Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Woody Allen and the Transgression of Familial Boundaries

Back in the 1980's, I was a big fan of Woody Allen. As an undergraduate philosophy major, "Love and Death" was one of my favorite movies.

Then, in the early '90's, Allen's long-term relationship with Mia Farrow fell apart amidst a scandal featuring a sexual relationship between Allen and Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow's adopted daughter (21 at the time). There were also darker accusations about sexual abuse of his and Mia's 7-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow (who now goes by the name "Malone").

I really didn't know what to make of those accusations at the time. But my taste for Woody Allen's movies withered. I stopped watching them. Even setting aside the child abuse allegation, the fact that Allen had a sexual relationship with the daughter of his long-term lover, who was also the older-sister-by-adoption of Allen's own children, was enough to evoke in me a kind of moral nausea. This spoiled his work for me. I couldn't enjoy it anymore.

Now, for the first time, Dylan Farrow has written her own public account of what she remembers--an open letter in which she offers a raw and harrowing description of being groomed and molested by Woody Allen. Allen has broken his long silence on the subject to call the account "untrue and disgraceful."

Maybe so. Or maybe it's both true and courageous. Obviously I don't know which is correct--but unlike some commentators, I don't think Allen's relationship with Soon-Yi Previn and the allegation of child molestation can be treated as wholly unrelated issues.

That's how Robert Weide treats them, in a Daily Beast essay that came out days before Farrow's open letter. Weide, who produced the two-part PBS documentary on Allen, comes to Allen's defense in response to renewed controversy, and among other things questions Dylan Farrow's reliability if not her sincerity. Of course, he does so without the benefit of having read her letter, since that didn't appear until a few days later. He is, instead, responding to a fall Vanity Fair interview in which she stood by the molestation charge.

That charge, according to Weide, is dubious at best. He doesn't question her honesty. Instead, he thinks she might believe the molestation story simply by virtue of having "grown up in a household where this scenario has been accepted as indisputable fact." The power of suggestion, and all of that.

The details of Dylan Farrow's account, as laid out in her open letter, call into question for me this sincere-but-misguided hypothesis. But that's not what I want to focus on here. The fact is that Weide treats the scandal surrounding Woody's undisputed sexual relationship with Soon-Yi as having no bearing on the question of whether we should believe what Dylan Farrow is saying.

Let me be clear: I agree that the relationship with Soon-Yi is not a case of child molestation (unless there are facts I don't now). And I agree that it would be unsound and unfair to offer a simple inference from "Woody Allen started a sexual relationship with the daughter of his spouse when that daughter was 19" to "Woody Allen sexually molested his own daughter when she was 7."

What I want to argue is that both of these things are morally problematic transgressions of familial boundaries (although the latter is far, far worse). And this fact creates a connection.

We clearly can't say that someone who has a history of shoplifting is thereby capable of breaking into homes and stripping them of valuables. But we can say that someone who has done the former has displayed a willingness to ignore an important moral precept about private property and theft--and that a willingness to do that is a necessary condition (not sufficient) for being the kind of person who could do the latter.

That's the sort of connection that I take to exist between Woody Allen's admitted relationship with his now-wife Soon-Yi and the allegations that Dylan Farrow has made. By itself, the connection is hardly sufficient to draw any conclusions. But I can't help but think it strengthens the case for treating that harrowing open letter as what it appears to be based on its content: a courageous confession of awful truths.

But this line of thinking depends on my claim that Woody Allen's relationship with the adopted daughter of his long-time intimate partner amounts to a moral transgression in the same broad class as parental sexual abuse. Am I right that these acts are related in something like the way that shoplifting a sweater from J.C. Penney's is related to breaking into someone's home to make off with treasured heirlooms? The latter, in both cases, embodies evils that the former does not. It more clearly violates someone, a victim who is tangibly and lastingly harmed.

In both cases, the former isn't as bad. But "not as bad" is consistent with being a moral wrong that has things in common with more egregious wrongs.

For me, the problem can be described as follows: At least some role-defined familial boundaries aren't just a matter of quaint tradition but exist for a reason. They exist in order to enable certain kinds of relationships to become excellent instances of relationships of that kind, promoting the goods that such relationships are distinctively suited to serve while preventing harms that being in such relationships makes one vulnerable to. Sometimes one kind of relationship clashes with another, so that actualizing the potential of one requires that you not pursue the other. It's concerns like these that create worries about romantic relationships between, say, a professor and student.

And there are indirect conflicts as well. It is harder to maintain a healthy parent-child relationship if the parent is pursuing a romantic relationship with the child's sibling. And I'm not talking about biological siblings. I'm talking about roles here. If you and Mary think of each other as siblings, and your father (who isn't Mary's father) starts romantically courting Mary, that's going to affect your father-child relationship in potentially troubling ways--especially if you're a young child unschooled in making subtle distinctions. "Dad is sleeping with my sister" blurs familial lines and complicates how one thinks about Dad--even if the sister is a sister by adoption twelve years your senior and Dad isn't your sister's father.

More obviously, if you and Martha are cultivating a life partnership and then Martha starts a romantic relationship with your son, that's going to be more than just an act of infidelity. Something about the very structure of intimate partnership makes it more than fitting that you adopt a paternalistic stance towards your partner's children, even if they're not your own. Not that you have to parent them yourself, but  a life partnership is about supporting one another in one's major life projects--and parenting is a major life project. Solidarity with your spouse means being in their corner when they pursue such projects. This entails a kind of empathetic participation in their parenting commitments that is threatened if you pursue a relationship with their child incompatible with a parental role.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Woody Allen demonstrated a disregard for the sorts of constraints within which various kinds of valuable relationships have the best chance of flourishing.

Sexual molestation of one's own child is the most extreme instance of this sort of violation. It combines the evil of child molestation with the fundamental betrayal of the parent-child relationship. While someone willing to play fast-and-loose with familial boundaries isn't thereby going to molest their own child, a practical disdain for familial boundaries is a necessary prerequisite for molesting your own child.

Woody Allen openly admits to things which display such disdain. That, by itself, doesn't make him a child molester. But it isn't irrelevant to weighing the accusation.


  1. Hi Eric,

    What bothers me a lot about these accusations is that it's almost impossible to be seen as innocent once the accusations have been made – however flimsy the evidence and even after being formally cleared. In Allen's case, I understand he was never formally accused of any wrongdoing, successfully passed a lie detector test, and so on... so it is at least very plausible he's innocent of these accusations. But, whatever the truth is, he will always be seen by many, if not most, as an abuser.

    This is all very well for Allen – he can, I suppose, take care of himself. Not so for those, like many school teachers, who have been falsely accused by students as a sort of childish revenge. In many cases, lives have been ruined by these accusations - when all that is remembered are the accusations themselves. Even after being cleared of them, there always remains a doubt, isn’t it?

    Of course, this presents a real problem: the more we give the benefit of the doubt to accusers, the more easily false accusations may be made as a weapon against someone. On the other hand, child abuse is an horrific crime and should not be tolerated in any shape or form. The right balance seems difficult to achieve.

    You make much of the Soon-Yi situation, perhaps rightly so. But, as I understand, these two were never in any sort of father-child relationship. Allen was “mom's boyfriend”, so to speak. And then, they fell on love, as these things are bound to happen – even when, perhaps, they should not. What would you have them do? Deny their feelings and live a life of regrets? I don't know. But, in this case, it was certainly not a passing thing as they've been together ever since.

    1. I do agree that we don't want to structure our social attitudes towards child abuse allegations in such a way that all accusations, true or false, are treated as presumptively trustworthy and as a basis for labeling the accused forever after.

      On the other hand, we don't want to structure our social attitudes towards sexual abuse allegations in such a way that children who are abused can expect not to be believed when they confide in someone. I've come across psychological research suggesting that the long-term effects of child sexual abuse are strongly influenced by the reaction of others when the victim reveals the abuse. Those victims who are believed, who have adult care-takers stand up for them and assure them of their blamelessness, do better, with fewer long-term negative psychological effects.

      So, what we have here is a genuine dilemma. Whatever attitude we adopt, we are opening persons up to harm. In a legal setting the presumption of innocence pretty much dictates in favor of protecting the falsely accused--which is one reason why pursuing a criminal case against an alleged abuser is so fraught with psychological risks for the child whose testimony may be the heart of the case. Putting the child on the stand is a recipe for exposing the child to all the things that make it harder for a child to move past the abuse. If the court of public opinion follows the same approach as the courtroom, then in highly publicized cases abuse victims face a similar threat from the broader public, whether or not they pursue a criminal case--unless, of course, they are actively shielded from public discourse.

      I can imagine that if you are a genuine abuse victim, and you have voiced your accusation, and the public vocally lauds and honors your abuser, that will be experienced as the public ignoring, trivializing, or rejecting your concerns. Even as an adult, the psychological impact of that will be problematic--and might motivate a more forceful and vivid public accusation.

      But this fact can't erase the reality that there are more vindictive motives that might inspire someone who wasn't a victim to make false accusations to tear someone down, especially when the object of those vindictive feelings is enjoying praise and success.

      I think it is hard to shift the balance between these opposing concerns in the legal sphere given the presumption of innocence (which I'm not prepared to compromise). And the legal realities may continue to pit the emotional health of victims against the pursuit of criminal justice. Furthermore, reasonable doubt can be achieved in cases of actual guilt, and so there is the further risk of subjecting the victim to the toll of a trial only to have a judgment of innocence further traumatize the victim.

      So if all of this is a given in the legal sphere, what implications does this have for how the public should respond to a highly publicized accusation like the present one, if any?

      I'm not sure. I think we should take the accusation seriously--but that just moves the debate to the question of what taking the accusation seriously means, in terms of how much evidentiary weight we attach to it, etc.

      Obviously, however, I think we should reflect seriously on the question of what other considerations might bear on the credibility of the accusation--not only considerations that might potentially defeat it, but considerations that might bolster it.

  2. Woody Allen has issued a substantive response published in the NY Times. Read it here.

  3. Ever since I found out about these allegations they have bothered me immensely. It keeps me up at night thinking and I've even had nightmares about it. Compared to other cases of child abuse, I don't know why this in particular troubles me, but I'm a fan of Woody Allen, I still am, and I really don't know how to react to this. If the allegations are true it would be horrible to deny them, if they are false if would be equally horrible to believe them. I see no conclusive reasons to do either. I find both Malone's and Moses' accounts to be credible. Nothing adds up. The idea that Allen would choose that time and place to abuse her is absurd, unless he chose them so he could later use the absurdity of it in defense of his innocence, which he does, but I find that speculative. Still, I find it hard to believe that memories that are so vivid and detailed as those of Malone could have been fabricated in her even by a powerful mother, but it is not unheard of either. At the end of the day, I have no answers, and this bothers me. I feel it is "iffy" to esteem him as a filmmaker now. I have no major problems with his relationship with Soon-Yi, at least not any longer. It seems to be healthier and more loving than many others in Hollywood. They should never have gotten together, but it's not wrong of them to keep together now. Anyway, it's time he was forgiven for that at least. But this is different, although, in my view not strictly unforgivable. Either he is innocent, and a victim of a terrible lie, or he is guilty and still adding to the abuse by denying what he did. If he admitted it, at least it would be possible to forgive him. Now, we don't know and it's hard to know how to relate to that. Maybe it's not for us to relate to. Is it any of our business? I don't know, I just don't know.

  4. Hi Eric,

    There's also collateral damage to all this – in a sort of climate of fear preventing all physical contact between teachers and students.

    Now, this is what I read and hear – I am not directly involved in schools. But it seems teachers (at least in primary and secondary schools) won't be seen touching students, for any reason whatever, while in many circumstances this would be the normal, human thing to do. You know, touching the shoulder as a way to encourage or congratulate, that kind of things. There was an article in a local paper telling of a woman teacher who said sometimes a student will come to her asking “Give me a hug!” - and she says “no”. However strong the need for a hug may be...

    I think something important is lost when we take out of schools such an important aspect of what makes us human. I'd value your take on this.

  5. I ask a simple question: Couldn't Allen have chosen another girlfriend? The world has over six billion people to choose from.