Tuesday, February 11, 2014

On Dylan Farrow, Woody Allen, and personal integrity [note: disturbing content]

There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don't exist!
--The Wizard of Oz, "Wonderful," from the musical Wicked
F you're the sort of TL;DR skimmer who won't bother reading the rest of this, let me sum it up in one bold statement: I believe Dylan Farrow is telling the truth about being sexually molested by Woody Allen. But that doesn't necessarily mean I stand with her.

Wait. If I believe Dylan Farrow, how can I not stand with her? Am I so huge a fan of Woody Allen that I believe he gets a pedophile pass? (Nope.) Do I believe sexual molestation of children is normal and natural? (HELL to the NO.) Do I have any kind of empathy for children who were sexually molested, and the psychological hell they continue to experience long after the abuse is over? (Yes, I do.) So then, why do I choose not to stand in complete solidarity with Dylan?

Because I believe that, based on the public statements she has made on the subject, Dylan Farrow wants the world to see Woody Allen as she does -- as an irredeemable monster. And I don't think it's quite that simple.

To be fair to Dylan, Woody Allen must indeed seem a monster -- one who has never publicly acknowledged what he did to her, let alone apologized for it; one who has never done prison time for the criminal act of sexually molesting a child, and likely never will; one who seems to have experienced no public reprisals for his behavior, as he continues to be showered with honors and accolades for his writing and directing prowess.

Friends and acquaintances who carry water for Mr. Allen are doing their best to cast aspersions on Dylan's experiences, trying to marginalize her as mentally fragile, deriding her as a bitch, or suggesting that her mother coached her to believe horrific stories that never really happened. It must be easier for many of these people to believe Dylan is deluded or evil than it is to question their own judgement -- to come to terms with the idea that the charming, funny, creative man they've been proud to call a friend could do such terrible things to his own daughter.

Both of these narratives -- that Dylan is telling the truth, therefore Woody Allen is a monster, and that Woody Allen did nothing wrong, therefore Dylan is a liar -- are incomplete. People on both sides of the issue want one of the principals to be absolutely right, and the other to be absolutely wrong. And that's not how it works. All human beings are complex mixes of good and evil, and their lives are not algebraic equations where the good and the bad neatly cancel each other out.

As human beings, we have an almost visceral hunger for personal integrity. We desperately want to believe that the people we admire are all good, and that the people we abhor are all bad. But this is a fragile social fiction, one readily broken whenever a formerly-heroic celebrity -- Lance Armstrong, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson -- falls from grace. And because that very human desire for integrity continues to be just as strong, the celebrities we once loved often become the fallen celebrities we love to hate -- the all-good transformed into the all-bad. Indeed, we have such a strong desire for integrity that it sometimes counts for more than intent in our eyes, as when a pious religious leader commits a sin and we castigate him for it, while a bald-faced, unrepentant sinner gets a pass for his many peccadilloes because "at least he's honest."

Though we may strive for integrity, to make sure the things we believe in mesh completely with the things we do, we are human -- and to be human is to be hypocritical, to continually fall short of the things we imagine ourselves to be. Our lives are like a field, indiscriminately sown with seeds of goodness and seeds of evil; every life event harrows up the field, turning up different seeds, letting them germinate. We may do our best to pull up the evil seeds and nourish the good ones, but it's sometimes difficult to discern which is which right away; this is one of the reasons why Christians believe there is a need for a Christ, for someone who has the power to expiate our sins and mistakes, because everyone makes them to one degree or another.

Let me use a real-life example of which I have some personal knowledge: is it possible for one man to be a champion athlete, a decorated war hero, a cancer survivor, a responsible breadwinner, an unrealistic dreamer, a pillar of his religious community, a cruel taskmaster, a loving husband and an incestuous pedophile? Yes. Absolutely. For many people who knew this man and thought of him as a friend and mentor, the knowledge that he was a sex offender could easily wipe away any positive impression they might have had of him. And whenever unlawful sex acts come to light, the offender must be watched carefully and held responsible for his behavior, if only to keep more children from being preyed upon. But saying that he was a pedophile -- and he was -- does not automatically, inexorably negate any of the positive qualities he also embodied. The people who loved this man for his good qualities were not wrong to do so. They simply did not see what he chose to hide from them.

In our specific example, the man in question molested several young girls, some of them repeatedly, over the course of many years. Had his activities come to light right away, had he been immediately held to account for the damage he'd done, he might never have had the chance to hurt others. But because he was able to keep his secret sexual obsession in the dark, because he was good at presenting only his positive qualities to the world, and because the people who loved him were loath to bring shame upon him or upon their family, two generations of children were subject to his abuse. This is one of the reasons why I believe Dylan Farrow -- most pedophiles are very good at covering up what they do, and at denying everything (and getting others to back them up) when they can no longer hide. And this is why it sometimes takes a long time for the abused to stop perceiving their abusers as pure monsters, and to start seeing them as flawed, hypocritical human beings who have done both good and terrible things. In the particular case I mention, the survivors of abuse are divided in their thinking. Some of them seem to need everyone to despise this man as an irredeemable villain, while others prefer to whitewash his past, to hold up the public vision of him as a good husband and father. But the actual man cannot be easily poured into either of these molds -- he was neither a saint to be revered, nor a piƱata to be beaten.

Woody Allen is a talented writer, actor and director; I have compelling reasons to believe that he's also a pedophile. It's possible for both those qualities to exist in a single person. And it's up to individuals to make a judgement call about that. I am not a worshiper at the Temple of Talent, so my personal belief is that nobody's creative abilities can or should give him carte blanche to do whatever he wants, but your decision on the subject may be quite different. You may decide that Allen's treatment of Dylan Farrow is so beyond the pale that it will forever taint your enjoyment of his creative work, and broom all his movies from your collection. You may decide that you can still appreciate Woody Allen's film work without considering any aspect of his personal life, and keep his DVDs on your shelf. Whatever you decide, it's your call. If I could ask you to do only one thing, it would be not to fall into the trap of painting either person as a horrific monster or as a deluded bitch, but to give each one the benefit of recognition as a real, complex human being -- as fragile and faulty as you are.

[Note: it was difficult for me to write this piece, and harder to post it. I felt the whole time that, by failing to utterly smear and defame Woody Allen for what I believe he did, I was in some way defending a child molester. I wasn't -- I believe pedophilia is categorically wrong, and that there are no special exceptions for artists or celebrities -- but that's how strong the human urge to categorize, to place everything in neat little boxes, can be. People who do monstrous things must be held to account for their actions, but as hard as it may be to remember, we should never lose sight of the fact that they are still people.]


MarieC said...

As always, well-put, and a compelling argument! It's a complex issue; one on which I don't care to pass judgment.

Soozcat said...

Thank you, Marie. It is complex -- much more so than most are comfortable making it.

To bring up an even more horrific example, we prefer to think of the Nazis as monsters. But they too were human beings -- brutal, cruel and twisted, but still human. When people do such horrific things, we try to re-categorize them as nonhuman -- because it's easier to see them as monsters than to recognize that they and we are the same species. It hits too close to home.