Has Woody Allen Been Smeared?
Bret Stephens thinks so.
He starts off, oddly, with a discussion of the faked rape scandal at the University of Virginia, which was not only debunked but had nothing to do with Woody Allen. But Stephens sees similarities: “Basic journalistic rules, such as seeking comment from the alleged perpetrators, had not been observed,” “how perfectly the story played ‘into existing biases,'” and, especially:
Since the account of the rape “felt” true, it was easy to assume it was. Since the alleged victim had supposedly suffered grievous harm, it was awkward to challenge her version of events. Since important people took the story on faith and sought to press it into the service of an undeniably noble cause, the story’s moral truth overwhelmed its factual one.
Stephens says the same is true of the re-emergence of charges that he raped his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow, way back in 1992, when she was 7.
The only in-depth, contemporaneous and independent investigation into the allegations, conducted over several months by the Yale-New Haven Hospital in 1992 and 1993, noted that there were “important inconsistencies in Dylan’s statements,” and that “her descriptions of the details surrounding the alleged events were unusual and were inconsistent.” It concluded categorically: “It is our expert opinion that Dylan was not sexually abused by Mr. Allen.”
That investigation (most of which remains under seal) may or may not be dispositive. It has been criticized over the years, including by a judge who ruled against Allen in his custody battle for Dylan and her siblings.
But since the State of Connecticut declined to press charges against Allen, it is what we have to go on. Shouldn’t the weight of available evidence, to say nothing of the presumption of innocence, extend to the court of public opinion, too?
That is a thought lost in some of the commentary about the case. Dylan Farrow is a persuasive interviewee who seems absolutely sincere in her belief that she was molested by Allen as a child. Allen, by contrast, comes across as a grouchy neurotic who, in his late 50s, had a distasteful affair with Mia Farrow’s adopted, barely adult daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. In the contest of sympathies, it’s not hard to guess who wins.
But it’s precisely because Dylan’s account plays to our existing biases that we need to treat it with added skepticism. Most parents know that young children are imaginative and suggestible and innocently prone to making things up. The misuse of children’s memories by ambitious prosecutors against day-care center operators in the 1980s led to some of the worst miscarriages of justice in recent U.S. history. You don’t have to doubt Farrow’s honesty to doubt her version of events.
Nor have we learned anything else about Allen in the intervening years that might add to suspicions of guilt. He married Soon-Yi and has been with her ever since. Nobody else has come forward in 25 years with a fresh accusation of assault against him.
It goes without saying that child molestation is a uniquely evil crime that merits the stiffest penalties. But accusing someone of being a molester without abundant evidence is also odious, particularly in an era in which social-media whispers can become the ruin of careers and even of lives.
That’s something for all of us to think about, even when it comes to wealthy, peculiar old men for whom we feel no love. We still live in a country that paints a bright line between accusation and fact. Smear the accused, smudge the line, and the truth will never out.
Allen makes for a particularly unsympathetic symbol for this argument but that’s really the point. After years of reflexively disbelieving or dismissing women and girls who made charges of sexual abuse or assault against white men, particularly powerful ones, we’ve seemingly had an awakening. But, in our zeal to make up for past wrongs, we ought not create new ones by dispensing with longstanding norms of presuming the innocence of the accused, allowing for cross-examination of witnesses, and other basic tenets of a just society.