(Trigger Warning – subject matter is child abuse.)
Dylan Farrow has been in the news quite a bit lately for her public accusations of child abuse against Woody Allen. In response, Robert Weide – an Allen biographer and, I dare say, apologist – and Allen himself have publicly claimed the allegations false. Both men have completely dismissed Dylan’s account as the result of brainwashing at the hands of Allen’s ex-wife Mia Farrow. While they have not gone so far as to state that Dylan is consciously lying, I believe they have sought to render her essentially mute.
If you read Weide’s and Allen’s responses and thought, “You know, they have some calm and rationally argued points that I consider valid,” I would like to share some thoughts with you of my own. I have two backgrounds in the matter of child abuse. First, as a volunteer youth worker both full and part time from the ages of 22 – 30, I was required to be trained and certified in child protection both in the UK and US. Second, over a period of eight months or so when I was 14 and 15 years old I was groomed and molested by a pedophile.
As an adult survivor of child abuse, what Weide and Allen wrote sickens and enrages me, and the public acceptance of their remarks at face value terrifies me. The presence of child abuse in our society is a source of shame that most people are highly uncomfortable acknowledging directly. Abuse represents a dramatic failure in our most basic duty as adults – protecting our children. Our historical response to our shame at this failure has been to minimize or deny the problem. It is not the kind of thing one talks about in polite society, you see.
It may seem paradoxical that child abuse would be so obviously wrong and yet so commonly ignored. I believe a primary reason is that child molesters are among the most universally reviled people in our culture – even other criminals despise them. When we learn that someone we know or someone we respect may be defiling children, we are faced with the reality that we befriended or idolized a monster. Accepting our own failure to see them for who they are has proven to be much more difficult than convincing ourselves that the abuse simply isn’t happening.
For the victims of abuse it is far too easy to be complicit in that denial. Staying silent is like fool’s gold to victims of abuse – it allows us to pretend that what happened isn’t so gods-awfully real and degrading. Silence keeps us from the terrifying prospect of facing our abusers – people who have stripped us, exposed us, and left us raw. “If I keep quiet, maybe it will go away,” is the heart-rending prayer on the lips of the abused.
It is time for that silence to end. As painful as it undoubtedly will be for all of us, we must stop pretending that child abuse only happens to other people and that it is only perpetrated by people whom we already disrespect. If we want to end child abuse in our society we must begin respecting the voices of our children no matter how much we’d prefer not to believe them. Once again, the topic of child abuse is a matter of public conversation and I believe it is imperative that survivors speak out boldly to keep the issue at the front of our minds and to halt the pattern of denial and ignorance that has protected our abusers. This is me speaking out.
Our entire approach to abuse, as illustrated in the case of Dylan Farrow, is from the outside. We want physical evidence of a psychological trauma. We want children to detach themselves from their experience in order to give an objective account of what was done to them. The idea that a traumatized child must perfectly recount their ordeal in detail immediately following their assault in order to be deemed a credible witness is dehumanizing and cruel. Because children are often physically unblemished by their abusers, we treat them as we would if they were sobbing after a small bump on the head.
We are often asked to believe that a medical examination finding no signs of abuse is highly conclusive. That’s utter horseshit. I am fairly certain that any medical exam performed on me the day after my assault would also have been negative and I’m damn certain that I was molested. What test do you run to find signs of an unwanted caress? How do you check for hearing words that make your skin crawl? The marks of abuse are far below the surface. If you want to convince me that someone is making up a story or being coached to make accusations of abuse then show me the analysis of their psychologist, counselor, and psychiatrist, not their general practitioner.
This external approach seems sensible when you’re on the outside of abuse. The inside of abuse is a very, very different place. If you have trouble believing the accusations of a child whose story changes, ask yourself if you would hold the same standards for accuracy for a child who’d just been knocked unconscious, or who’d just been through a car wreck. In my experience of abuse I was consciously aware of the moment when my mind shunted itself off into “someplace else” and disconnected from what was happening to me physically. I have experienced a very similar phenomenon in circumstances of extreme physical pain. It’s completely unrealistic to expect anyone, much less a child, to have perfect recall of a traumatic event such as sexual abuse.
So if you think that it is a little weird that Dylan wasn’t able to make a videotaped statement in one take in the days immediately following her accusation, the inside of abuse sees her ability to make any statement at all as astonishing. At twice her age when my abuse occurred, I refused to tell anyone about my abuse until I was in my late 20’s. It wasn’t until the Sandusky case was being debated in the public sphere ten years later that I was willing to make my experience public knowledge. I still don’t prefer to talk about it much, though probably not for the reasons you think.
Being abused is humiliating. It is embarrassing. It is being stripped bare and exposed and made permanently vulnerable. The person I was in the moments of my abuse is someone I am ashamed to have been not matter how deeply I know that my abuse was not my choice. I don’t want those moments to have ever happened and I sure as hell don’t want to paint that portrait of myself for the world to see. If I stay silent, that version of me is invisible.
Even today at 40, after therapy and 25 years of distance, I can’t look at myself in the mirror of memory without a shudder. So when I hear that a seven year old child was able to muster up the courage to expose herself as a victim, I applaud that child. And when I read the words of an adult who shares their story, braving the shame and the storm of PTSD nearly guaranteed to come from the public response, I do not conclude that this is a cry for attention.
NO ONE WANTS ATTENTION FOR BEING MOLESTED. Loved? Sure. Comforted, healed, protected, yes. But to be known for that? Insane. If you think that Dylan Farrow was simply seeking attention then I want you right now to go to your favorite social media outlet and tell a secret. Only make sure that the secret will humiliate you. Tell a secret that will cause everyone who meets you from now on to be uncomfortable around you and unsure of how to talk to you. Or even worse, tell a secret that will cause all your friends to pity you to no end and forever see you as someone a little bit broken. This is the kind of attention you get when you become known as a survivor of abuse.
One final point before I move on. If Dylan Farrow was simply out to get attention, don’t you think her public account of what happened to her would be a tad more lurid? There are no juicy details for the tabloids to latch on to. In fact, there are hardly any details at all. Doesn’t it strike you as a little bit odd that a bid for attention would be so plain?
On the inside of abuse, her account sounds very much like mine when I have to relate it to someone. The moment I start talking about it, the only thing I want is to be able to stop talking about it. It is like having a scab on a wound that never heals and forcing yourself to pull that scab up to show people how never-healed you are. I’m not worried about exact dates or times when I am telling people about what happened to me, because I’m not keen on exploring the most horrible moment of my life in great detail. It appears to me that Dylan isn’t either and that is noteworthy.
As a survivor of abuse the account of events given by Dylan Farrow and the manner in which they were given has a “ring of truth”. I do not say that to imply that there is no reasonable doubt, only that I found that her language and approach struck me as that of a survivor of abuse, not a brainwashed minion. Unlike many, however, I did not find the same to be true of the account given in Allen’s defense. Here’s why: Everything in their arguments posits that sexual abuse is a rational act performed by rational beings.
Part of the reason that we give weight, societally, to the words of people like Weide and Allen is that we want all of our issues to be rationally solved by reasonable explanations. We want the five minute procedural cop show analysis of exactly why the latest fictional psycho turned into a monster. But nothing about abuse is rational. What rationale could there possibly be for the violation of a child?
So when Allen writes about his claustrophobia or asks why he would possibly be so crazy as to molest his daughter in his estranged wife’s home, he is asking us to assume that only someone calm and calculating would abuse a child. We are to believe that only someone completely sane would steal someone’s innocence, that abuse is always premeditated and well planned. Committing child abuse is an atrocity, it is not a heist.
Defending Allen on the grounds of his rationality is rather comical anyway, seeing as how he’s made a career out of publicly exploring his neuroses (sexual and otherwise) on film. That’s no proof of guilt, of course. But then, I’m not writing this to prove that Woody Allen is a child molester. I’m writing this because what Allen and Weide have tried to do in their attempts to silence Dylan Farrow is incredibly dangerous for children in our society and I am terrified of what could happen if there is no rebuttal.
In Allen and Weide’s defense, there is a strong implication that we should take the word of the adult simply because they are the adult. There is great danger to the safety of our children in the widespread acceptance of this belief. Before you think I’m overreacting, what damage has been done in the history of our society because the word of a man was automatically presumed true over the word of a woman? What about the word of a white person over a person of color? The notion that the attribute of age imparts inherent trustworthiness is as false as the assumptions that gender, or color somehow grant us decency and honor.
Children are among the most defenseless members of our society. They, of all people, must be given every reason to approach our justice system when they are wronged. Their only weapon is to tell; silence is the refuge of the pedophile. Everything we do that robs them of their voice – treating their assault as merely physical, demanding physical proof, treating them like a hostile witness – only increases the silence that protects the abusers in our midst.
It is not the duty of our children to protect the reputations of adults. If we’re afraid of false accusations then the responsibility is on us to ensure that we have other people around us that we trust, because we’re the grown-ups. This is a standard aspect of the child protection training I went through as a volunteer youth worker in the US and overseas. The responsibility for preventing yourself from being falsely accused of child abuse is on you, not on the children you’re around. I can think of nothing more evil than forcing a child to eat their pain because you don't want to think poorly of an adult you like.
To suggest that children or any victim of abuse, assault, or injustice should hold their tongue to avoid hurting someone’s reputation is to promote torture. It is also an invitation for the abusers in our midst to harm more children. Look at how many more children were victimized by Jerry Sandusky after accusations against him were silenced. We must make our institutions of learning and justice more open to the voices of ravaged children, more willing to expose abuse. We must stop pretending that this kind of thing doesn’t happen in our towns, our neighborhoods, our homes, and listen to the voices crying out for justice.
I wish so much now that I had told someone about what was happening right away. I wish I felt I could have talked about how uncomfortable this person made me feel, even if I didn’t understand why. I wish that I wouldn’t have feared being shamed by talking frankly with adults about sexual matters. If I had said something, maybe he’d be in jail, or on a watchlist, or rotting in hell. Instead, I will never see my abuser again; I don’t think I even know his real name. If I could publicly point to my abuser and say, "They did this to me," I’d do it in a heartbeat. Not for revenge. Not for a turn in the spotlight. Only so I would be their last victim.