Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

Dylan Farrow's Story: An Account of Child Abuse

An obligation to seek the truth

Nicholas Kristof gave over his column today in the New York Times to an account by Dylan Farrow of her being abused by Woody Allen when she was seven years old. The behavior she describes—inappropriate touching—is reprehensible. It is also common, which makes it no less reprehensible. But, for that reason, I think it is important to keep in mind certain facts, which have relevance to a number of concerns that go beyond the facts of this case.

 This accusation surfaced for the first time in a high profile custody battle. It was investigated by appropriate authorities. The case was not prosecuted. Had it been prosecuted we do not know whether or not the evidence would have been enough to convict Mr. Allen of a criminal offense. The behavior described occurred with no witnesses; and Mr. Allen has denied any wrong-doing. No one can be sure about what happened. It is easy to sympathize with Ms. Farrow’s experience, as she remembers it, and deplore the consequences of that experience, as she remembers it; but the rest of us cannot be sure of her account simply because it is written in a convincing manner.

Our reaction to her account is obviously being colored by other aspects of Mr. Allen’s life. He is a celebrity. Ms. Farrow feels his being lionized as a filmmaker has influenced others to believe his account of this incident. I think this is probably so. On the other hand, many people detest him for having had an affair with and then marrying a step-daughter. They are inclined to believe the worst about him.

There are some facts that are worth noting:

  1. Of course, sexual touching—and worse—does occur within families. It is unusual, in my experience, for these situations to result in the dire consequences Ms. Farrow reports—rising to the level of a post-traumatic stress disorder. But it can happen.
  2. Accusations of child abuse are made frequently in child custody cases. I personally know of a number of cases when these charges were false and were used as a bargaining chip in settling other issues coming up in the divorce, including financial issues.
  3. In the mind of certain therapists, childhood sexual abuse is an important cause of very many psychiatric difficulties. Some of these therapists specialize in eliciting a history of such abuse even when the patient does not readily remember it. This has resulted in cases of “false memory syndrome,” in which the patient remembers incidents that never occurred and, in some cases, could not have occurred. As the result some people have been falsely imprisoned and many families have been disrupted painfully. It is important to note that these disturbed individuals are not consciously fabricating these stories. Numerous studies indicate that they believe them to be true—even when they are not true.

As a psychiatrist, I frequently take a history from a patient who tells me that he/she has been abused sexually by a member of her family, or by someone else. In order to understand that patient it is important for me to discover, if possible, whether those accusations are true. Sometimes I can find out the truth from other family members; more often, I cannot. Some such events that I know for a fact have happened are terrible: forcible rape by biological fathers and gang rape by brothers being only some of these events. But there are other similar stories which are doubtful for a number of reasons. Some are just outlandish, including sacrificial rites and animals. Some have become interwoven with a complicated world-view of being a victim. When these accounts of sexual abuse are given as justification for every sort of personal calamity, they become suspect. Also, I try to keep in mind these considerations:

  1. If the account is consistent with behaviors, I know to be common, I am more inclined to believe it.
  2. If the specific sexual behavior was always remembered—as opposed to having been forgotten and then remembered in the context of psychotherapy—I am more inclined to believe it.
  3. I try to suggest—what I believe—that these childhood incidents can be overcome; and that it is still possible to have a mature and satisfying sexual relationship with others. And it is possible to overcome the guilt that is the principle result of early sexual abuse.

Mr. Kristof in his column makes a pro-forma comment about someone being presumed innocent; but presumably he would not have published this column if he did not believe the account of Ms. Farrow, whom he knows personally. I understand perfectly how he feels. He has a friend who is still troubled by whatever incident may have happened in the distant past. I know, also, that it will be upsetting to her all over again for someone to cast doubt on her account. But doubt is a reasonable response to stories of this kind. (c) Fredric Neuman  Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr.-neuman-advice-column/

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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