Nothing will change if we don't respond to allegations of abuse made by the vulnerable against the powerful
By Jacob Scheier
Part of me understood all along the implications of not believing Dylan Farrow, who last week wrote an open letter for The New York Times reasserting her claim that her stepfather Woody Allen sexually assaulted her when she was seven years old.
But you cannot take, as I did a week ago, a position of objective uncertainty on the Allen affair. Just as, to quote a Howard Zinn title, you can’t be neutral on a moving train. As a progressive person, as a feminist, I am embarrassed that I didn’t get to that realization faster when it comes to Allen.
I understand why that is. Allen is not just a major artistic influence, many men like me strongly identify with the protagonists of his films. Not to just think about them, but to be utterly obsessed in the clinical sense with them.
Not (I feel a need to say), in their attraction to women who are significantly younger (as in Manhattan), but in say Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer or Manhattan’s Isaac Davis’s constant neurotic grappling with existential and psycho-analytic problems.
Until Allen’s films came into my life, I didn’t see my anxiety and depression as a source of humour or creativity. Allen changed that. His art gave my neurosis a value it didn’t have before. And I came to understand myself, as opposed to being a lone neurotic, as part of a larger cultural Jewish-(North) American context. I can’t understate the significance of his films in terms of my Jewish identity.
Yet, every time I went on Facebook last week, there was my hero being called a monster, as well as a minority citing “evidence” that he was innocent. I clutched at this evidence immediately.
I felt a tremendous sense of relief when I first read Robert Weide’s debunking of the allegation in The Daily Beast. In response to one friend, a woman with a history of sexual abuse in her family, who first sent me Dylan Farrow’s open letter, I regrettably sent her Weide’s piece. I reacted.
I dug my heels in for a few days. I scoured the net for anything that would cast doubt on Farrow’s allegation and posted it to Facebook. But there was more being written in publications I respected, in support of Farrow. I seized with frustration.
Among the people posting the links or their own opinions in support of Farrow were friends. And nearly all of them were women.
Some of my friends were taking the position of what I will call “objective” neutrality, or “I don’t know,” “more evidence is needed,” et cetera. Nearly all of these were men.
Then, in my obsessive Google search for Allen’s innocence, I came across a piece of “objective” neutrality written by a woman. This would have been cause for celebration, only Margaret Wente had written it.
I have never agreed, to put it mildly, with one of Wente’s columns. Was this the issue I wanted to start?
I began to have an uncomfortable, sick feeling I can’t recall experiencing before. I initially dealt with this feeling by deciding I was now just tired of the issue. I recognized that the luxury of even feigning to be tired of it was part of the problem – the problem of male privilege.
Unlike many of the woman I know, I have never been a victim of sexual assault. And unlike all the women I know, I don’t worry about becoming a victim of sexual assault.
I will admit that because there is such a high prevalence in our society of sexual abuse and assault against girls and women, that I felt initially that some of my women friends, quite possibly due to unfortunate first hand experience, were letting emotion shape their opinions when it came to Allen, as opposed to how rational I thought I was being.
I wanted so much to both defend my hero and be thought of, at the same time, as progressive, that I was willingly to deny the experience and wisdom of many of the women I knew.
One night I couldn’t sleep, and though I wanted to believe – as I had wanted to believe a lot of things that week – that my sleeplessness was caused by some other worry or something I ate, or anything but being overcome with my own denial.
I had been the one letting emotion shape my opinion, refusing to see the big and yet pretty simple picture: nothing will change if we don’t respond to allegations of abuse made by the vulnerable against the powerful (no matter who they are and what they mean to us), if our initial response is anything other than, I believe you.