Ronan Farrow: Man on a Mission

The sexual harassment czar

Posted Jan 03, 2018

The New York Times was first out with the damning information about Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual harassment. But the three hard-hitting New Yorker articles by Ronan Farrow, host of MSNBC’s short-lived Ronan Farrow Daily (February 24, 2014 - February 2015), which made details of Weinstein’s murky underground ring of protection—from Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance to attorney David Boies, to an ex- Mossad agent—sound like something out of James Bond, have left TV networks vying for the presence of the newly emerged investigative star.

Ronan Farrow didn’t emerge a fully formed sexual harassment crusader out of the mist.

It’s a role he’s been groomed for his entire life.

I first heard about him in trial testimony in 1993. That’s when Manhattan’s once-iconic, non-live-in lovers Mia Farrow and Woody Allen began battling for custody of their two adopted children, Dylan, 7, Korean-born, cerebral-palsy-afflicted Moses Previn,13, and their biological son Satchel, 5 1/2, whom Mia rechristened Ronan. This was about the time Woody stunned the public by professing that he’d fallen out of love with Mia and in love with her adopted 19, 20 or 21-year-old daughter (she had no birth certificate), Korean-born Soon-Yi Previn. He’d justified having done so with his guilt-free assertion: “The heart wants what it wants.”  (Woody and Soon-Yi wed in 1997 and today are the parents of two seemingly well-adjusted teen-aged girls.)

During the trial, which I wrote about for Psychology Today, Mia charged Woody with going from obsessive focusing on Dylan to one day, when alone with her, sexually abusing her. Mia subsequently made a tape of Dylan reciting what had allegedly occurred. But Dylan initially told contradictory stories, and the tape had many stops and starts. After extensive investigation, authorities concluded that Dylan was either suffering from stress or had been coached by her mother, or some combination of the two. And Woody, who’d passed a lie detector test, was never arrested or charged with any crime.

But trial testimony revealed that Mia and Woody’s problems long predated their legal wrangling. They began when Mia talked a reluctant Woody into having a baby with her—promising him he’d need bear no responsibility for its upbringing.

After no baby was forthcoming, the pair adopted Dylan. Woody was instantly smitten. From a non-fixture in Mia’s large, multi-cultural household (7 adopted, ailing children from around the world, 4 biological)—which Woody viewed as an atypical assemblage but not a genuine family—he became an obsessive, doting presence.

Then, after five years of trying, Mia became pregnant, an event that I, like many in the outside world, greeted with jubilation. But Satchel/Ronan’s arrival only made matters worse. The more time Mia spent alone, breastfeeding Ronan, the more Woody hovered over Dylan, fretting that she was being ignored—and the more some observers grew creeped out by what they deemed Woody’s excessive fondling and fussing over Dylan.

During the trial, sides for both Mia and Woody came to describe the baby Ronan’s reaction to his father as `phobic'.  Whenever Woody held Ronan, the infant screamed, squirmed, and kicked at him until he was returned to his mother. Out of his arms, Woody ignored Ronan, but at times, when holding him, yanked at him hurtfully. Despite many attempts at bettering it, the father-son relationship seemed to be one of mutual hate at first sight.

These fraught relationships landed Ronan and Dylan in therapy when they were 2 and 4 1/2 respectively.

Trial testimony focused on Woody’s parenting shortcomings with both Dylan and Ronan. It ended in a total victory for Mia. Woody's behavior with Dylan was deemed `grossly inappropriate,' he was granted only limited, supervised visiting rights with his children, and soon even these came to an end. The judge also faulted Woody for failing to see that bonds between adopted children are as valid as those between biological siblings, and for failing to grasp how upset Mia’s children were by Woody’s affair with Soon-Yi. The judge also found that Woody, the long-time therapy maven- who had made therapy-going cool for me and my generation of Woody Allen fans -  lacked 'judgement, insight, and impulse control.’  

Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

During the trial, I’d counted myself in the Mia Camp. I couldn’t condone or understand Woody’s inability to fathom why his choice of Soon-Yi- stirred such moral revulsion: As he told Time magazine, “I (was) not Soon-Yi’s father or stepfather… She’s Mia’s daughter. But she’s an adopted daughter and a grown woman. I could have met her at a party or something.”

I’d also admired Mia for welcoming such a large, disparate brood of needy children into what sounded to be a warm, nurturing environment. Years later, when I wrote another piece about the story, I had second thoughts. This time I focused on Mia’s largely unreported behavior after 1992, well before the trial, when she’d found nude pictures of Soon-Yi in Woody’s apartment and learned of their affair. Mia didn’t just fly between fits of rage, tears, and physical fights with Woody and  Soon-Yi which  alternated between bouts of attempted reconciliation--behaviors I’d have found totally understandable. Amazingly, Mia, still under contract, managed to keep showing up appearing totally unflustered and right on schedule, to complete her work in Woody’s film, Husbands and Wives. No one outside the family had any hint of the turmoil at home. To Woody’s surprise, even after publicly labeling him a child molester, Mia still planned to keep working in his next film, Manhattan Murder Mystery (He replaced her with Diane Keaton).

Twenty years ago, many trial reporters had thought Mia crazy because of her  'adoption mania’. At the time I'd never realized that before, during, and just after the trial, Mia had succumbed to what now looked to me like a fit of total adoption lunacy. During this period, she’d gone racing out and gobbling up five more afflicted children from Third World countries: Tam a blind 13-year-old girl from Vietnam who also suffered from a heart ailment; Isaiah, a crack addicted African American boy, Thaddeus, an Indian boy, paralyzed with polio from his waist down; Quincy, a girl, who initially couldn’t move her arms; and Frankie-Minh, another blind Vietnamese girl.

Surely Mia could  not have been running the healing, safe-haven type home I’d envisioned. Just caring for these seriously incapacitated newcomer children alone would have posed enormous challenges for anyone. But during this time, Mia was also busy tending to her already large and troubled brood, and regularly attending the trial when it met, in addition to still struggling with her hurt and rage at Woody and Soon-Yi. It struck me that by trying to affix this many afflicted children at once into her fraught household, Mia might have been at least as lacking as Woody in `judgement, insight, and impulse control.’

As with every trial I’ve covered, I remained subliminally aware of its principals. I felt thrilled to learn that growing up, Ronan was proving to be a prodigy.  At 11, he entered Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, MA.  He graduated from there in 2002 at age-15, the same year that sadly, the trial judge, Justice Elliott Wilk, died, at age 60, of cancer. At age 16, Ronan entered Yale. And by age 21, he had a Yale Law degree and a desk in the State Department. Later, he joined Hillary Clinton as her special advisor for Global Youth Issues. More recently, Ronan typically plays escort to his mother at varied human rights causes—interests that, with her brood of handicapped children from across the globe now grown, Mia currently espouses.

In his decision, Judge Wilk had stated his belief that after time away from their father, when recovered from the damaging impact of the Woody-Soon-Yi affair, and aided by their mother and continued therapy, Dylan, Ronan, and Moses would eventually be able to reconnect and form meaningful relationships with Woody.

The judge never learned how badly awry his hopes had gone, and never anticipated that Mia would raise the children marinating in bitterness. Nor did he ever read how Woody’s recently reconciled son, Moses Previn, now a family therapist, described his upbringing: “My mother drummed it into me to hate my father for tearing apart the family and sexually molesting my sister…. I see now this was a vengeful way to pay him back for falling in love with Soon-Yi.”

Indeed, by the mid-2000s, Ronan Farrow, who’d grown up in a family given to privately chanting `Woody no Goody,’ was publicly drawing attention to himself—and to his Woody-created, atypical family, like some sort of modern day Sphinx, in a series of oracular, sardonic tweets:

`He’s my father married to my sister. That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression,’ Ronan tweeted in 2011

`Happy Father’s Day—or as they call it in my family, happy brother-in-law’s day,’ he memorably tweeted on Father’s Day, June 12, 2012.

With his stream of tweets that have instantly gone viral, the son seems to have inherited a version of the father’s knack for tossing off jokes—a talent which had won Woody fame when only in his twenties, and which, thanks to his many Twitter followers, landed Ronan, at age-27, his MSNBC program. 

The next year, Mia made news in a 2013 Vanity Fair article, suggesting that Ronan was “possibly” the son of her first ex-husband, Frank Sinatra.

Ronan made more news with his killer response:  `Listen, we’re all * possibly* Frank Sinatra’s son,’ he tweeted.

Although Sinatra’s widow, Barbara, and his daughter, Nancy Sinatra Jr. quickly labeled Mia’s suggestion `nonsense,’ Ronan’s big blue eyes and fair coloring have kept the rumor alive—notwithstanding that he also looks just like Mia and members of her own family.

Three months later, in January, 2014, when Woody received a Golden Globes Lifetime Achievement Award, Ronan took to Twitter again—just in time to try to dampen the enthusiasm for Woody’s celebration: `Missed the Woody Allen tribute—did they put in the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall? ‘  

The next month, in a New York Times article, Ronan’s now-28-year-old married sister Dylan not only dredged up the old discredited custody trial molestation charges for a whole new generation who knew nothing of their history, she also called out Hollywood movie stars for continuing to work with him. The article’s timing cast doubt on  Cate Blanchett’s likely win for her role in Woody’s 2014 Blue Jasmine. It also threatened to dampen enthusiasm for the opening of Woody Allen's first Broadway show, Bullets Over Broadway.

Woody countered with his own op-ed in The Times, again proclaiming his innocence. He later cautioned lest our zeal to root out sexual harassment become a witch hunt. Since then, he’s typically remained silent. But the new attacks, and Ronan’s continuing tweets, have left his father’s name besmirched as it never was before.

And while there’s no comparison, Woody is now grouped, and even pictured, with Harvey Weinstein and other `monstrous’ men. And viewers now debate whether they should continue to see and enjoy Woody’s films or ban them forever, as they’re doing with the works of other alleged harassers.

Meanwhile his son Ronan is on a roll, and who knows when or if it will stop. Perhaps when one of the many `skits and songs’ which Mia boasts that Ronan has written find a producer, thus rivaling or outdoing another of his father’s multiple creative accomplishments?

At a recent lunch for journalists, Ronan reportedly admitted that lest the #Me Too movement swings too far, we should `absolutely’ recognize the `risk’ of innocent men becoming `casualties’ of false sex harassment charges. But he believes this movement of `white hot anguish’ is a net benefit to society. Ronan added that growing up with his sister accusing their father of sexually abusing her gave him an understanding of `some but not all’ of what Weinstein’s accusers went through.

But did it?

I don’t begrudge the parade of #Me Too women who have, partly thanks to Ronan, found their voices. I only wish our new sexual harassment czar hadn’t grown up steeped in such hatred of his famous father. Whenever I see Ronan, I can’t help think, he’s brilliant like his father, but without any of the angst or charm that made Woody so endearing to me and to so many others for so many years. In today’s hysteria -tinged atmosphere, having such a relentless avenger of sexual indignities can’t in the long run be all that healthy. At least, I wish we had a crusader with a more balanced perspective, not someone born to his job, who’s been on a life-long mission impossible to root out all semblance of human imperfection which tragically, he’s found embodied in the hated image of his father.