Uncharted Customs

Woody-Mia Redux

Twice disillusioned

Two decades ago, I covered the high-profile Woody Allen-Mia Farrow trial for custody of their three youngest children for Psychology Today (Of Human Bonding, May/June 1993). Like other reporters, I tried not to reveal my personal feelings. But few of us felt totally neutral about the long-time iconic unwed pair’s bitter split.

I’d been a Woody Allen devotee for decades. Like every Jewish person—many of them women—I knew in New York who was, or who knew someone who was, in therapy, I felt shattered that the nebbishy looking but seemingly therapy-honed personification of insight had proved to be anything but. In swapping Mia Farrow’s adopted Korean-born daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, for her, Woody had shown that his `heart not only wanted what it wanted,’ as he famously put it-—after his lifetime in therapy, his heart had felt free to take what it wanted without any ego- or superego-induced feelings of guilt. Freud, who’d written "where id is, there shall ego be," would have viewed Woody’s immoral-looking behavior as indicative of total psychotherapeutic failure.

If Woody’s years as perhaps the world’s most famous therapeutic patient had been a waste, I couldn’t help wonder about myself. Had I done any better during my own long and costly years therapeutically rooting around in my rejecting and punitive upbringing for the definitive cause of my intractable insecurity, my problematic choice in relationships—and my inability to break them off from my fear of being alone?

My dismay at Woody landed me in the Mia Camp. During the trial, I’d totally empathized with her rage and devastation at his seeming violation of ancient fatherly, or familial, taboos by—as she termed it—his "virtually incestuous relationship" with the 19, 20, or 21-year-old- Soon-Yi. Psychiatric witnesses testfied that Woody failed to see that his affair with Soon-Yi was wrong, and that even if he hadn’t actually abused Dylan, her father’s affair with "her sister" had left Dylan feeling vicariously abused. Their testimony left me additionally sympathetic with Mia, and disappointed in Woody Allen.

Other reporters also disapproved of Woody’s-Soon-Yi affair. But some of them felt just as turned off by Mia’s behavior. These detractors in the Woody Camp thought Mia suffered from an adoption mania. At the start of the trial, she’d already amassed 11 children. She had 4 biological sons: 3 with her 2nd ex-husband, Andre Previn, and 1 with Woody. In addition, she had 7 adopted children: 3 with Previn, and another 4, some of whom were handicapped and from third-world countries.

Today, although Woody and Soon-Yi have been wed for 16-years, and are raising two adopted daughters of their own, I still can’t condone his choice of a mate—though I’ve never gone as far as some friends do and view the relationship as akin to criminal. However, since the recent dredging up of old, discredited molestation charges against Woody by a Mia Farrow threesome—Mia, and two of the formerly battled-over, adopted, now adult, and twice-renamed children (Dylan to Eliza to Malone, and Satchel to Seamus to Ronan Farrow), my feelings have undergone a seismic shift. Today, I too find myself in the Woody Camp, for my sympathies lie entirely with him.

During the trial, the more I heard about Mia, the more laudable I found her. She seemed to believe herself to be on a mission as a healer and provider, especially for damaged children in need of care, and she had the means to try to carry out her vision. I admired how she’d managed to put her ideals into what looked like remarkably effective practice.

Woody’s testimony, which showed his disregard, or denigration, of the worth and role of adopted children in a family, left me feeling doubly disillusioned. He testified that he didn’t view Mia’s brood as an authentic family—he saw them as a non-traditional "welfare compound." He also denied that during the first ten years of Soon-Yi’s life, he’d been any kind of father, or father figure to her, or to most of her siblings; in that period, Woody even doubted if he’d spoken “a dozen words” to any of them.

“Dylan was adopted. Soon-Yi was adopted,” Woody testified, denying the validity of their sisterly bonds because they weren’t related by blood. As he stresses to this day, Soon-Yi was of legal age when they commenced their affair. As Woody told Time Magazine in 1993: “We could have met at a party or something,” (like any two consenting adults).

I myself wasn’t adopted as an orphan like Mia's eventual total of 10 adopted children. But I’d grown up with a stepfather whose family made no pretense of favoring his biological daughter, my half- sister, over me. I never outgrew the awful feeling of hurt and rejection—a sense of worthlessness, of being different. In the jammed courtroom, I ached for how Mia’s children must have felt, being treated by their mother’s long-time partner like non-legitimate members of their family.

Throughout the trial, listening to Justice Elliott Wilk’s questions, and reading his 33-page decision (which was a total victory for Mia), I’d felt pleased that he seemed to share my disapproval of Woody’s cavalier attitude towards adoption—and of his Soon-Yi romance. In his decision, Judge Wilk noted Woody’s failure to understand “that the bonds developed between adoptive brothers and sisters (deserve as much) respect and protection (as) those between biological siblings.” He also chastised Woody for having failed to act as a responsible parent and adult, and for having failed to understand the damaging effect of his words and deeds (with Soon-Yi) on his children’s emotional well-being. In addition, Judge Wilk characterized Woody as selfish, lacking in judgment, sensitivity, insight, and impulse control.

For a time after the trial, I doubted I'd want to see a Woody Allen film again. But this feeling didn't last much beyond the opening of his next film. I’d briefly recoil at how Woody’s familiar, recurring themes—adultery, particularly between older men/younger or teen-aged women, or between a man and his lover’s sister, or her adopted sister—mirrored themes from the trial. Yet I couldn’t help admire the brilliance that enables him to grapple with his demons in a unique, comic way, even as his off-beat manner of viewing, and skewering, various cultural dilemmas of the day remains undimmed. And even if his shtick at times grows wearisome, or I periodically get irritated when the voices of his characters sound too much like Woody and Diane Keaton, I still marvel at his astonishing discipline and productivity—in the last 48 years, 74 films that he’s written, directed, produced, and often acted in, along with dozens of plays and several volumes of New Yorker short stories. To my surprise, I’ve actually enjoyed some of his films from the last half-dozen or so years more than ever, Midnight in Paris being my especial favorite.

As with other trials I’ve covered, I’d effortlessly tracked its follow-up developments. I’ve even felt vicarious pride on Woody’s behalf, reading of Ronan Farrow’s meteoric intellectual ascent that saw him start at Simon’s Rock at Bard College at age 11 and admitted to Yale Law School at 16, become one of the youngest people to work in the State Department, until today, as our newest media darling, he’s recently debuted as anchor of his 5-day weekly MSNBC news show, The Ronan Farrow Daily. Mia’s director/father/writer John Farrow was brainy enough. But surely this astonishingly gifted young man had to have inherited some of his father’s genius?

Turns out if he had, he wasn’t celebrating this possibility. Ronan’s been too busy displaying another likely inherited Woody Allen trait—his ability to toss out one wry, witty tweet after another with same ease with which Woody’s always been able to knock out one great gag after another. Only along with Mia, Ronan has been devoting his talents to conducting an orchestrated campaign by Twitter, dredging up the decades-old molestation charges to smear his putative father’s image.

Their campaign, which took off in an October Vanity Fair article, went truly global in January. That’s when the mother-son co-tweeters-in-arms shot down celebratory kudos for Woody right after he won the Golden Globe’s Cecille B. deMille Lifetime Achievement Award. That’s also when my feelings underwent a 180 degree turn. I could understand Mia’s continuing fury at the man who’d done her wrong. But surely the statute of limitations had run out on this waging of a nasty public vendetta, especially one stemming from an old, vitriol-fueled custody fight?

During the trial, despite his exoneration by state authorities and the Yale-New Haven investigators, countless witnesses had testified to Woody’s "grossly inappropriate," hovering/smothering behavior with Dylan. Such testimony made me question whether Woody’s lack of boundaries with his doted on tot might possibly have shaded into actual abuse. Nevertheless, I’d never been 100% convinced.

Dylan’s own account of her alleged abuse had varied considerably. And Mia had already branded Woody a "child molester" in her family, because of his Soon-Yi affair when, several months later, she switched and called him a molester of 7-year-old Dylan—suggesting that the term was already much in the air in Dylan’s fraught home. In addition, as Woody points out in his recent NY Times article, Mia had also warned him, "you took my daughter, now I’ll take yours," words implying an unmistakable threat. Today, like others who’ve recently weighed in on the reignited charges, I’ve wondered if they were timed to help publicize Ronan’s new show. Like others, I also think that Dylan believes her story. But in light of other stories of falsely accused victims of sex abuse charges I’ve learned of, I find its truth more questionable than ever. I would have been even more skeptical of Dylan’s accusations had I known during the custody trial that accusing a divorcing parent of sex abuse was already a common, if ugly, tactic in many 1990’s custody cases.

What I found most persuasive in changing my mind, however, was Justice Elliott Wilk’s decision. In his NY Times piece, Woody termed the Wilk decision "rough." When I recently looked at it again, I realized Woody was wrong. It was lacerating. Two decades ago, with my strong anti-Woody bias, I hadn’t realized how one-sided it was, giving Mia the benefit of a doubt in issue after issue. For example, Judge Wilk questioned findings by the Yale- New Haven sex abuse experts that Mia might have coached or brainwashed Dylan into making her molestation charge against Woody. But the judge offered no solidly convincing reason for his skepticism. And today, Woody and Mia’s adopted Korean-born son Moses Farrow, recently estranged from Mia and reconciled with Woody and Soon-Yi, now claims that Dylan’s charges actually did stem from her having been brainwashed and coached by her mother.

Compared to the litany of parental offenses for which Judge Wilk slammed Woody, he also tread extremely lightly in discussing Mia’s parental failings. The judge conceded that Mia wasn’t "faultless as a parent." In an obvious understatement, he noted that “there were some problems in Mia’s relationships with Dylan and Satchel” —problems tha had sent parents and children alike into therapy when Satchel was just over 2. He also mentioned Mia’s seeming failure to have recognized emotional difficulties Soon-Yi was suffering prior to her affair with Woody. But he quickly pointed out that perfection is not a qualification we demand of parents. And he praised the "caution and flexibility" Mia mustered in dealing both with her children and Woody during their high-drama split.

In hindsight, rereading this material, along with the blizzard of recent online and printed stories, I wondered why Judge Wilk (who died at age 60 in 2002) didn’t also question how well Mia had been addressing the emotional problems of her two other adopted Previn daughters, both of whom had been charged in shoplifting and assorted other felony cases during this period.

I also wondered, belatedly, at another omission in Judge Wilk’s decision. Roughly a month after learning about Woody and Soon-Yi, Mia raced out and adopted two more children. Within the same week, she brought home a black crack-addicted infant and a blind 13-year-old Vietnamese girl. The latter immediately began to run around her apartment chanting "Woody No Goody!"

Given Mia’s hypertraumatized family, this can’t possibly have been an optimal time to introduce two new disadvantaged adoptees into her home. And, just a year after winning her custodial victory, Mia adopted two more handicapped children, followed the next year by a third.

I could understand Mia’s wish to rebuild her Woody- shattered family, but not in this desperate, wholesale manner. Surely she could not have been running the healing, welcoming, safe-haven type home I’d envisioned. I recalled that when she first learned about Woody and Soon-Yi, Mia had been perhaps the last in her family to know. Belatedly I wondered how Mia compared to Woody in her own judgment, insight, and impulse control.

In his decision, Judge Wilk—again giving no solid evidence for his conclusion—also dismissed Woody’s charge that Mia was tying to turn their children against him. But that’s just what Woody’s newly reconciled son Moses now contends. And while the judge ruled that Dylan and Satchel both needed a protective, healing environment, at least temporarily, to recover from the damaging fallout from Woody’s Soon-Yi romance, he also hoped and expected that eventually, aided by their continued therapy, the children would be able to reconnect and form meaningful relationships with their father. He never foresaw that after all their therapy, the children would grow up permanently estranged from, and traumatized by, their memories of Woody. Judge Wilk certainly could not have anticipated that Mia would raise Dylan and Satchel to be her personal Manchurian Candidates—waiting to pull the trigger two decades after the custody trial, timed to doom their father’s pending triumphs at the Oscar ceremony, and at the opening of his first Broadway musical play.

This is why I’ve lately found myself twice disillusioned, originally by Woody Allen, prior to and during his trial, and lately by the furious tweets of his still presumed boy-wonder, new—and sadly too full-of-imself-—broadcaster son.

But just when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, it did. That’s when I read an update of the story by Mia’s long-ago boarding-school friend and Connecticut neighbor, Casey Pascal. Pascal said that “Mia has lately been ‘suffering terribly,’ and is ‘horrified’ that the molestation allegations, first made more than 20 years ago, have now reared up yet again. Meanwhile it seems that Ronan, too “would just as soon never have this mentioned ever again”—and he finds "zero gain for his career in having this out there."

Since they’re the ones who first resurrected the allegations, what are they both? Nuts?

That’s what some people said about Mia all along.

Only back then I didn’t believe it.

As for me, I’m happy that Cate won her Oscar  and that she graciously credited Woody. I’ve also got to believe that as the father of two more adopted daughters, Woody’s negative views of adoption have moderated. Regarding his obviously failed therapy, however, he at least had the sense to call it quits around the time he wed Soon-Yi. That act left me more in limbo than ever - neither a true believer or disbeliever, just perennially afraid to pull the plug.

Joan Ullman, M.A., is a former school psychologist, now a freelance writer. Her blog, Uncharted Customs, delves into disjunctions in today’s upended legal, cultural, and social mores.

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