Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

Woody Allen: Child Abuser or Falsely Accused?

How can we understand the accusations that Woody Allen abused his daughter?

The accusation that Woody Allen abused his daughter 20 years ago has been in the news again recently. The accusation was revived by his daughter in a letter published in the New York Times. One thing is completely clear from reading her letter—she was and she remains traumatized by her childhood experiences. Less clear is the nature of those traumatizing experiences and how she was actually traumatized.

Since Woody Allen and Mia Farrow’s daughter accused Mr. Allen of sexual abuse in the midst of her parent’s divorce and custody battle, two competing explanations of the abuse accusations have been promoted. The first is that Woody Allen abused his daughter. The second is that Mia Farrow intentionally planted abuse memories as a method of hurting Woody Allen. Both of these scenarios are plausible, in the sense that abuse happens and false accusations occur in divorce proceedings. I want to suggest a possible third explanation in this blog post. Before we consider the third possibility, let me clear about the first two explanations of the abuse accusations.

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First, Dylan Farrow may have been abused and traumatized by her father, Woody Allen. In her letter she described repeated abuse and requests by her abuser to keep silent. She wrote that it took time for her to talk about her experiences with her mother. Without clear physical evidence, her allegations of abuse did not lead to prosecution, but did lead to the removal of Woody Allen’s custody rights. This pattern isn’t unusual. It takes time for victims of abuse to report the abuse and their stories are frequently doubted. If her childhood memories were inconsistent and if her memories have shifted over time, that is also normal. Memories are not completely consistent. Unfortunately, our court system relies on precise claims on times, places, and actions for prosecuting a crime. When people remember repeated events, they remember something more like a schema—they can describe a typical event, but may not remember every detail of each episode. Thus the narrative offered by Dylan Farrow is consistent with memories of repeated abuse.

Second, Dylan Farrow may have created memories in response to intentionally misleading suggestions and questions from her mother. This is Woody Allen’s claim as detailed in his response editorial also published in the New York Times. He argued that his estranged wife was angry at him and fabricated the accusations. He noted what he sees as additional evidence that Mia Farrow was not always the most honest person and that she was manipulative with her children. Clearly people can create false memories. If children are subjected to repeated questions and suggestions, they will often not simply agree with the suggestions, but will start to remember the suggested events. This isn’t something simply about children—adults can also be led to create false memories based on suggestions and repeated questions. If Mia Farrow intentionally created these memories in her daughter, I suggest this is another form of traumatization. These false memories have completely changed the young woman’s understanding of her childhood and ruined her relationship with her father.

Thus it is clear that Dylan Farrow was traumatized, but it isn’t clear which parent is the cause of her trauma. Both of these explanations rely on a view that one of Dylan Farrow’s parents mistreated her. Either Woody Allen abused his daughter or Mia Farrow created a false history for her daughter.

But another interpretation does not assume ill intentions on the part of either Woody Allen or Mia Farrow. Perhaps Woody Allen didn’t abuse his daughter. Perhaps Mia Farrow did not intentionally plant memories. Instead Mia Farrow may have questioned her daughter about her relationship with Woody Allen with the best of intentions. After all, Mr. Allen was leaving Ms. Farrow for a relationship with one of Ms. Farrow’s adult adopted children. Clearly it wouldn’t be unusual for Mia Farrow to wonder how Woody Allen treated her other children—both adopted and shared with Mr. Allen. Perhaps she repeatedly questioned her daughter with the best of intentions, not with a will to harm Mr. Allen but rather with a genuine concern for her daughter. Perhaps unwittingly through those conversations, the 7-year-old Dylan Farrow was led to believe that she was abused by her father. The outcome is the same; she developed false memories of being abused by her father. But the view of Mia Farrow is of a protective mother rather than a manipulative scorned wife. If Dylan Farrow’s memories are false, I suspect honest error rather than intentional misleading.

But here’s the bad news: Based on the memories, there is no way of discerning whether Dylan Farrow’s memories are true recollections of abuse or false memories created by repeated suggestions. In my own research with my students, we’ve often looked for features that will discriminate true from false memories. We haven’t ever been successful—false memories feel like true memories. Without some clear physical evidence or an admission by Woody Allen or Mia Farrow, we’ll never know the truth of the abuse accusations. To me, this is the horror of the situation and many similar situations in many other families. A child has memories of abuse and is traumatized by those memories. But is the child traumatized by abuse or constructed false memories? Either way, the child’s experience is of the trauma. Either way, the child’s life has been changed for the worse. In cases of false memories, it seems to me this situation can arise without ill intentions by either parent. Instead one parent can question with the best of intentions, but inadvertently help a child create false memories. I don’t know what happened in this case. But I am sure that Dylan Farrow continues to suffer from the results of her childhood experiences.

 

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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