Woody Allen, Dylan Farrow and the Burdensome Proof of Memory
As a blogger and a memoirist, I’ve been thinking a lot about memory recently in light of the renewed allegations of molestation by Dylan Farrow against her adoptive father. Woody Allen and his team of apologists have successfully planted enough doubt in the public’s mind that people either don’t want to look any more or are chiming like some numbed Greek chorus, “Nobody will ever know the truth but Woody and Dylan.”
The notion that Mia Farrow is this preternaturally nefarious, super-accomplished mesmerist who so effectively implanted false memories in her seven-year-old daughter that they lingered vividly for twenty-one years is absolutely preposterous. It reads like one of Allen’s more outrageous story lines, in fact. Hell hath no wrath like a woman scorned, right? Especially a woman who never lets you sleep over and is banging her ex-husband on the side. But Allen’s version of the narrative doesn’t expose Mia for being something far different from the kooky do-gooder that is her public persona, it merely underscores what has effectively been Allen’s stock in trade his entire career: that he is a paranoid, obsessive, mendacious narcissist.
Some of my own childhood memories surfaced the other day when I was editing our new contributor Scarlett Rouge’s piece about parties. She remembered being a toddler, maybe two years old, bouncing in her crib with shitty diapers while her parents were partying in the rooms beyond. In theory, she was too young to retain this memory into adulthood, but I disagree. I have a similar recollection of my parents changing my diapers, looking down at me and cooing. I consider it my first distinct memory. There are others, but they are vague and nightmarish, mostly of my parents fighting; they were both tough, high-strung characters, young parents, too young, and the copious consumption of alcohol didn’t help. They fought frequently and nightmarishly.
Up until her remarriage, when she felt compelled to rewrite family history to suit a more genteel narrative and better image of herself, my mother always praised me for my extraordinary memory. She turned against me around ten years ago when she remarried, and I became nothing but a mess of false memories, none of them true. I began to doubt myself; this judgment was coming from my primary source of affection and support, which still had a deep effect well into adulthood.
The problem for Mum is the details of my memories. In this particular case, I remember my diapers being changed in a room directly opposite my parents’ at the country house, not in what was to become my room next door to it. The room my diapers were changed in became my sister’s after she was born, when I was a two and half. If I couldn’t retain the memory, how do I remember this detail? If it was false, I would have remembered it happening in the bedroom that became mine for the rest of my childhood, until I was banished to the attic, of course.
I no longer doubt my long-term memory. I still consider it keen. I do not doubt my mother’s narcissism, either, her need to rewrite history to shine her own halo, to exculpate herself of all blame. Her narcissism has been a major revelation to me, but a positive one; I can revisit my childhood and look at things from a different perspective, tidy things up, understand what went wrong when and fix it.
Like Mia with her children, Mum enlisted me in her battle with my father, one that lasted twenty years, until they got divorced — what a relief that was! But she didn’t turn me against him; he did that all by himself, just as Allen did with Dylan and Ronan. On revisiting my childhood memories with a retooled perspective, I understand that she wasn’t as much a victim as she painted herself to be. She played an equal role in making me miserable, and a greater role in hobbling my self-esteem and self-image, both of which are now rectified. I no longer need to keep Mum at a safe distance because she can do no more damage. The changed perspective of my memories has rendered her harmless.
As I revisit the past, and ponder what Dylan remembers and how likely it might be that she has false memories, I realize I had a similar experience when I was the age she was when Allen molested her. It was a summer the family spent in Porto Santo Stefano, sort of the Hamptons of Rome, the city in which I was raised.
My brother had just been born. I would have just turned eight. Mum was breastfeeding him so her boobs were enormous, which was pleasant because normally they were so much smaller than other mothers’ breasts, and Mum was self-conscious about that, so I felt self-conscious on her behalf. Diane Chapman from Coventry was our nanny. “She’s a Pom so she can’t cook to save her life, but she makes great deserts. Pommies are very good at deserts,” Mum the Aussie noted. Diane also had terrible allergies, and I was told not to bring any ragweed into the house. Still, I brought in a bunch once just to see if she would indeed erupt into sneezing and maybe really “swell up like a balloon,” even though I loved Diane almost as much as my own mother — when the staff were around, my parents behaved towards us and each other with restraint. Staff were good, staff were useful, staff calmed the volcanic rage in the house that kept me on edge to the extent I had “egg burps,” as my sister called them: the bile would roil in my stomach from nervousness and fear to such a degree I would belch sulfur. Anyway, I was punished for the ragweed and feel badly about it to this day.
I remember my ever-fearful, paranoid father walking ahead of me at a safe distance across an abandoned field that led to the beach in case there were any landmines left over from World War II. I remember the enormous breasts of a temporary nanny (was her name Anna?), an Italian who spoke no English, who replaced Diane when she went on holiday for a couple of weeks. Anna showered in front of me. Her armpits were hairy. I didn’t like that about Italian women; Mum said it was disgusting, so I thought so, too.
I remember the long, steep road up to the house we had rented, which probably isn’t as long and steep as I remember it. I learned about Fool’s Gold because it was everywhere on the side of the road, probably from recent construction, now that I look at those lumps of stone with more knowledge. I remember the fig tree that grew outside the house. I remember the lemon tree that grew outside another house midway up the long, steep road I walked several times a day, where that Italian family lived. They had children, too, but older children. One of them was a teen who stopped me on my walk home one day and invited me in. I was coming from the beach, so just wearing my Speedos and flip flops, probably not a hat because Mum didn’t protect us like that. But I was wearing that gold medallion with a crab on it for my zodiac sign that Mum gave me for my birthday, which I later lost. I lost most things ever gifted to me — I have never been good with materialism.
Don’t fault my recollection if I don’t remember the teen’s name. I only met him that once. I do remember that he began poking my penis as we sat together on the verandah of the porch. It felt good, even though he was rather ugly and overweight. I know he asked, “Ti piace?” And I believe I replied, “Si. Lo vuoi vedere?” Yes. Do you want to see it? Or more likely he is the one who said, “Lo voglio vedere.” I want to see it. So I agreed. It felt right.
He took me into a raw space underneath the house, under the verandah where we’d just been sitting. I believe my sister was playing with other children near the lemon tree outside, but I might be wrong about her being there, too. I know there were other children outside. The boy pulled down my Speedos and looked at my dick, puzzled, as all Italians were by my dick. At that age I would have offered the explanation for my circumcision as being, “Sono così perché sono protestante.” I’m like this because I’m Protestant. All differences between me and Italians at that age I ascribed to them being Catholic and me Protestant. It was a quick and simple explanation, and it made me something of a bad boy because it scandalized Italians — I was part of a devilish cult that pissed off their beloved Pope.
My genital mutilation didn’t daunt the lusty teen. He took out his own junk, which seemed to me enormous, and rubbed it against mine. Then he laid me on a nearby pile of earth, got on top of me. He continued to rub himself against me, much the way Allen did to Dylan. There was no penetration, I was not forced to do anything active. I just lay there while he grinded away. It’s called frottage, I tell my eight-year-old self now. Whatever, he replies. Just get him off me.
I walked home up the long, steep road afterwards and felt sick and dizzy, as I often would in early sexual encounters with older people. I liked the idea of sex with another boy, but it also made me anxious and nauseous. My sister isn’t beside me when I replay that walk up the hill, so maybe she wasn’t outside playing by the lemon tree while I was molested.
I’ve never thought I was molested, just as I’ve never told this story, even to a long-term partner. But I guess I was. How odd.
“Non ci ricordiamo dei giorni, noi ci ricordiamo dei momenti,” as Cesare Pavese famously said. We don’t remember days, we remember moments. Deliberately trying to poison my beloved nanny Diane with ragweed, seeing temp nanny Anna’s big boobs and her hairy armpits, Mum’s equally big breast-feeding boobs, the Fool’s Gold by the side of the road, the fig tree, crossing the field with Dad that may have been a minefield, the fat teen lying on top of me rubbing his big junk against my much smaller junk. These are the moments from that summer that I remember as vividly as moments from yesterday. Probably more vividly, in fact: I wasn’t steaming drunk back then like I was yesterday.
In Allen’s rebuttal to Dylan in the New York Times, he continues to take the line that Mia implanted these lifelong false memories, with all of the details that Dylan remembers, in the time it took for Mia to buy her daughter ice cream. It’s not Dylan’s fault, according to Allen, it’s her heartbroken wicked witch of a mother and her uncanny ability to hypnotize children at the ice-cream parlor during a break in a visit to the doctor’s office. It wasn’t Mia who brought the molestation charges, see, it was the doctor. But Mia must have known the doctor would have been bound by law to tell the police, so that was probably Mia’s passive way of hiding her remarkable magical powers. Right?
Allen also calls Farrow a hypocrite for being so upset about his relationship with Soon-Yi. After all, she married Frank Sinatra when she was twenty-one and he was fifty. Um, Woody, there’s a slight difference here: Mia met Sinatra on the set of a film when she was nineteen, not as her mother’s boyfriend when she was eight, like Soon-Yi.
A new favorite that Allen and apologists like his hagiographer, Robert Weide, like to trot out is the opinion of Moses Farrow, who was fifteen at the time Allen molested Dylan. Moses says it never happened, and he should know because, even though he wasn’t in the attic when it did happen, he’s a family therapist now. Moses is the only one of Mia’s fourteen kids to be estranged from her, which is an amazing accomplishment. In my experience, the larger the family, the more histrionic and rancorous the dramas, especially if there’s any money or power at stake. The one American family I know of that is that size spends a huge portion of their time feuding with and scheming against each other (the non-American ones I know aren’t nearly as savage and cutthroat). I had no idea what my little brother was up to when I was fifteen and he was eight. I was far more preoccupied with teen stuff. Was Moses any different? I’m sure he’s right about Mia being volatile and needy. Most of the more accomplished actresses I have known are that way. But they do not possess these incredible, hypnotic powers.
A choice bit of specious logic that Allen & Company are offering up is that he was never accused of child molestation before and hasn’t been since. That’s probably because Mia put the fear of God in him with the Dylan case. And we all know about Allen and his hand-wringing fears. We’ve heard about them ad nauseam for years and years and years. And comparing him to Mia’s friend Roman Polanski? My personal experience of Polanski is he’s a douche, I don’t like him, but he admitted what he did, he served time, and his “victim” has been trying for years to have him exonerated.
Allen lost all four “exhaustive” custody battles with Mia, which he attributes to Justice Wilk being “dismayed” over his relationship with Soon-Yi. Rather than accepting Allen and his apologists’ assertions that Mia was acting vindictively because of the Soon-Yi relationship, isn’t it far more likely that she was protecting her child? Volatile and needy or not, she is super-tiger mom, after all. As Maureen Orth sums up in her piece for Vanity Fair entitled 10 Undeniable Facts About the Woody Allen Sexual-Abuse Allegation, before he was turned in by Dylan’s pediatrician, Allen was in therapy for his inappropriate behavior towards Dylan. Justice Wilks wasn’t upset over the Soon-Yi relationship, although I’m sure he was put off by it, as much as he was doing his job protecting a vulnerable child. In his scathing thirty-three-page decision, Wilks wrote that Allen’s behavior towards Dylan was “grossly inappropriate and… measures must be taken to protect her.” What if Allen had won custody and had unfettered access to Dylan?
The apologists are saying that this child-molestation accusation is coming up now to draw attention to Ronan Farrow’s upcoming show on MSNBC. They cannot accept the truth: That Dylan, Mia and Ronan, who is far closer in age to Dylan than Moses and therefore enjoys a far closer relationship to her, were outraged when the Golden Globes honored Allen with a special award and tribute. To think that Ronan would need or even want to use an old, dark, tawdry scandal to advance his career is to grossly underestimate what a powerhouse that young man is in his own right. It’s ludicrous, in fact.
Nobody will ever know what really happened but Woody and Dylan. Bullshit. We know what happened, just as we know about O.J. Simpson, just as we know about Michael Jackson, just as we know about George Zimmerman.
The truth is in the detail of Dylan’s recollection. She has the right to be upset that the film industry lionizes a man who traumatized her, as I would be, and who now makes it seem like she’s one of those kooks who claims to have been abducted and probed by aliens. As to all of that sanctimonious, nauseating pathos of people hoping Dylan finds peace or whatever, she’s fine. She survived. She has come to terms with it, she has moved on, she is a mother herself now. She’s not a schizophrenic popping anti-psychotics to stop the hallucinations of events that aren’t happening or never happened. Her memory is perfect, it is clear, and it is pointing an unwavering finger, J’Accuse…!
Allen was never brought to justice by the court system, but Dylan has seen to it that he has been tried in the court of public opinion, and, yes, that is legit and within her rights. After all, she is facing down a master manipulator, a consummate raconteur, who has himself implanted doubt in that same court with his twisted, ridiculous rewrite of the narrative. We haven’t heard the last of this and we never should.
There are numerous scholarly pieces about childhood memory floating around out there, which I would encourage anyone who still has doubts about Dylan Farrow to research. Allen might as well be accusing of her of multiple-personality disorder, that’s how rare and unlikely it is that she was brainwashed and had false memories implanted by Mia. Here are some quicker, less-dense reads on the case and one on false recollected memory:
Maureen Orth’s essential laundry list
Robert Weide’s shameful Daily Beast piece
Two excellent rebuttals to Weide and Allen by Jessica Winter in The Slate here and here.
Great piece in The New Yorker
Worthy piece in Grantland
A piece in The Guardian about false recollected memory.
If you’ve never seen Ronan Farrow in action, here’s an interview Forbes did with him: