“My child you used and pierced my heart a hundred times and deep”

Posted by Sappho on February 7th, 2014 filed in News and Commentary


When my father married my stepmother, my mother bought me a new skirt and blouse for the wedding. I’m not a woman who often remembers what she wore, on any given special day, but I remember that skirt. It was light blue, and fell just below my knees. I also remember how my mother applied my first make up, before sending me off to that wedding.

My grandmother, once, furious at my father for divorcing her daughter, refused me a stamp to write a letter to him. I could write him, she said, but she wasn’t going to subsidize my father with a stamp. I told my mother, and she, in turn, furious in her own daughter’s defense, let her mother know that, whatever her feelings about the divorce, I was always to get stamps to write my father.

And this brings me to what bugs me about Robert Weide’s defense of Woody Allen. Let me explain.

We have an old script for what couples are supposed to do, when they have children together. You marry, if you weren’t married already, and you try, when marriage gets tough, to sort your problems out. Stay married, for the sake of the children.

But sometimes that old script doesn’t work out. You conceive the child, and the other parent proves not to be someone you could marry. Or you try to make the marriage work, and in the end the two of you can’t sort it out. And for those cases, we have a new script. You may vent to your friends about your Evil Ex, but you pull it together, and you sort your problems out enough to agree on a custody and visitation arrangement, and you remember that, after all, this is still the father (or mother) of your children. Have the good divorce, for the sake of the children.

Now, 22 years after the fact, we’re back to arguing, on social media, about a couple that could do neither, and a seven-year-old girl, Dylan Farrow, who now writes that yes, her father did molest her, one day in the attic in her mother’s house in Connecticut. Trust that Dylan is telling the truth, says Aaron Bady, because

We are in the midst of an ongoing, quiet epidemic of sexual violence, now as always. We are not in the midst of an epidemic of false rape charges, and that fact is important here.

Not so fast, says Woody Allen’s biography, Robert Weide, because

if Mia’s account is true, it means that in the middle of custody and support negotiations, during which Woody needed to be on his best behavior, in a house belonging to his furious ex-girlfriend, and filled with people seething mad at him, Woody, who is a well-known claustrophobic, decided this would be the ideal time and place to take his daughter into an attic and molest her, quickly, before a house full of children and nannies noticed they were both missing.

And on this, the worst accusation, I have nothing really to add. Yes, I have a favorite Woody Allen movie, and I make no apologies for having one. It’s Annie Hall, and it was my favorite Woody Allen movie long before Dylan Farrow was ever born, since back when I was years younger than Soon-Yi Previn was when Woody Allen first slept with her. Yes, I watched and loved many Woody Allen movies, before I knew what a mess his private life was, and yes, they’re still a vibrant part of my imagination, all these decades later. And no, I have no idea what happened in that attic. I know, as a general matter, that sexual violence and abuse are more common than false allegations, but in a particular case? As Dahlia Lithwick says

… all I can think is: What evidence? What standard? What court? We haven’t seen most of the evidence. Evidence in this case has been destroyed. Experts were never cross-examined. Different judges came to different conclusions. What evidence are we weighing? What “court” are we convening here, and what are the rules of the road? Do we even take conflicting evidence into consideration? What kind of evidence is “admissible”? Calling Mia Farrow a “whore”? Calling Dylan Farrow a “bitch”? Closely reading Allen’s movies? Do we consider that some of the advocates on each side are cretins? I have no idea. In the Court of Public Opinion, the one-eyed man with the most Twitter followers is king.

I have no desire to hurt my friends who have suffered similar abuse to what Dylan Farrow recounts, but, if preserving some doubt that I have any real idea what happened 22 years ago, among people I don’t know at all, about whom the people who were in a position to know give wildly conflicting accounts, offends people, well I’ll have to settle for offending people. I just don’t know what happened in that attic.

What I do know is this. The reason it’s easy for many to see Mia Farrow as a sort of Medea, sacrificing her own daughter’s happiness in her vindictiveness toward Woody Allen is the same reason that it’s also easy for many to see Woody as the sort of monster who would abuse his own seven-year-old daughter, the undeniable fact that Woody did betray his not quite wife with his not quite stepdaughter, who was not quite underage at the time, which is rather a lot of not quites to stomach.

And the problem I have with Weide’s defense of Woody is that he makes light of that transgression. Yes, he acknowledge that “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.” But he then immediately rushes to minimize that understanding, pairing reasons why Woody’s relationship with Soon-Yi wasn’t as bad as you might think with talk about Mia’s own checkered sexual history, to suggest that it all comes out in the wash, and we may as well just overlook all of it. What does it matter if Woody slept with Soon-Yi, if Mia may also have cheated on Woody with Frank Sinatra?

Mia Farrow, Weide says, wasn’t actually Woody Allen’s common law wife, and Soon-Yi Previn wasn’t actually his stepdaughter. Well, yes, didn’t everyone already know that? The pair famously never married, in the eleven years they were together. And no, New York doesn’t have common law marriage. And no, we don’t have a legal category for “baby mama’s daughter.” But what words like “common law marriage” and “stepdaughter” are groping for is the fact that, when a man and a woman have children together, normally they are married, and so, speaking of a baby mama as simply a “girl friend” seems to sell the relationship short. Or to sell short the reasons why having sex with your baby mama’s daughter is socially incestuous (even if not legally so), and creepy as all get out.

There are (at least) three reasons incest is wrong. There’s the issue of inbreeding and genetic defects, first. And there’s the issue of abuse of trust and power, second. And, third, there’s the “don’t shit where you eat” reason, that incest royally screws up your family. Even if you argue that Soon-Yi is the special snowflake case where abuse of trust and power doesn’t apply, and everything was hunky dory and consensual, and Woody Allen wasn’t in the least bit in the role of father toward her, I don’t see how you can deny that the “don’t shit where you eat” aspect of the thing doesn’t apply, or that there was any way this family was going to come away from this relationship other than royally screwed up.

Here’s why. Let’s assume an alternate timeline, in which it’s both the case that Woody Allen isn’t the least bit of a pedophile, and also the case that Mia Farrow is as stable and grounded as you can possibly imagine a woman to be, who has just learned that the father of some of her children is sleeping with one of her other children. We can assume that, in this alternate timeline, Dylan Farrow is now a much happier woman, and has no untoward memories involving an attic and a toy train. But how much more can we assume? How does healthy, stable, wise, and grounded Mia react to the discovery that Woody is sleeping with Soon-Yi?

We know how the actual Mia Farrow reacted. She (again famously) presented Woody with a Victorian valentine, with pins through the hearts of all her children, and a steak knife through her own chest, a picture of Soon-Yi attached to that steak knife. On that card, she wrote:

Once my heart was one and it was yours to keep
My child you used and pierced my heart a hundred times and deep

Perhaps alternate timeline particularly stable and grounded Mia doesn’t do this. Perhaps she doesn’t do many of the other things that Mia is said to have done, on discovering those naked photos of her daughter, in her lover’s possession. But is it likely that any possible Mia, in that situation, doesn’t think, “my child you used”? If Soon-Yi was twenty at the time of the split, she was, what, nine when Woody came into her mother’s life? Is it really likely that any mother, on learning that the father of some of her children, who has been in her household daily as a father, the man who first met her older daughter when she was in grade school, the man she had encouraged to take a fatherly interest in said daughter, now is sleeping with said daughter, thinks, hey, they’re consenting adults, it’s no different from his meeting someone at a party?

Is it likely that she thoroughly trusts that father with their seven-year-old daughter? Is it likely that she, like my mother, sets aside any differences she may have had with her ex enough to buy Dylan a new dress and apply a little make up, before sending her off to Woody’s and Soon-Yi’s wedding? Is it likely, even in that happier alternate timeline where we both know that Woody’s no pedophile and also that Mia’s the most stable of women, that all three of their children grow up on good terms with both parents? Doesn’t a man have some obligation not to do that which will make the mother of his children (not just a particularly unreasonable mother of his children, but any reasonable woman in her place) see him as a monster? For the sake of his children?

Sexual ethics aren’t just about not doing what’s hurtful to your immediate sex partner, they’re also about not doing things that will make it hard for your children to flourish. And not sleeping with the daughter of the mother of your children seems like a pretty baseline requirement here. I don’t doubt Woody Allen’s brilliance and talent, but I also don’t doubt his creepiness.



2 Responses to ““My child you used and pierced my heart a hundred times and deep””

  1. Andrew Says:

    I read Dylan’s letter in the NYT. I don’t understand how people can read that letter and have any doubt that what she describes is real. In the reality I experience, it just isn’t possible for anyone to “coach” another person into writing that letter. I’ve enjoyed some of his movies (notably two that featured Mia) but I’ve definitely seen my last Woody Allen movie, after reading that letter.

    You refer to Mia as Woody’s “baby mama” which I find offensive. Do they have any shared biological children? Ronan definitely resembles Frank Sinatra, in terms of facial features, but not Woody.

    Anyway, we agree on not doubting Mr. Allen’s creepiness.

  2. Sappho Says:

    OK, I retract the “baby mama.” I was trying to think of a word to express that “person with whom you’re raising children” isn’t just “girl friend,” or, as Woody Allen suggests (in a self serving way, since however their relationship may have dwindled, they hadn’t formally broken up and she had just recently let him get added as an adoptive parent for Dylan and Moses), “ex-girl friend.” Maybe I should have stuck with “mother of his children,” since, whoever Ronan’s biological father is, they had definitely adopted children together.

    Since writing this, I’ve read Woody Allen’s reply to Dylan’s letter, and it’s the opposite of persuasive in his defense. I don’t think I can enjoy another Woody Allen movie at this point, either.