this was a vengeful way to pay him back for falling in love with Soon-Yi.”
Even nannies have discussed how they were pressured by Farrow to go along with the story, even though important parts of the story perhaps weren’t true.
Mia Farrow’s apparent zeal has not fully let up after two decades, as she and her son Ronan (a small child when all this went down) have made a cottage industry out of blasting Woody Allen at every opportunity. Interestingly,Woody Allen almost never responds, other than to occasionally deny the allegations for the umpteenth time. When asked about Mia Farrow through the years, he typically responds with comments about her excellent acting abilities and leaves it at that. Woody Allen did decide to respond, however, to the recent “open letter” to him by Dylan Farrow, which he calls his final word on the subject.
Some who have supported the allegations as valid have pointed to findings by the judge who granted custody of the children to Mia Farrow. And, of course, as in any complicated case, there will be conflicting evidence on nearly every point.
Regarding the custody decision, the judge did not find that Woody Allen abused Dylan, but he was very critical of Allen and discounted his claims that Mia Farrow had coached Dylan into making false allegations. A few points need to be made about this, if one wants to be open about looking at both sides. First, the decision was issued in 1993. Some of the evidence of coaching outlined above–including clear statements by one of the children who now calls Mia Farrow’s conduct “brainwashing”–had not come out yet, and thus, were not known or considered by the judge. Also, as stated above, the common belief in 1993 was that children did not make up sexual abuse allegations, and in fact, many believed children were incapable of doing so. The explosion in the field of child memory and susceptibility to suggestion that has occurred since 1993, however, can shed a completely different light on that decision.
Woody Allen has alleged that politics played a role in that decision (which, in my experience, is often the case). Even if Allen’s claim is not true, the decision is just what it purports to be–a decision from 1993 that reflects incomplete facts and scientific understandings from more than two decades ago.
Second, and most importantly, Woody Allen and Soon-Yi have adopted two children. Their suitability as parents has subsequently been examined in light of modern scientific understandings and the current state of the evidence. They were found to be good candidates for adoption and now have their own children. Those who point to an outdated decision from a bygone scientific era need to consider the full story before reaching a conclusion.
There are two sides to every story. If the allegations happen to be false, does this mean that Dylan is lying? Of course not. Of course she believes it happened. She was seven years old when this took place. Given the way it may have gone down, and the zeal with which all the children were pressured for decades to believe the allegations and hate Woody Allen, if true, it would be surprising if not shocking if she could separate real from false memories at this point. The article here demonstrates how it is not uncommon for false memories to be created in alleged child abuse cases.
Indeed, Dylan sadly is a victim regardless of whether the allegations are true or not. The mere fact that sibling Moses–now a family therapist presumably trained to deal with issues like this–can untangle himself from that pressure as an adult, and recognize that the allegations raise serious questions, is the truly surprising thing given how we now know that memory works.
Contrary to Popular Belief, Allen’s Relationship With Soon-Yi Does Not Support the Notion that He is a Pedophile
Another point the lynch mob has brought up on Facebook or Twitter typically goes something like this, “He married his own adopted daughter, Soon-Yi, who was originally adopted by his own wife. What a creep. Of course he molested Dylan. His relationship with Soon-Yi tells you all you need to know about his pedophilic tendencies.”
A couple points need to be made here. First of all, as the article here does a great job of detailing, Woody Allen was not married to Mia Farrow, nor did he live with Mia and her kids. Soon-Yi was not Woody’s daughter–Soon-Yi had her own dad. As documentary filmmaker Robert Weide has said:
“If anyone is creeped out by the notion of a 55-year old man becoming involved with his girlfriend’s 19-year old adopted daughter, I understand. That makes perfect sense. But why not get the facts straight? If the actual facts are so repugnant to you, then why embellish them?”
Again, whether Soon-Yi was 19 or 21 when their relationship started, Woody Allen is famous for dating younger women, including Mia Farrow, Stacey Nelkin (who strenuously defends Allen against these charges) and others. He also has had many long relationships with women closer to his own age, such as Diane Keaton. But this penchant for much younger women does not support the notion that Woody Allen has a sexual attraction to pre-pubescent seven-year-olds.
Indeed, pedophilia is a specific sexual orientation known for its high level of recidivism. Pedophiles who act on their attractions typically prey on many, many children over their lifetimes. Although many sexual assaults by pedophiles unfortunately go unreported, the pattern is that other victims will come out of the woodwork when the first allegation goes public (like we saw with the Jerry Sandusky case).
Some may dislike Woody Allen for being attracted to younger members of the opposite sex. That is their prerogative, of course, and they presumably also dislike Paul McCartney, Demi Moore, Katie Couric, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and Frank Sinatra (who, in his late 40s, began dating Mia Farrow when she was only 19).
Some may also dislike Woody Allen for dating–and then marrying and adopting children with–the adopted daughter of his former girlfriend. That view is also entirely reasonable. I am not condoning Woody Allen’s judgment on this score, or claiming that his actions were appropriate. I would not criticize anyone who dislikes or is “creeped out” by Woody Allen for this reason. That is their prerogative.
But those who cite to Woody Allen’s 20-plus-year relationship with Soon-Yi as a basis for the validity of Dylan’s claims should at least be intellectually honest and recognize that his well-established pattern of being attracted to physically mature women tends to undermine–rather than support–the notion that Woody Allen suffers from the specific sexual disorder of pedophilia and is therefore attracted to seven-year-olds.
Woody Allen has not been the only victim of the lynch mob. Many have turned their aggression towards actress Diane Keaton for presenting the Cecil B. Demille Award to Woody Allen at the 2014 Golden Globe Awards. She has been lambasted for such things as “supporting an abuser” and “spitting in the face of the many, many victims of child sex abuse.”
It is widely known that not only was Diane Keaton Woody Allen’s girlfriend for many years, but that she has remained one of his closest friends for decades. It is amazing to me that the virtual villagers, most of whom know nothing of the actual facts of the case, would presume to know more about the situation than a woman who knew the various players in the drama, including Mia and Dylan Farrow. As Alec Baldwin tweeted back when he was similarly attacked by the lynch mob for appearing in Allen’s movies:
“So you know who’s guilty? Who’s lying? You, personally, know that?”
Diane Keaton likely would have extensive knowledge of the dynamics that produced the allegations. The attacks on Diane Keaton are patronizing and dismissive, suggesting that she is not capable of forming her own well-educated opinion on a matter that she likely knows more about than anyone else in the world save a few people.
It takes considerable courage to stand up to a nationwide lynch mob. Diane Keaton’s bravery should be admired.
The Takeaway Lesson
In the end, I can’t say with certainty whether or not Allen is innocent. For every piece of evidence cited by either side, someone can point to a conflicting piece of evidence. There are often two sides to stories. But I can say that there is evidence here to raise serious doubt as to the reliability of the allegations. I would go so far as to say that I believe anyone who has spent years investigating allegedly false child molestation charges, and who has studied the research regarding implanted memories in children, would look at this case and say just what the Yale-New Haven Hospital child psychiatrists said all the way back in 1992–that these allegations are problematic. In other words, there is another side to the story.
I wonder if those who condemn Woody Allen have ever stopped to consider the other possibility. That perhaps Allen is innocent. That perhaps one of the greatest filmmakers of all time has withstood years of deep sadness and anguish (and lower box office revenues and occasional snubs at the Oscars, etc.), as a result of being wrongfully convicted in the court of public opinion and having his beloved children brainwashed to hate him. And that just when he has started to recover from this tragedy, and his movies have returned to their earlier form (causing him to receive a major award), the attackers have come back out of the woodwork to stir up the lynch mob once again.
Those who would condemn Woody Allen–or condemn anyone for that matter–should, of course, always do some homework before they judge. They also should consider the repercussions of reacting with vitriol and aggression before they know the facts. Indeed, to condemn in kneejerk fashion could be to unknowingly grab a torch and pitchfork and hang an innocent person.
It should be clear that I have concerns, based on my experience, that the allegations against Woody Allen could be false, and, if so, arose from a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances that have, in similar cases, resulted in false allegations of this kind. But does this mean I should freely attack Mia Farrow? No. Why? Because I could be wrong.
The takeaway lesson from the Innocence Movement and all the wrongful convictions it has uncovered is that we humans see and interpret facts in a skewed manner according to our own deep biases, that we are much worse than we admit at uncovering the truth, and that, in the end, we must be very careful before we judge and condemn. Things are not always what they seem.
Although I believe, based on studying the case for years and my experience in these matters, that the allegations against Woody Allen may very well be false, I recognize that I can never really know with certainty what happened here. But the hysterical lynch mob currently carrying Woody Allen to the nearest tree frighteningly knows even less.