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.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!