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What to Make of Woody: When Accusations Make Us Squirm

Before passing judgment on anyone accused, consider all we don't know.

A few years ago when my daughter was just entering her teens, we were snorkeling in Hawaii. There was just one problem—I can't swim. But I promised my daughter I'd stay near her and not go too far out, and for some time, that's what I did. But as I grew more comfortable in the water, I grew more bold, and before I knew it, I had drifted far from her and was swimming in deep waters. With the sudden awareness that I was too far out, I panicked and went vertical and started to drown. Fortunately, an Australian man swimming nearby with his children noticed my distress and saved me. By the time my daughter reached me, she was so upset she was shaking, and in a classic role reversal of parent and child, she berated me all the way back to our hotel for not staying close to her and ending up so far from her that it would have been impossible for her to save me.

But by the end of the evening, her memory of the event had radically changed. The memory she retained was that she saw me drowning, raced across the water to me, dove under the water and freed my foot from the seaweed that I'd become tangled in.

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"And that Australian just stood there, like a blithering idiot!" she fumed.

No matter how I tried to reason with her, she refused to believe my version of the event. Although there was no seaweed anywhere near us, and the Australian had indeed saved me and pulled me to shallower waters, my daughter's memory was fixed. To this day, she insists that what she recalls is what happened. Occasionally, a flicker of recall will cause her to rethink the event and consider that it couldn't have happened the way she recalls, but always, she goes back to her conviction that she saved me as I was drowning. Because that's a memory that eases the anguish she felt when she saw me in the distance drowning and was helpless to save me in time.

With the recent publication of Dylan Farrow's claims that Woody Allen abused her when she was seven years old, my daughter's certainty of a memory I know to be false has given me pause in passing judgment. And as I pause in judgment, a sudden flurry of public condemnation has hit the media and cyberspheres, with both Allen and Farrow judged by strangers who know nothing of the facts.

What we do know is that Woody Allen married his girlfriend's daughter, starting an affair with her when she was just nineteen and he was in his mid-fifties. He had also been involved with actress Stacey Nelkin, who indicated that his movie Manhattan—about a middle-aged man involved with a teenage girlfriend—was based on their relationship. We know that he, like Roman Polanski (who raped a 13-year-old girl), Jerry Lee Lewis (who married a 13-year-old girl), or Jerry Seinfeld (who started dating his current wife when she was in high school and he in his late thirties), likes young girls. But that doesn't mean that just because he likes them young, that he likes them even younger.

We also know that little girls (and little boys) do get molested, do tell, and are not always believed. There is no doubt that the sexual abuse of children is a very real problem that is far more common than we'd like to believe. And there is no doubt that Dylan Farrow may be speaking the truth, in which case to not believe her is all the more cruel and painful.

One of the troubling aspects of accusations of serious misdeeds is that they are so disturbing that when we hear them, we tend to presume they are true (and very often they are). But accusations are easy to make and very difficult to take back, as one of the young boys (now grown) who testified about his abuse in the McMartin preschool sex abuse prosecution discovered when he explained how he was coerced into giving testimony he knew to be false. As he indicated, even after he told the truth, no one would believe him, because they had so convinced themselves that they knew with certainty what had happened. Certainty protects us, where uncertainty leaves us feeling vulnerable and duped.

Yet the stigma and fear associated with accusations of serious wrongdoing such as sexual abuse is so great that rather than accept that an accusation against someone might be false, we are more likely to protect ourselves by presuming not innocence, but guilt. Or, if not guilt, we presume that where there's smoke, there's fire, and shun the accused who might very well be innocent.

Regardless of how unsympathetic Woody Allen might be, or how sympathetic Dylan Farrow might be, the public does not know the truth but finds little hesitation in drawing damning conclusions. But there is good reason to have doubt, just as there is good reason to have concern. In an article in The Daily Beast, Robert B. Weide, who made a documentary about Woody Allen, presented a reasoned article for why he doubts the allegation. Weide suggests the inconsistencies in the testimony given at the time, along with other facts, suggest it probably never happened. But given Woody Allen's marriage to Soon Yi-Previn, it takes little effort to imagine that it did.

The accusations we are most likely to believe are those that resonate with something we know about a person. If we know someone cheats on his wife, it isn't a stretch to imagine he's guilty of sexual harassment. If someone drinks too much, it isn't a stretch to imagine she did something shameful while drunk. If someone sleeps with his girlfriend's teenage daughter, it isn't hard to imagine he went after her little girl. What each of these scenarios has in common, is our imaginations.

The public has nothing but imagination to go on when evaluating the conduct of Woody Allen or the allegations of Dylan Farrow. It is not for the public to persecute a man based on the allegations of a single person, nor is it for the public to persecute his accuser just because they don't want to believe her. The truth is that the public does not know what happened. We might know what happens to little girls who are molested, and we might know what happens to adult men who are falsely accused, but in the case of these two people, we do not know. It is just as feasible that Dylan Farrow has a false memory, as it is feasible that Woody Allen did indeed abuse her as she claims.

And as for what that means when evaluating the artistic merits of one so accused, I'll reserve judgment until the day comes that Paul Gauguin's value as an artist is debated on the pages of the New York Times. After all, if the pre-pubescent girls he painted and slept with had been white, I doubt his paintings would be hanging in our museums or turned into coffee mugs and fashion accessories. We have long separated the art from the artist when it's comforting to do so. What is not so comfortable is accepting that those who create great things, can also do bad things, or that those who do bad things, are not necessarily all bad. 

In the case of Woody Allen, we just don't know. And that's the way the public ought to leave it.  If Dylan Farrow is telling the truth, it is a deep and lasting pain that she surely does not deserve to endure. But if her memory is false, for far too many people, it simply doesn't matter. The accusation is all the evidence they need. And that's a terribly sad commentary on our humanity toward the accused, in a culture that prides itself on due process and the presumption of innocence. To presume that Woody Allen is innocent does not mean presuming Dylan Farrow is lying. What it does mean is we know that any one of us can find ourselves accused and find it impossible to prove that something that never happened, actually didn't happen. In the absence of evidence, sometimes it's best to set our judgments aside, and accept the discomfort of our own uncertainties, lest we be judged ourselves.

Photo credit: Boston Globe

Janice Harper, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist specializing in conflict and organizational cultures.

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