In Allen v Farrow, Dylan Farrow speaks. Why did it take us so long to hear her?

HBO’s new documentary gives Dylan space to tell her story. This is a crucial moment, and it comes with a reminder: we are bad, damningly so, at hearing people who say they were abused by beloved men, writes Clémence Michallon

Monday 22 February 2021 17:27
Dylan Farrow in the HBO documentary Allen v Farrow
Dylan Farrow in the HBO documentary Allen v Farrow

You already know Dylan Farrow’s story. Hopefully, you do – she’s been sharing it, the same story, without deviating from it, for years now.

If you do not know the tangible facts of Dylan’s allegations, it’s advisable to read up on them before you watch the first episode of Allen v Farrow, HBO’s new documentary about the allegations of child sexual abuse faced by the filmmaker. Because it assumes knowledge or trusts viewers to follow through its buildup, the documentary doesn’t open with a specific reminder of the alleged facts at play. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: narratives of alleged abuse are complicated, and almost always come with more ramifications than can be expressed in a few lines of text.

Here’s what’s been known for years: Dylan Farrow alleges Woody Allen, her adoptive father, sexually abused her when she was a child. Specifically, she alleges Allen molested her on 4 August 1992.

Allen has never been charged with any crime and has said “no credible evidence of molestation was found.” The first episode of Allen v Farrow begins and ends with his denial – in 1992, during a press conference at the Plaza hotel in New York City, and in a present-day text card telling viewers that Allen “denies ever having been sexually inappropriate or abusive with Dylan”. Allen has recently denounced the documentary as a “shoddy hit piece”.

Authorities have considered and dismissed Dylan Farrow's claims, but these decisions are now being questioned.

Dylan has maintained her position. She recounted the alleged abuse in January 2018, telling CBS: “I was taken to a small attic crawl space in my mother's country house in Connecticut by my father. He instructed me to lay down on my stomach and play with my brother's toy train that was set up. And he sat behind me in the doorway, and as I played with the toy train, I was sexually assaulted… As a seven-year-old I would say, I would have said he touched my private parts, which I did say. As a 32-year-old, he touched my labia and my vulva with his finger.”

People alleging abuse should not need to sit in front of television cameras and relive their trauma in vivid detail in order to be believed. But Dylan Farrow did so. She has shared her story, bravely, unwaveringly, even as it took the world almost three decades – she’s 35 now, and the abuse allegedly took place when she was seven years old – to begin hearing her in full.

In that regard, Allen v Farrow is a bittersweet creation. It’s crucial that Dylan gets more space to tell her story than she has never been afforded in the past, but it begs the question: why weren't her previous statements enough for us to hear her? The onus and responsibility in that regard are fully on us, not her. Dylan clearly laid out her allegations in an open letter published in 2014 on The New York Times’s website. The following year, Allen’s film Irrational Man came out, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone; Phoenix later said he wasn’t aware of the letter during production. It wasn’t until Dylan called out specific actors in a 2017 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, and until Allen released A Rainy Day in New York in a post-#MeToo world, that a reckoning seemed to have begun.

What Dylan says happened on 4 August 1992 has been central to the narrative. It was certainly central to the child custody case that ensued between Allen and Mia Farrow, Dylan’s adoptive mother. Those were the allegations that prompted a judge to write in a damning 1993 ruling that “we will probably never know what occurred on 4 August 1992”, but that, based on “credible testimony” from Mia Farrow, two doctors, and Allen himself, he believed “Mr Allen’s behaviour towards Dylan was grossly inappropriate” and “measures must be taken to protect her”. The 1993 ruling is, for Allen, the opposite of a slam dunk, and it was published in full by The Huffington Post in 2014. Yet here we are, seven years later, still coming to terms with what Dylan has been telling us all along.

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In its first episode, Allen v Farrow begins painting a broader, instructive picture of Dylan’s formative years. Allen, we are told, originally had no interest in child-rearing (something backed up with a clip of an old interview in which he professes his desire to remain a “free soul”). He eventually agreed to have a child with Mia Farrow, after assurances that he could be as involved or uninvolved as he wanted in the child’s life. After years of trying to conceive, Mia Farrow brought up adoption. Allen, she recounts in the present time, allegedly said he’d be “more kindly disposed if [the child] was a little blonde girl”. That child, we now know, turned out to be Dylan.

From there, the first episode of the documentary immerses us in Dylan’s childhood, dominated, we are told, by Allen’s inappropriate behaviour around her. In witnesses’ recollections, Allen hovers around Dylan, surrounding her in “smothering energy” and eliciting suspicion. Dylan, in turn, becomes removed from the world, trying to escape him. “I was always in his clutches,” she recounts in front of the cameras. “He was always hunting me.”

Allen Vs Farrow HBO documentary trailer

Through it all, Dylan’s testimony is the most compelling, which is not to understate the value of the other participants – their own recollections, bolstering Dylan’s claims, are an essential part of the picture. But the documentary shines when it allows Dylan to tell her story, uninterrupted and unencumbered by noise. “I have very vivid snapshots,” she says at one point. “...I remember sitting on the edge of his bed. The light in the room, the satin sheets. ...I have memories of getting into bed with him. He was in his underwear and I’m in my underwear, cuddling. I remember his breath on me. He would just wrap his body around me, very intimately.”

Dylan’s allegations have been revisited as the #MeToo movement has entered the global mainstream. They have prompted several Hollywood actors to say they would no longer work with Allen, and to disavow the films they’ve done with him in the past. In the US, Hachette dropped Allen’s memoir after widespread criticism, including from Dylan (another publishing press promptly picked it up).

So much of the discourse surrounding Dylan’s allegations has centered around her father’s career, his films, his legacy. That is understandable: over the past few years, many of us have had to decide what to do with the work of artists we developed an attachment to, only for them to be accused of abhorrent behaviour.

Allen v Farrow, in fact, spends time establishing Allen’s level of fame when the allegations against him first surfaced. The implication is that his status protected him, for years – as Mia Farrow says herself, “who on Earth could believe that of Woody Allen? I couldn’t believe it.” It’s not hard to extrapolate this indictment into a wider truth: that we are bad, damningly so, at hearing people who say they were abused by beloved men. That we too readily overlook the fact that false allegations of sexual abuse are vanishingly rare. That our misplaced fear of getting it wrong prevents us, time and time again, from getting it right. That we refuse, still, to believe.

There is value in conversations about Allen’s legacy, but there is also value in tuning them out for a few moments to focus on the story being told to us. Dylan’s story, that is. John Green once wrote that “pain demands to be felt”; it turns out pain also demands to be heard. Now’s the time to do just that.