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February 08, 2014 12:28 PM My response to Roxane Gay about public intellectuals and Dylan Farrow — Woody Allen week continues!

By Kathleen Geier

Woody Allen week has culminated in the man himself writing this response to Dylan Farrow’s charges that he sexually abused her. Dylan, of course, made those charges in the powerful open letter that was published on the New York Times website last week.

About Allen’s op-ed — ugh. Dylan herself handily filets the piece and exposes its many omissions and gross misrepresentations here. I’ll add this: of course I can understand Woody Allen addressing the abuse allegations — that was why he was given a platform in the Times today, after all. But the whole question of whether Frank Sinatra, rather than himself, is the real father of Ronan Farrow is a complete distraction and had no business being in the piece. The editor of the Times op-ed page — is there one? — should have cut it out.

Also, Woody did himself no favors by launching a slut-shaming jihad against Mia Farrow in the piece. Farrow’s sexual history — Woody bitchily recounts Mia’s age when she married Frank Sinatra, the fact that her second husband was still married when she became involved with him, and the possibility that she cheated on Woody with Sinatra — is completely irrelevant to the question as to whether or not Woody Allen sexually abused Dylan Farrow. Woody’s misogynist slurs here were creepy as hell, as were his attempts to romanticize the fact that he slept with his kids’ own sister (Soon Yi). The man is clearly a world class narcissist who still, after all these years, hasn’t the foggiest notion that doing what he did (seducing his kids’ sister) was wrong. It’s chilling, actually.

This week has brought forth a slew of fascinating articles related to the case. In addition to the 1992 and 2013 Vanity Fair stories by Maureen Orth, which I linked to in my earlier piece, I’d also like to recommend the following:

— Maureen Orth’s piece, “10 Undeniable Facts about the Woody Allen Sexual Abuse Allegation,” in Vanity Fair — if you read just one article on the case, this one should be it.

— Katie McDonough’s Salon article on how the Dylan Farrow investigation was a fiasco, and the ways standard investigation techniques of child sexual abuse cases have improved since then, is well worth a read.

— This Connecticut Magazine piece features a detailed discussion of some of the evidence, including the deeply flawed nature of the Yale study which Woody Allen and his supporters like to point to as proof of his alleged innocence. It also documents the sleazy, underhanded tactics Allen’s lawyers and investigators resorted to in pursuing the case.

— This brilliant dissection of the case, which focuses on Allen’s narcissism, inability to feel empathy, and the deep emotional damage he inflicted on all around him, is a devastating portrait of Woody Allen the man.

— Finally, here’s a copy of the ruling in the custody case. It was decided in Mia Farrow’s favor. Woody Allen would eventually lose four court battles and was forced to pay Farrow over $1 million in legal fees. Maureen Orth quotes Judge Elliott Wilk’s ruling that Allen’s conduct toward Dylan was

“grossly inappropriate and that measures must be taken to protect her.” The judge also recounts Farrow’s misgivings regarding Allen’s behavior toward Dylan from the time she was between two and three years old. According to the judge’s decision, Farrow told Allen, “You look at her [Dylan] in a sexual way. You fondled her … You don’t give her any breathing room. You look at her when she’s naked.”

And now, on to a related piece: Salon writer Roxane Gay’s tendentious misreading of the Dylan Farrow post I published last week. Normally, I would shrug something like this off. But Gay’s piece has been approvingly linked to by writers I admire like Katie McDonough and Ann Friedman, and I don’t want people who haven’t read my earlier piece to get a false impression of my views. Also, Gay is a writer I respect — in fact, in this piece I called her “a wonderful writer who you all should be reading” and devoted an entire paragraph to singing her praises! Well, that’ll show me!

Anyway, Gay’s piece is about how “public intellectuals” want to have it “both ways” by “demonstrating the appropriate amount of concern while also acknowledging some semblance of reasonable doubt.” I don’t doubt that there are there are public intellectuals who are doing just that, and I’ve seen more than a few pieces in the last week that purport to “objectivity” but in fact amount to victim-blaming garbage — see this widely cited article, for example.

But what Gay seems to have done here is : 1) decided in advance that “public intellectuals” were saying certain insensitive and minimizing things about the Dylan Farrow case, 2) failed to do the research to locate public intellectuals who fit her preconceived notions, and so 3) attempted to shoehorn me into the mold she’d already made. I appreciate her identifying me as a “public intellectual” — thanks? — but what I wrote doesn’t fit the argument she crafted.

Here’s the paragraph Gay wrote specifically about me:

This conversation has, in fact, already begun. For the Washington Monthly, Kathleen Geier commends Dylan Farrow’s bravery but also acknowledges that she is not likely to boycott Woody Allen despite “Dylan Farrow’s powerful testimony.” Geier, too, wants it both ways. Her article makes bizarre reference to Kanye West and includes a comment that it was so much easier to condemn R. Kelly than Woody Allen. The entire piece is difficult to parse and demonstrates the challenge of public intellectuals awkwardly grappling with certain topics.

How many things are wrong with that paragraph? Here are a few of them:

1. “Geier … acknowledges she is not likely to boycott Woody Allen.” Here, Gay strongly implies that it is imperative to boycott objectionable artists and that anyone who does not do so, does not take rape and sexual abuse seriously. Yet she does not spell out the particulars. In my piece, I explained that, on thinking and rethinking the whole thing through, I realized I don’t really believe in boycotts, after all. I believe in protesting objectionable artists, challenging them on social media, refusing to grant them public honors, etc. I think that is far more effective than artist boycotts, which don’t seem to do much more than reinforcing the boycotters’ own sense of self-righteousness.

Gay, however, never explains her (apparent) position that boycotts of objectionable artists are mandatory. Nor does she say under which circumstances a boycott should apply: should boycotts apply to dead artists (the rapist Byron?, the wife-killer Burroughs?) as well as living ones (Allen, Polanski, etc.)? Are they for artists who have escaped justice like Allen or Polanski, or do we also include those who go to prison for their crimes? What is the point of a boycott: to express solidarity for the victim, social disapproval of the offender, engage in political activism around sexual violence, something else?

What crimes are eligible: is it only rape and sexual abuse? Or do we also include domestic violence and murder? And how strong does the proof have to be? Also, what about performers and artists who aren’t criminals, but have terrible politics (Clint Eastwood) or even, who have decent politics, but say offensive things (Alec Baldwin)? Do they, too, get the boycott? What about boycotting anything produced by major studios and record labels and multinational corporations? After all, those corporations have caused, enabled, and participated in political regimes and economic systems that have created far more death and human misery in the world than any one individual, no matter how reprehensible. I’d take the pro-boycott people a lot more seriously if they advocated those kinds of boycotts.

I would really like to know the answers to these questions from Gay and others who seem to support boycotts. To be clear: for all I know, perhaps Gay doesn’t support boycotts of any kind, after all. She isn’t specific on this point. Clarification is in order.

2. Moving on: she mentions that my piece made “a bizarre reference to Kanye West.” This line was particularly slippery and misleading. Yes, the piece mentioned Kanye West — in the same breath as Lou Reed — as two examples of artists I said I was “fascinated by” who “aren’t particularly nice people.” In that same paragraph, I also referred other artists — ranging from Polanski to Caravaggio to Byron to Leni Riefenstahl — who are great artists whom I wouldn’t dream of boycotting, in spite of the terrible crimes they committed. The idea I was expressing here was a simple one, indeed, a cliche: that horrible people can, and often do, make great art. Engaging with their art does not in any way mean you forgive or minimize their crimes.Refusing to engage with art unless the artist meets some kind of moral or political test is fundamentally anti-intellectual.

3. Then there’s this: she says my piece “includes a comment that it was so much easier to condemn R. Kelly than Woody Allen.” Here, she is flat out making stuff up. Reread my piece, and you’ll see that I said no such thing. What I did say is that, in an earlier piece, I had called for a boycott for R. Kelly, and that “making that call” was “really, really easy” because I am “indifferent” to his music.

Look, I was copping to my own hypocrisy there — about the fact that I like Woody Allen’s movies (some of them, anyway), which is why it was harder for me to sign on to a boycott of them. By the next day I’d added an update clarifying my position: on second thought, I realized my support of an R. Kelly boycott in an earlier post was ill-advised, because I don’t believe boycotts of artists are such a hot idea, after all. She badly misrepresents what I said here — I never said it was the condemning of Kelly the individual that was easier, just the support of the boycott.

The idea that I favor “compartmentalizing” Woody Allen’s work from his life is especially strange, because one of the arguments I was making in my piece is that his life and his work are indeed related, that his dark side was always revealed in the work, but we weren’t looking hard enough. “Of course, Woody Allen’s dark side was always hiding in plain sight,” was what I said, before citing a few examples from Manhattan and Annie Hall.

Finally, the gist of her piece is that I’m somehow insensitive to victims of sexual abuse because I acknowledged that the case wasn’t completely clear cut that and that I didn’t think I could convict Woody Allen in a legal sense. Even so, I said I thought “it’s more likely than not that he did what Dylan claims he did.” And by the way, I believe that much more strongly today, after a week’s worth of reading over documents about the case.

Do these paragraphs, with which I concluded my piece, sound like victim blaming, putting Dylan Farrow on trial, or trying to have it both ways?

In the end, what I am left with is Dylan Farrow: in particular her obvious intelligence, and her courage. The courage is not just in surviving the hellishness of the abuse and its aftermath — she’s suffered an eating disorder, cutting behaviors, and post traumatic distress — but also in going public with her story. Part of the nightmare she’s experienced is having been victimized by someone who is so much more powerful than she is. It’s not even the usual grotesque imbalance of the child victimized by the adult, which is terrible enough, but a unique situation of a child being abused by a person who is extremely rich and world famous, who is protected and praised by many famous friends, whose name and image keeps popping up in the media whenever you least expect it. Can you imagine the horror?
Dylan Farrow’s bravery is to be commended. I hope that by going public, she finds renewed serenity and strength, and that her example gives hope to other survivors.

Without a full airing of all the relevant facts, it’s hard to know with 100 percent accuracy what happened. There are haunting cases, such as the McMartin preschool and Central Park jogger cases, where people were falsely accused, and it had devastating consequences for them. This doesn’t seem like one of those cases, and the more I read about it, the more persuaded I am that the preponderance of evidence is heavily in Dylan’s favor. I do believe her, but I also think it’s wise to be cognizant of the possibility that I could be wrong.

You know, I’m not the only person who is a strong advocate for the rights of rape victims who believes it’s hard to be 100 percent sure what happened in this case and that in a legal case, a not guilty verdict may well be justified here. One of the best pieces related to the case that I read this week was this one in The Atlantic by Natalie Shure, about how, in the courts, the deck is stacked against children who are victims of sexual assault. It’s a heartbreaking piece, and it’s written by a woman who herself was the victim of sexual abuse, but whose parents decided not to pursue the charges in court, because they feared a trial would “torment” her. Here’s what she has to say about child abuse cases:

Yet there is something inherently imbalanced about a child abuse case. The very secrecy that makes the truth “unknowable” is an instrument of the crime. With no witnesses or credible legal evidence, the “he said/she said” conundrum prevails. The assailant knows this, and he can use it to his advantage. As soon as children make allegations, they enter a world filled with adult concepts—ideas they themselves don’t entirely understand. In order to even tell their stories, they have to learn a new language, putting vague, undefined feelings into unfamiliar words. The whole drama plays out in a grown-up context, which means the grown-up always has the upper hand. Neutrality never even has a chance.

Shure says she is “biased” toward believing Dylan Farrow — as am I, by the way. My priors are that child abuse is shockingly common, that false accusations of rape and sexual abuse are rare (between 2 and 8 percent of all reported sexual assaults), and that victims have little to gain by going public and exposing themselves to the vicious personal attacks and character assassination that are so distressingly common when they do so.

But Shure also says, “I also know that if Woody Allen had gone to trial and I were on the jury, I would have declared him not guilty,” and that “we will never know what really happened” in this case, which, she says, makes her “furious.”

Is Natalie Shure is “compartmentalizing” Woody Allen and wanting it “both ways”? It sure doesn’t sound like it to me.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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