Woody Allen and the history of False Memory Syndrome

The allegations that Woody Allen sexually assaulted his daughter Dylan were first raised and investigated in 1993. In May of that year, the New Yorker published a report by Lawrence Wright entitled ‘Remembering Satan’. This concerned an investigation of prolonged and horrific abuse in a Satanic cult which had to be abandoned after it became apparent that the detectives had heavily manipulated the witnesses and their testimonies. So muddled was the case that it was no longer certain the cult even existed. But as for the author of the piece, he had no doubts. To him, it was self-evident that the entire case had been fabricated by the police – the cult, the crimes, everything – with such zeal as to actually convince individuals that they could remember suffering abuse that had never taken place. What’s more, Wright declared that this was the tip of the iceberg, as thousands of people throughout the country were accused of crimes on the basis of recovered memories, at least some of which were ‘certainly false’.

Asked by clinical psychiatrist and sexual abuse specialist Judith Herman – whom he had consulted for his story, but neglected to quote – how many cases of this supposed epidemic he actually knew of, Wright replied: just one. The cult case. But media have an uncanny ability to extrapolate entire phenomena and trends from isolated incidents, and so quickly a wave of panic started to mount, and a name was given to the new affliction that swept not just America but other English-speaking nations as well: ‘False Memory Syndrome’. And along with the professional, clinical-sounding, dispassionate label, a number of organisations started to form to speak on behalf of the victims of the syndrome. Which is to say, not the people who suffered from the syndrome, but the people accused of long-past crimes.

Some of these organisations still exist: they have names like False Memory Syndrome Foundation, the British False Memory Society, the False Memory Association of Australia. Not unpredictably, they are often linked within the websites of, or directly connected to, mens’ rights organisations. Ostensibly, their mission is to combat the ‘recovered memory therapy’ practitioners who plant dark fantasies of repressed abuse into their clients, in order to discredit innocent people (almost always men).

The scientific community has never accepted that there is such a thing as False Memory Syndrome, nor are there any practitioners of what they themselves would call ‘recovered memory therapy’. It’s also extremely difficult to find documented cases of abuse charges being brought as a result of memory being ‘recovered’, or elicited from subjects who had successfully repressed them for a long period of time. However, from two valid and testable notions – that claims concerning the literal repression of traumatic memories appear to have no scientific basis; and that it is possible to ‘implant’ the memory of simple, non-traumatic events in experimental subjects – the proponents of False Memory Syndrome fashioned a platform from which to discredit all claims of sexual abuse.

It was in this climate that Dylan Farrow’s story first got its hearing. It was in this climate that the expert panel headed by Dr John M Leventhal found Dylan’s story to be contradictory and ultimately false. As reported by the New York Times, Leventhal revealed that the team:

had two hypotheses: one, that these were statements made by an emotionally disturbed child and then became fixed in her mind. And the other hypothesis was that she was coached or influenced by her mother. We did not come to a firm conclusion. We think that it was probably a combination.

This is the opinion cited in the astonishingly tendentious Daily Beast piece by Allen biographer Robert Weide. The original report was dated May 1993, same as the New Yorker article.Weide doesn’t quite spell out how, later that year, a Connecticut prosecutor judged that there were sufficient grounds for a criminal prosecution against Allen, but that he had chosen not to in order to spare additional trauma to the child. Mia Farrow, for her part, neglected to press the matter after the courts denied Allen visitation rights over Dylan.

Uncomfortable as their words may be, those who say that we’ll likely never know the truth aren’t wrong. But Dr Leventhal and his team did. Faced with the hesitations, the contradictions and the reticence of a seven-year-old girl, they admitted only two hypotheses: either she lied because she was disturbed, or she had been made to believe the most horrific story about her father by, well, a monster. Probably both, they concluded.

I am astonished by the lack of compassion of that judgment. I am equally astonished that Woody Allen should have characterised Dylan Farrow’s heart-rending letter to the New York Times as ‘untrue and disgraceful’. The expert opinion that helped save him from prison two decades ago said that Dylan was either emotionally disturbed or had been subjugated by her mother, both of which imply a lack of malice. So where’s the disgrace in the adult Dylan Farrow telling the world what she believes to be true about her father? Isn’t Allen effectively blaming a victim, even if he knows her to be the victim of his former partner? A person he’s had no contact with for twenty years, about whom he knows nothing – except that she used to be his daughter.

The original False Memory Syndrome Foundation was founded in 1992. What came to be known in the clinical community as the ‘memory wars’ stopped raging towards the end of the decade. I don’t know if they had any direct bearing on the Allen case, although it stands to reason that they did, given that they were mostly fought through the media, and the Allen/Farrow separation was an intensely public affair. Meanwhile, the distrust and discredit towards the survivors who have the courage to tell their stories is as prevalent as it ever was, as is the media emphasis over the allegations that are found to be false (typically because the accuser recants). And the professional habit of journalists to believe that they cannot serve the truth except by giving equal weight to both sides of the story – as if each story had two symmetrical sides – still shapes our understanding of sexual abuse. Wrote Dr Herman in 1993:

the rules of journalism, like the rules of other major institutions, are made for the public world, the world of war and politics, the world of men. The rules are not made for the private world, the world of sexual and domestic relations, the world of women and children.

This lesson is being taught to us again this week, over the flesh of Dylan Farrow.

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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  1. Just to clarify, since I’ve been asked about the timeline on Twitter: I’m not meaning to suggest that Wright’s article was the root cause of the panic wave over ‘false memory’ – just that it was representative of a trend in the media. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was actually founded in 1992, so the Allen case is wholly within it, as it were. I realise I’ve been a bit ambiguous on that.

  2. Somewhat surprised to see you write of Weide’s Daily Beast piece as ‘tendentious’

    I have no read several articles on this imbroglio, and thought the Daily Beast piece raised some very interesting points. Mia Farrow’s brother’s convictions, her standing by Polanski only two.

    We will never know the truth, but we do know that Allen and his wife have since adopted two young girls and, given the strict conditions imposed on adoption, one doubts that if there was even a whiff of doubt about allen, this would not have been allowed.

    1. I thought it was tendentious for several reasons, probably too many to go through. It established very early on that the accusations amounted to “gossip and innuendo”. It devoted the first half of the article to establishing that Sun-Yi wasn’t originally adopted by Allen, and to clear the circumstances that led to their relationship (as if this had anything to do with anything). It adduced spurious evidence, such as the fact that they wouldn’t have been allowed to adopt had there been any doubt that Allen might have been an abuser (yeah? Then how come there is doubt now? And how did the adoption panels reach these conclusions – through what evidence that is not available to us?). Some points might have been valid, but the tenor of the piece was firmly set on character assassination, albeit with a smiley face.

    2. Woody Allen signed the ‘Free Roman Polanski;’ Mia Farrow did not. How did Weide conclude that Farrow was a greater friend than Woody Allen? And does having a child molester in the family somehow invalidate the testimony of a child who’s claims molestation?

  3. I’m wondering whether ‘repressed memory’ was even a factor in her original allegations, given she made them at the age of seven. Recently Late Night Live replayed a piece with a psychologist who had investigated the repressed memory syndrome and found that it had never been scientifically tested. So while it sounds like the child’s testimony was not taken seriously your article hasn’t convinced me that her allegations were dismissed due to ‘false memory syndrome’.

    1. The issue wasn’t one of repressed memory, no. What I’m attempting to show here here is that the discredit that those who denounce sexual abuse have always been subjected to was coloured at this time by a particular moral panic, which was based on extremely scarce evidence. There was never an actual epidemic of “repressed memory” cases. False memory syndrome became the peg of which to hang a more general scepticism towards all accusers. What specific weight, if any, this might have had in the deliberations on the Allen/Farrow case, no-one can say – as I point out in the article.

  4. Oh, please. He married his own adopted daughter. He clearly has problems with older women and regularly depicts them as neurotic monsters in his films. And, of course, any children who tell parents or carers that they have been sexually molested are usually told that THEY are bad for telling lies. And that is what false (repressed) memory is all about: proving that, really, no one was molested. In the case of the Salvation Army, after hiring children out for money to be sexually molested by the upper classes, one little boy who complained about his treatment was whipped – and no doubt told that he was a pimple on the arse of mankind and had no rights. In the case of Woody Allen it’s much the same. He is a sacred monster, a famous man, a genius and is immune but to dismiss all of this as ‘false memory’ is pretty outrageous when we know how many children are molested and that most of them are molested by close family members. The fact that Allen and his wife/daughter have adopted two little girls makes me queasy.

    1. Of all the many, many things that made me furious about the Weide piece, his suggestion that the fact that Allen was subsequently allowed to adopt two more children should be taken as evidence that he couldn’t possibly have assaulted Dylan is probably the most egregious.

    2. By the way, Weide goes to some trouble to point out that Soon-Yi wasn’t Allen’s adopted daughter, but I guess you could say his step-adopted daughter. Except he is also careful to point out that he and Farrow weren’t married, as if this meant their relationship was more casual. Yet they DID adopt two children, didn’t they?

      Okay I’m going to let it go now.

      1. Thanks for this piece Giovanni. So much of the debate around this issue and around child and adult sexual assault generally centres around ‘credibility’ and certain ‘proofs’ of that. Timelines, previous moral stances and so forth tend to get invoked quite often. And all kinds of bizarre prejudices and strange emotional stances and vengeful attitudes come out, which are positioned as commonplace knowledge. Ownership of memory and morality get to take centre stage.
        The phenomenon of the ‘false memory’ is a kind of cruel mocking of the memories of trauma survivors, who often have confused or fragmentary memories of an event. That’s why it can be so easy to discredit them in court. One of the fears of the adult survivors I work with is that the abuse didn’t really happen – they imagined it, or it’s evidence that they’re mad and so on. And as you say, the ‘madness’ is often that of women and children.
        There’s a statement I’ve often heard in relation to Holocaust survivors, that their testimony shouldn’t be doubted, even when (or especially when) it’s shown to be factually wrong (someone remembered as being killed who wasn’t etc).
        There is something to be acknowledged in that I think, instead of fighting over the bodies of the abused about what was done to them.

          1. And our imaginings are unimaginative too. Bady nailed it in the 2nd para I think, and also in this line: “But “he said, she said” doesn’t resolve to “let’s start by assume she’s lying,” except in a rape culture, and if you are presuming his innocence by presuming her mendacity, you are rape cultured.”

  5. No doubt the men’s groups are being opportunistic here, but it’s reasonably well-established that memory is fallible, subjective, and amenable to suggestion. Police dealing with sexual abuse matters, especially those involving children, will be trained to avoid any suggestion or leading questions, and prosecutions have been thrown out where police have failed to do this. The Australian Psychological Society explicitly forbids practitioners from attempting to recover forgotten memories, and psychologists in Australia have been disciplined for seeking repressed trauma. In the Family Law Court it is reasonably common for parents of both sexes to construct malicious allegations against ex-partners, often coaching children in the process. In short, false memory, or at least false testimony is not so far-fetched.
    Of course, it does not follow from this that anybody should preemptively dismiss allegations of abuse as the product of false memory. If anything, memory is regarded as too fallible, to the extent that a victim of abuse who displays any ambiguity, contradiction or vagueness in their account of the crime is likely to have their accusations dismissed.

  6. “a victim of abuse who displays any ambiguity, contradiction or vagueness in their account of the crime is likely to have their accusations dismissed”

    So, we should expect a seven year old to give an account of events she barely understood without ambiguity, contradiction or vagueness? Weide is fixated on the fact that Mia Farrow’s recording of Dylan’s testimony wasn’t continuous. He observes how the nanny thought Dylan appeared at times disinterested in talking about what had happened (!). What are our expectations of this child? How do we conclude that she is *certain* not to have told the truth? And how do we go from a child of seven whom we judged to have lied without malice to a ‘disgraceful’ adult on a revenge mission? In other words, how does blame get attached to these memories all of a sudden?

    1. I think you are missing the main point, Giovanni: it is quite possible to influence the mind, especially that of a seven year old, to possibly imagine something that didn’t happen. Research the case of Thurston County Ritual Abuse case in the US, or Bernhard Goetz who after confessing to shooting four muggers was CONVINCED he had shot more people than he actually had. You can make the argument that Dylan was possibly molested but an equally valid argument could be made for Allen’s innocence. Or are you arguing that all of those allegations during the ’80s and ’90s of daycare Satan cults and molestations were all true?

        1. Unless it had not just occurred, but instead was planted in her mind. That’s the issue, isn’t it? There is no evidence that I know of that Dylan was assaulted as she described in her recent letter. One would imagine that significant physical trauma would be associated with the rape of a 7 year old by an adult man, yet no one has described any physical evidence. There is not even any evidence that Mia ever took Dylan to a doctor for evaluation.

          What Dylan describes is horrific and if true I completely understand her anguish. If not true I completely understand Allen’s anguish. There are only two people who know the truth in this case: Woody Allen and Mia Farrow and I think it unlikely that the truth will now be told this many years later.

          I feel deeply for Dylan as no matter what the truth is she has been abused.

          1. Giovanni, that is a highly misleading statement.
            “Farrow phoned her attorney, who advised her to bring Dylan to their local pediatrician, which she did. Dylan “did not repeat the accusation of sexual abuse during this visit” and on the trip home told her mother she “did not like talking about her privates.” On Aug. 6, when she returned to the pediatrician—on the pediatrician’s advice—Dylan repeated what she told her mother on Aug. 5. Meanwhile a “medical examination conducted on Aug. 9 showed no physical evidence of sexual abuse.”

  7. For the last two years, I have been researching and writing a book that deals at length with False Memory Syndrome and the discourse that developed around child abuse in the 1980s and early 1990s. While I have no love for Woody Allen and agree that Dylan Farrow should not be subjected to knee-jerk skepticism, this essay seriously mis-represents the historical events that produced the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

    It is false to claim that the Ingram case described by Larry Wright in The New Yorker and then in his book Remembering Satan was in any way an isolated incident. In fact, it is true that dozens of similar cases popped up all over the country during the 1980s and early 1990s, and that many innocent people–about half of them women–were sent to prison. These cases include: the McMartin Preschool in Los Angeles; the Kern County sex ring investigation in central California; the YMCA in El Paso, TX; Jordan, MN; the Wee Care Preschool in Maplewood, New Jersey; the Fells Acres Day Care in Malden, MA; the San Antonio Four; Fran and Dan Keller in Austin, TX; Wenatchee, WA. These cases involved multiple defendants and incredibly long prison terms. In Kern County, CA, the first four people to be convicted (more than 25 went to prison, eventually) were collectively sentenced to exactly 1,000 years in prison. In the McMartin Preschool trial, which remains today the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history, one defendant was held without bail *for five years,* after which a jury failed to convict him.

    It is true that children have historically not been believed when they make allegations of child sexual abuse. It is also true that a panic surrounding sex abuse in preschools and day cares took place in the 1980s and did enormous amounts of damage. This doesn’t even begin to get in to the many women who sued their therapists for subjecting them to “recovered memory therapy” and persuading them they had been raised by violent satanists. These two truths coexist.

    While the idea that “false memory syndrome” is a real psychological phenomenon is certainly problematic, this essay grossly misrepresents the circumstances under which the FMSF emerged. It should not have been published in its current state.

    Richard Beck

    1. Thank you Richard

      I did acknowledge in my first comment that I may have given the impression that Wright was the source of the media panic, when in fact the FMSF was founded in 1992. I brought him up largely because he was cited by Herman in her piece about the structural bias of media reporting. There are on “two sides to every abuse story”, even though some people accused of abuse are innocent.

      The claim that Wright knew only of the Ingram case was Herman’s, not mine, but I thank you for correcting it.

  8. You say there has only been one case of False Memory Syndrome? So that means the testimony of the children in the Peter Ellis/ Christchurch Civic Creche case was correct, and there were witches flying around the ceiling, and a dungeon underneath the toilets, and he really did do all those things to the girls (despite being homosexual).
    I don’t doubt that Dylan Farrow believes what she’s saying, I just have doubts that it’s what happened. Weide raises a good point in that Allen was already under fire for having left Mia Farrow for Soon Yi so it would be a dangerous time for him to be abusing Dylan.
    The counter argument to that is that Allen could be a sociopath and craved the excitement of abusing Dylan when all eyes were upon him. He might be, and he might not be, we don’t know.
    Weide also asserts the two nannies at the house don’t believe it could have happened and one said Allen was only out of sight for 5 minutes – yes, still plenty of time to abuse a child, I know.
    Pundits like yourself and Weide always throw in the caveat ‘no-one can really know, since we weren’t there’ but then go on to give their view of what happened. In your case you (and many others) take the view that Dylan was there and she knows what happened, so you believe her and the evidence that backs you/her up.
    As Weide points out, there is a counterview that says it can’t have happened as she said, and there is evidence to back up that counterview too.
    I lean more toward Weide’s view than yours, principally because your view seems rooted in the idea that ‘children don’t lie about these things’ – to which I refer you back to my opening comments about the Christchurch Civic Creche case. Peter Ellis’ life was ruined by some children who told a story that their parents believed…

    1. The testimonies of the children in the Ellis case weren’t elicited through recovered memory therapy, and the case is quite unrelated to false memory syndrome, isn’t it? It’s certainly an indication that children can lie, but I don’t think anyone is disputing that.

        1. Never presumed not to have? Ellis did close to 10 years in jail, several women had their lives shredded in public and nobody employed at the Civic ever worked in childcare again.

      1. Recovered memory and false memory are two different things. Recovered memory is one type of false memory and I don’t think in this case anyone is arguing the Dylan recovered a memory. Instead what is being suggested is that she had a false memory planted in her mind. The accusation is not that she is lying, but that she is reporting a memory that does not reflect what actually happened, but what her mother wanted her to believe happened.

        1. False memory syndrome, by its definition, is linked to the practice of recovered memory therapy. Allen’s defence is that this is a much more straightforward case of coaching. What I’ve been trying to say is that the prominence in the news of proper ‘false memory’ cases might have predisposed the public to think of Dylan’s testimony in those terms.

  9. What I mean is that they weren’t simply “believed”. Corroboration was sought. An evidentiary process (however flawed) was applied. I appreciate that the case is still the subject of debate, but there were a trial, an appeal and a ministerial enquiry.

  10. It does seem that a few of the earlier commenters aren’t aware that false memories are so-named because their alleged ‘recovery’ was induced by therapists and obviously in a context where the clients were highly emotionally vulnerable. Interrogating the basis for those allegedly recovered memories is not the same thing as dismissing what a child is telling you.

  11. I agree with most of the other women in this post. I don’t really understand what ‘False Memory Syndrome’ has to do with a child’s allegations that an adult has recently abused them.

  12. I’m not really interested in getting involved in the discussion over the Farrow-Allen allegations, because like everyone else here I’m in no position to have an opinion. I am also unsure as to why Giovanni has linked the allegations to “false memory syndrome”.

    What we should be clear about is that, as matilda points out, “false memory syndrome” is generally understood in psychiatric circles as being a therapist-induced problem, and was especially (but not exclusively) associated with the psychiatric fad for diagnosing Multiple Personality Disorder and the belief among leading psychiatrists that MPD was caused by childhood abuse at the hands of “satanic cults”.

    While the American Psychiatric Association eventually dropped MPD and the associated (largely spurious) claims of widespread abuse by satanic cults, it never really repudiated the profession’s role in the disaster. Al Frances, who ran DSM-IV, has come out with a mea culpa that he didn’t use his position to stamp on the diagnosis and associated claims about causation. He has done this in the wake of an APA-associated publication pulling a terrific article by Richard Noll describing the whole sordid episode. You can find a link to Noll’s article by looking through Al’s 2 recent posts here and here.

    It is important to understand the psychiatric profession’s sordid role in giving scientific legitimacy to a moral panic about ritual satanic child abuse.

  13. As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, emotional abuse, a shitload of violence and PTSD, I am furious at your ignorance, Tiso. Be assured, repressed memory is very real (necessary to survival) and widely acknowledged. There is a distinction between repressed memory and recovered memory. It’s hard to take you seriously when you can’t be bothered doing a little research.

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