Monday, February 3, 2014

Dylan Farrow's Story of Childhood Abuse by Woody Allen: Mainstreaming Discussion of Childhood Sexual Abuse in American Culture

In today's New York Times, Michael Cieply asks whether moral judgments will increasingly color the decisions that Oscar voters make when they cast their votes on films nominated for awards. In particular, Cieply asks what effect the open letter that director Woody Allen's adopted daughter Dylan Farrow published yesterday via Nicholas Kristof's Times column will have on Oscar voters' decisions this year. In the open letter, Farrow repeats claims she has made in the past (which Allen denies) that Allen sexually abused her when she was a child.

As Cieply notes, Dylan Farrow's letter suggests a "callous indifference" of many folks in the Hollywood establishment to Farrow's claims that Allen molested her when she was a girl. The letter challenges actors like Cate Blanchett and Diane Keaton, who have continued to lionize Allen in public statements, to listen carefully to Farrow's reports of abuse, and to rethink their admiration for Woody Allen as they listen to these reports.

At Salon yesterday, writer Roxane Gay details her struggle for some time now with the question of whether we can "compartmentalize" Woody Allen's art and his humanity: the compartmentalization approach maintains that while the human being producing the art may well be seriously flawed, the art itself deserves notice and even celebrating. Gay notes that she is becoming discontent with this compartmentalization approach to Allen and his work. 

She argues that public intellectuals have perhaps failed our culture by their refusal to engage the hard questions that are at the heart of any and all stories about sexual abuse of children by adults--notably the following questions:

We can consider how, all too often, victims need to prove their stories in the court of public opinion. They need to be unassailable. They need to authenticate their stories in an atmosphere where they will be doubted and maligned for daring to speak up. 
We can consider how people seem to want to believe false rape and sexual abuse accusations are the rule rather than the exception. Why wouldn’t they? The truth and pervasiveness of sexual violence around the world is overwhelming. Why would anyone want to face such truth? 
We can consider how little there is to be gained from false accusations of sexual assault. 
We can consider what it costs to stand up and say, "I am the victim of sexual violence." The exposure of those wounds, the intense vulnerability of admitting how you have been trespassed against, is not some kind of compensation for the crime you have suffered. 
We can consider the fact that rape is a significantly underreported crime. According to the Justice Department, 60 percent of rapes go unreported. Only 3 percent of rapists will spend even a day in prison. It’s no mystery why more victims don’t come forward. There is far too little to gain at far too high a cost. Justice and dignity are elusive. Instead, victims have to recount their story to an often skeptical audience. They have to endure, if they’re lucky — if they are lucky – a trial and the machinations of the justice system, and then hope their attacker is found guilty and sentenced to an appropriate prison sentence while knowing that there is rarely a prison sentence that can adequately provide justice for the crime of sexual violence.

All that Roxane Gay says here is, of course, germane to the discussion of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church, in which adult religious authority figures have repeatedly covered up the molestation of children by other adult religious authority figures, and in which many other adults have supported the actions of both those accused of molesting minors, and those covering up the abuse. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic authority figures have sought to tell us for quite some time now that victims pay an extraordinarily high price for telling their stories, that the onus is on victims to prove that they have been molested in a legal system that affords enormous power to the institution against which such claims are made, that the vast majority of rapes go unreported. 

Why the callous indifference that's on full display as Dylan Farrow seeks an audience for what she claims is a true story of childhood abuse by a noted filmmaker? Why the callous indifference of many Catholics to the stories of abuse survivors about the the abuse they suffered at the hands of priests and nuns when they were children?

I have long since concluded that psychologist Alice Miller is correct when she argues over and over in books ranging from For Your Own Good (1980), Thou Shalt Not Be Aware (1981), Banished Knowledge (1988), and Breaking Down the Wall of Silence (1990) that most cultures are simply impervious to the cries of children's pain. Miller maintains that the more a particular culture trumpets its concern for children, in fact, the less likely it is to give concrete attention to the real needs of children.

The trumpeting of concern is a psychological defense mechanism designed to hide the many ways in which an ostensibly child-centered culture is, in fact, totally unconcerned with the welfare of children in need--in need of education, medical care, housing, etc., and in need of protection from adult violence. I have long since concluded that contemporary American culture is precisely the kind of culture Alice Miller castigates in her books about the roots of indifference to the suffering of children: a culture that lavishly and publicly proclaims its love for children while betraying real children in the real world in just about every way possible--including through callous indifference to the reports of minors that they have been sexually molested by adults, or through callous indifference to the reports of adults that they were molested as children.

I think Gay is right on target to call on public intellectuals to address these issues. And I also think that the refusal of many of us to listen carefully to the claims made repeatedly by Woody Allen's adopted daughter Dylan Farrow has everything in the world to do with the cultural challenges Gay enumerates in her "we can consider" statements, which public intellectuals need to address (though jt goes without saying that I certainly also maintain that anyone accused of child abuse of any kind deserves a fair hearing, too). 

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