Essays

What Would You Say if I Told You? Talking About Sexual Abuse

 by Suzannah Gilman

I don’t know what Woody Allen did or didn’t do.  The only people who will know are Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow.  As a former victims’ attorney, all I really care about is what the victim has to say.  The rest of it is just noise.  That is unless the accused admits to the allegation, but that happens only with people whose psychoses have rendered them unable to function in society.  An Oscar-winning writer and director hardly fits into that category.  I don’t care what Nicholas Kristof has to say.  He disclosed that he is a friend of Mia Farrow and her son, Ronan Farrow.  I don’t care what Robert B. Weide has to say (“Who’s he?” is right.)  The producer and director of a documentary on Woody Allen, he acknowledges that he is an outsider, not a friend, and then interjects himself into the most personal area of Allen’s life as though he were an eyewitness.

What does Dylan Farrow say?  I have read her adult words for myself.  I’ve heard conflicting claims about what she said and how she said it as a child and whether/how her mother, the jilted lover Mia Farrow orchestrated or didn’t orchestrate it.  Dylan’s written, adult words are pretty clear and convincing.  Are they so clear because her long-term memory has been influenced and cemented by her mother’s thirst for revenge? I don’t know.  I haven’t spoken to Dylan, not now and not then.  Neither have any of us. But I think she is entitled to the possibility that she is, as she said, a victim of sexual abuse by Woody Allen—no matter how brilliant I thought Midnight in Paris was.

No, I can’t pass judgment on what happened in that situation, but I can be glad for the revival of the noise.

Today, a woman a few years younger than me wrote to me to tell me that she wanted me to know my cousin is a child molester.  He molested her when she was fourteen.  She is the younger sister of his first ex-wife.  I don’t know if she read Dylan Farrow’s open letter, but it is trending on Facebook and she contacted me via Facebook message, so there’s a good chance she did.  I am glad she told me because she deserved someone in my cousin’s family to tell her they’re sorry and that she shouldn’t have had to go through that and that someone should have protected her.  My cousin won’t admit to what he did, nor apologize, according to her—and I believe her.  I believe every word.  One reason I believe her is that I know she is hurt.  I believe her because she gave me details.  (Dylan Farrow gave chilling details.)  I believe her because I know my cousin.  I don’t know Woody Allen.  Do you?  Or do you only know his public persona and his movies?  After I she told me her story and I believed her, I heard another story told by his second ex-wife that he molested her niece and was arrested for it.  How glad I was for believing the first victim, and how vindicated she must feel for speaking out.

Victims deserve to be believed.  It’s hard to be the victim who speaks out.  The victim is often blamed for stirring things up.  The victim is often accused of being too picky or imagining things in her head or making too much of something.  As we know, that perpetuates abuse.  It gives abusers a free pass to do whatever they want.  And that has got to stop.

Woody Allen isn’t worried, because as he says, no “evidence” has been produced against him.  Testimony is evidence.  When a person testifies, it’s up to the trier of fact (the judge or the jury, depending on who is deciding a trial) to decide whether that testimony is credible.  They decide based on, among other things, whatever interests the person testifying has in the case.  In Allen’s case, I’d be inclined to think Mia Farrow’s testimony would be biased against Allen’s interests—and that’s where I’d leave the “jilted lover” argument.  That’s where it belongs.  Dylan Farrow is not a jilted lover.  She was a 7 year-old child.  But if her word was not believed then, Allen is justified in his smug state.  No new evidence is going to appear and he doesn’t think anyone believes her.

There are those who believed Dylan at the time.  Allen, however, was not tried.  That doesn’t mean prosecutors thought he was innocent or that they didn’t believe Dylan.  There are many reasons why accused people are let free and never face charges.  Many times, it’s a lack of enough evidence.

Several years ago, when I represented victims of domestic violence in civil cases, I took on a client at the request of a sex crimes investigator.  There wasn’t enough evidence to bring the accused to a criminal trial, reasoned the prosecutor who had to decide which cases to try, though the prosecutor and the investigator believed the accused had done what his accuser, his wife’s young daughter, accused him of.

From the time the girl was approaching puberty, the stepfather would spend time with her at night while her mother slept.  The mother was sensitive to noise, so she wore earplugs to drown out the television and then she slept like a rock.  Soon the stepfather started playing music rather than the television.  He taught the girl to dance.  Eventually, he taught her to dance nude for him.  And he raped her.  She didn’t scream; she didn’t fight him.  She’d been trained over time that this was the way their relationship was going to be.  That’s the reason the rape of a child is a statutory crime, a clear-cut black and white NO: because she was too young to consent.  She was too young to understand the implications of all she would be saying yes to—or not saying no to.  As well, the stepfather was one of her disciplinarians, manipulating her in that way to make her do his will.

By the time the daughter finally told her mother, she looked like her mother’s twin. She looked like a woman.  They were both petite and exceptionally attractive.  One was much more accommodating to the man, however—because he had groomed her from the time she was a child to be obedient to him.  And despite how she looked, she was still a child.  When she told her mother, her mother at first saw her daughter as a female rival, a fellow woman out to steal her man.  This was something else the abuser had been working toward: to pit the women against each other, presumably so the daughter would never tell.

To say their once close mother-daughter relationship deteriorated rapidly is putting it mildly.  But the mother, who felt a little uneasy about her husband, called police anyway.   With outside help, the mother came to realize that her child was a victim, not a seductress, a wounded person who needed her love and support.

When the investigator came to me asking me to represent the mother and daughter in that case, she was looking for any sort of vindication from the legal system for them, something that said this did happen and it was wrong and the girl was a victim and shared no blame.  Because it would not be tried as a criminal case, all that was left was for me to help them with a civil case against the abuser.  We petitioned for an injunction for protection—also called a restraining order—to keep the stepfather away from both of them, from their home, from their places of work.  We got the injunction.  Given the chance to decide, the civil court judge believed the girl’s story and did not believe the denials of the stepfather.  In a civil case, the burden of proof is much lower than in a criminal case, so testimony can be enough evidence on its own.  Finally, it meant something to someone that the girl told what had happened to her.  This was the last, crucial step toward resolution for the mother and daughter.

Imagine how that girl—now a woman—would be if her mother had simply left it as “I don’t believe you were a victim” instead of saying “I have some doubt” and then worked it out, rebuilding the strong bond with her daughter.   It’s hard to speculate accurately, but victims who are not believed and who do not receive some kind of justice typically internalize the blame, lose their self-esteem, and spiral into self-destructive behaviors.  It’s true that some who initially fall are strong enough to pick themselves back up and make a decent life for themselves.  They are not in the majority.

It’s important that when someone tells us they have been abused, we listen.  We must listen without judgment.  We must offer support.  If the allegations are not true, that will come out soon enough.  But if they are true and we haven’t given the victim the safe refuge they expected when telling their story, we add to their hurts and frustrations and the issues they have to work through.  No victim deserves that.

 

 

Postscript:  Natalie Shure, an adult survivor, succinctly recounts her experience, “Why Young Sexual Assault Victims Tell Incoherent Stories,” in The Atlantic Monthly.  She writes, “The problem is that if young victims can be dismissed for sounding inconsistent and rehearsed, then the whole game is rigged from the beginning.”

3 replies »

  1. A therapist I know sent me this comment via email:

    “Good piece. I see many who have been sexually abused. No matter what age or circumstances, there is one devastating common denominator. They hold the shame and blame. From that vantage point, they also decide they are bad people and do not deserve good things in life.

    Shame cannot live in the light. It slowly fades as they talk about and are believed. “