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What Mia Farrow Knew

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 6/8/2021 Caitlin Flanagan
Mia Farrow, Woody Allen looking at the camera © Brian Hamill / Getty images

The four-part HBO docuseries Allen v. Farrow opens with a gliding aerial shot of Manhattan, the camera moving slowly across Central Park: the baseball fields, the reservoir, the dark-green trees, lush summer, fecundity. But the music doesn’t suggest summer splendor; it’s ominous and portentous. We fly past the park, and the camera comes to rest at the grand facade of the Plaza Hotel, with its famous mansard roof, the copper burnished by time to a patina of sea-foam green, an echo of the green park beyond it. It’s a strangely loaded opening to the series: The Plaza figures in the saga only as the site of two press conferences related to the bitter custody fight between Mia Farrow and Woody Allen. But the music and the lingering shot of the building make it seem like a sinister location.  

Something about the scene’s sweeping vision of Manhattan, its undertone of menace, and the arrival at the old, iconic building rang a distant bell. I realized that it reminded me of the opening of Farrow’s most famous movie, Rosemary’s Baby, in which the camera soars in the same omniscient and stately way above Manhattan apartment houses and then Central Park, gliding over the reservoir and the same dark-green trees until finding its target, another historic New York building with a complicated roof and a long history, the Dakota. In that movie, Farrow plays an expectant mother: kind, generous, and far too innocent to imagine that her husband’s strange behavior meant that he wanted to harm her baby.  

This, too, is the implication of the series: that Farrow was a hopeful and gentle person whose family was preyed upon by evil. She had built a family out of her tremendous maternal sympathies and her compassion for children who are born into poverty. But she allowed Woody Allen into that family, and he allegedly defiled it by sexually molesting her youngest daughter, 7-year-old Dylan. (Allen has assiduously and repeatedly avowed his total innocence.)

[Read: The awful intimacy of ‘Allen v. Farrow]

After the lingering shot of the Plaza, we take flight again, Peter Pan looking for the island of lost children. The camera leaves nightmarish Manhattan; it soars above a very different landscape: Farrow’s Connecticut country home, a white-clapboard farmhouse where a Currier and Ives dusting of snow covers the ground, signifying innocence, an escape from the sullied city. The snow is a purifying element, although we will also visit this location in summer, often in Farrow’s old home videos. Geese swim on the lake, children play on the shore, and the goodness and safety of the pastoral asserts itself. It’s a complicated symbol. The Connecticut home suggests the safety of being in Farrow’s—as opposed to Allen’s—care. And yet that house is the most sinister place of all, because it was in the attic of this house that Allen is alleged to have molested Dylan.

I had thought I could not face one more syllable of information about the Allen/Farrow disaster, which has been raked over by journalists, legal authorities, investigators, and kooks for almost 30 years. But this series caught my attention immediately. The film is mesmerizing, beautifully shot and powerful, the work of two talented documentary filmmakers, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, who have made a series of documentaries investigating the way sexual abuse has been tolerated and hidden within certain structures, among them the military, college campuses, the music business, and now Hollywood. (I appear briefly in one of these films, discussing rapes that take place in fraternity houses.) Their intention here is clear: to dispel any lingering notions that the public might have that Allen is innocent, and in this they are hugely successful. This is a case that has produced so many investigations, that contains so many coincidences and complexities, that almost any theory can be supported. But their account is the first one that is wholly believable, because it is the most whole: Allen’s alleged behavior in the attic was not something that occurred without precedent. It did not come out of the blue, as many suppose. Yet essential to this compelling argument is something that no amount of supportive lighting can improve. To believe its story, you have to believe Farrow when she describes all of these terrible acts, and the question this raises is never answered: Why didn’t you do something sooner? (Allen issued a response to the claims in the documentary, stating that the filmmakers “spent years surreptitiously collaborating with the Farrows and their enablers to put together a hatchet job riddled with falsehoods.”)

Farrow witnessed disturbing and occasionally ghastly things for years, many of which would have been taken very seriously by social services had she made a call. But she never did; she seems to have been deeply invested in Dylan and Allen having a relationship. The story she tells—both in this documentary and in various other places, including her sworn testimony—describes a familiar pattern, one that is balefully common in the world of child sexual abuse: A man known to the family was abusing a single woman’s child, and the woman was responding with something that goes by a self-explanatory name, “failure to protect.”   

Whenever an alleged crime takes hold in the public consciousness, it usually illustrates or plays upon an anxiety of the age. The 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst was a story about an abducted heiress and the ways in which a small band of radicals could bring a powerful family to their knees. But it was also about the notion, widespread and not wrong, that “nice” girls from “good” families were going off to college and becoming so immersed in the politics of the far left that it was as though they, too, had been kidnapped. They were not physically lost, but they had become foreign to their own families. The 1995 trial of O. J. Simpson was about a gruesome crime committed within the shallow, opportunistic world of Brentwood, California. But it was also about a shocking verdict in a different Southern California trial: the 1992 acquittal of the cops who had savagely beaten Rodney King. Could any Black man receive a fair trial in Southern California when the police seemed intractably bound by racial prejudice?

The 1992 custody dispute between Allen and Farrow revolved, of course, around an accusation of child abuse made against one of the most famous directors and actors in the country. Beyond the celebrity factor, however, it resonated with the public because of two powerful ideas circulating at the time. First, there was the belief that motivated adults can plant false memories of sexual abuse into the minds of children. The notorious McMartin Preschool case—in which an administrator of a Manhattan Beach, California, day care and her son were charged with committing grotesque, satanic atrocities on the children—had concluded just two years earlier, exonerating mother and son. The children had been interviewed multiple times by experts, who often led the kids to say that certain horrible things had happened to them. Second, by the late 1980s, the “men’s-rights movement” had become preoccupied with the anxiety that in high-conflict divorce and custody fights, women can gain the upper hand with false accusations of abuse. These stories are legion, and they are based on a common theme: that a once-loved woman can become a raging, unstable, and deceitful creature in the midst of a legal battle. She can turn the children against their father and manipulate the courts—which are highly attuned to accusations of male aggression and violence in the home and the need to protect women and children from it—to the point that fathers become ciphers in their children’s lives, forced to send alimony and child-support payments to a family from which they have been wrongfully banished.

[Caitlin Flanagan: I actually read Woody Allen’s memoir]

From this perspective, Farrow’s claim was immediately suspicious. She was already furious with Allen when the allegation happened. Just seven months earlier, she had discovered something hideous: He was involved in a sexual relationship with her eldest daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, whom she and her ex-husband André Previn had adopted around age 7. This discovery had landed Farrow and Allen in a vicious custody dispute—which suddenly went nuclear with an accusation of molestation. Could Farrow’s anger over that betrayal have led her to claim that Allen had molested Dylan, and had she planted a false memory in the child, just as the investigators in the McMartin case had done? Many people were convinced this was so, and many still are. I would commend this documentary to them.

Farrow is still very beautiful, and she still has the childlike, reedy voice of her youth. She is interviewed, under soft lighting, in the living room of her Connecticut house. Despite her youthfulness, this is an old woman’s house, filled with patchwork quilts and black-and-white photos—of children long grown up, and of preceding generations, long dead—hung askew on wooden walls. And there are many dolls: a porcelain-headed doll, paper dolls, and a Kewpie doll, as well as a dollhouse she made herself, “a home within a home,” as she calls it. The documentary is entirely on her side, and you get the idea that these lingering shots are meant to impress us with Farrow’s care for her children—but the things are so old, and the house is so dark, that they end up seeming more creepy than reassuring.

In the interview, she sits in her gingerbread house and talks about the children who came to live in it. She has always been a compelling figure, and even in old age she deploys one of the endearing traits of her youth: a projection of complete innocence. This woman, whose ongoing and valorous human-rights work has brought her into conflict zones many times, is somehow able to come across as so pure and so good that she couldn’t even imagine the terrible things the world has in it.  

And yet, under such supportive conditions and with such apparently sympathetic filmmakers, she says something truly shocking. A few years into her romantic relationship with Allen, she wanted to have a baby with him. He was at first uninterested, but eventually relented. However, when she didn’t become pregnant as soon as she wanted, she tried to cajole Allen into adopting a child. Again he wasn’t interested, but a casual comment, which Farrow relays to the filmmakers, gave her an opening: “He said, ‘I might be more kindly disposed if it was a little blond girl.’”

You imagine Farrow responding to this statement with disgust. Her adopted children—four at that point—were not white; they were Asian. To make a specific appeal for a white, blond infant is grim stuff. But this is the point in the story where evil breaks in.

Sitting in her dark house, with her pleading voice and her collection of old toys, she says, “I thought, If he cares about that, I should try to find a little girl like that. And then maybe he’ll love her.”

What can this be but evil? Sending out a directive to find a blond, female baby because maybe a boyfriend—who has repeatedly said that he wasn’t interested in being a father, and that he didn’t want the responsibility of child-rearing—will love her? And hoping for him to love her, although he takes no part in the adoption?

“I was absolutely thrilled!” she says of discovering that Allen did end up loving the little girl she had sought out for this exact purpose. “It was more than a relief. I was over-the-moon happy,” she says in her trilling, childlike voice.  

She thought of Allen as Dylan’s father—and characterized him as such to Dylan—but for years he did not adopt the child. Nor did he move in with Farrow or ask her to marry him. As far as Farrow was concerned, the desire for him to be Dylan’s father was as good as a commitment to the girl or to her. In fact, Allen did not adopt Dylan until mere months before the alleged molestation, after years of behavior that Farrow says worried her. And he did it with Farrow’s full, enthusiastic support.

The sad and unpalatable truth is that children who live in a household with their father, especially children who are that man’s issue, are much less likely to be sexually molested. Even the most indolent and otherwise useless father is someone whom most abusers don’t want to factor into their plans. The father is an adult male, and an abuser would at some point have to confront him if he tried to harm his daughter. Fatherless girls and girls who live without their father are an easier target for these men. It is grotesque to think that Dylan finally got a legal father just in time for him to allegedly molest her, at which point it was much harder to get rid of him, because he had parental rights.

At the end of Allen v. Farrow, Dylan visits the Connecticut home with her husband and her young daughter. When the little girl sees her grandmother, she runs to her; the affection is obvious and moving. But Dylan’s remark is not about the power of grandmothers; it’s about the importance of fathers. “The best gift that I could have given my daughter,” she says, “is that she has a really wonderful father.”

“For as long as I can remember,” Dylan says in the documentary, “my father had been doing things to me that I didn’t like.” It’s not the first time she has made that revelation; she did it in The New York Times in 2014. But in the context of this film, it’s forceful. What the documentary emphasizes—a point made by several of the people interviewed—is that Allen’s alleged behavior in the attic was part of a years-long series of actions that for some reason Farrow had been willing to tolerate.

Dylan describes running to hide from Allen when he came over to Farrow’s apartment, and sitting with him on stone stairs outside the country house while he directed her on how she should suck his thumb, “telling me what to do with my tongue.”

“I have memories of getting into bed with him—he was in his underwear,” Dylan says. “And I’m in my underwear, cuddling.” There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that she is telling the truth about this.

“She started running away from him,” Farrow tells us. “She started locking herself in bathrooms.” She describes what happened whenever Allen came to the apartment: “She was fully conversant, and then the minute he would walk in, she’d become an animal, sometimes a dead animal, sometimes a wounded animal lying on the floor. Anything that didn’t talk.”

Why in the world would you let this man anywhere near your child? What did Farrow want from Allen?

Farrow has long maintained that she witnessed repeated acts of Allen’s sexualized behavior toward Dylan. But the documentary finally gives them the due that they deserve, creating a troubling portrait of what was happening to the little girl.

On the stand in the custody trial, Farrow spoke about her persistent concerns regarding Allen even before the adoption: “There was some sexual thing … but sexual is not the name I used at the time. Inappropriate is the word I used.”

What were these sexual/inappropriate things?

“First of all, there was the whole quality of it—the intensity, the wooing quality of it, the neediness … It was relentless and overpowering.”

When had this kind of behavior taken place? “All the time.”

“Hugging?” the attorney asked.

“Yes.”

“Kissing?”

“Yes, in bed. He took her into his bed if she visited. They always ended up in bed, [with him] playing with her. The quality of the playing aroused her so that she would grab him. It happened three times.”  

In the documentary, Farrow says that once when she was sitting with Allen and Dylan, Allen smacked Dylan’s hand away. When Farrow asked why he had done that, he said the little girl was grabbing at his penis, leading Farrow to wonder what was really going on.

She also says that in one confrontation with Allen, she told him, “You look at her in a sexual way. You fondled her. It’s not natural. You’re all over her. You don’t give her any breathing room. You look at her when she’s naked.” She told Allen that she was troubled by his habit of getting into bed with Dylan when he was in his undershorts, and by his permitting her to suck on his thumb.

Any of these behaviors would warrant a call to social services, which would take the reports seriously. But Farrow didn’t even need to go that far. Allen was her boyfriend; he had no parental rights for most of these events. The documentarians obtained a cache of recorded telephone calls between Allen and Farrow from the time of the custody fight, and play clips of some of them. In one, Farrow says, “I’ve always, always been worried about you and Dylan.”

The obvious question: Is Mia Farrow at all responsible for the things she says that Woody Allen did to her daughter? Of course not. Allen is 100 percent responsible for whatever he did. But Farrow is 100 percent responsible for not protecting the girl from him. “I was so scared of him,” Farrow says in a tiny voice. The implication is that it was an abusive relationship that, as these things often do, included the emotional incapacitation of the victim’s mother.  

Was Farrow so terrorized by Allen that she lost all agency? I would submit that she was not. Several years ago, in 2013, Farrow threw some fresh meat to the gossipmongers: She said that her biological child Ronan Farrow, born a couple of years after Dylan’s adoption, in 1987, was “possibly” not Woody Allen’s son, but the son of her first husband, Frank Sinatra. For this to be a possibility would mean that she had an affair while she and Allen were in the relationship that she has always characterized as committed. These are unusual actions for a woman too terrified by her boyfriend to challenge him on something—and they also suggest seething discontent within the relationship long before the revelation about Soon-Yi or the allegation about Dylan. Motherhood—especially single motherhood by choice—comes with a baseline, bare-minimum requirement, and if it’s beyond you, you probably shouldn’t adopt multiple children.

On the day of the alleged molestation, Farrow was living in the Connecticut house with some combination of children, including two whom she had brought home within one month of discovering the Soon-Yi affair: a blind girl and an infant who had been exposed to crack in the womb. As Maureen Orth describes in her 1992 Vanity Fair story, Farrow had been prescribed medication for panic attacks and for sleep, and she was on her second antidepressant, the first one having led to a night of suicidal ideation. Despite the number of children and the variety of their needs, Farrow seems to have had only two babysitters in attendance, plus a woman who is characterized as Dylan and Ronan’s live-in French tutor. Allen was in the house visiting his children, and Farrow went to each of the employees and told them that under no condition should they allow him to be alone with Dylan. Why hadn’t she been doing that for years? And then she went shopping with a friend. What could she possibly have been so eager to buy that it justified leaving the house? The next day, Dylan told her that Allen had taken her to the attic while her mother was gone and touched her “privates.”

Set into context with all of Farrow’s other allegations, the incident in the attic would constitute an escalation of things she had already observed, rather than an event without precedent. When Dylan told her mother, Farrow finally—finally—picked up the phone to report what had happened. But according to Farrow’s 1997 memoir, What Falls Away, her first call wasn’t to the police or to social services or to the girl’s pediatrician. Her first call was to her lawyer.  

[Read: Woody Allen has some defenders]

It was the lawyer who told her to take Dylan to the pediatrician, a detail that is left out of the documentary. A lawyer would surely know that a visit to the pediatrician would begin a legal process, and also that the visit would constitute the kind of promptly reported and officially documented claim that none of the previous disturbing behavior—which would feature so largely in her testimony—did.

Sometimes when a parent brings an allegation of sexual abuse into a custody fight, it’s wholly true. Sometimes it’s a manipulation of the system, a lie told to gain advantage in the case. But sometimes it’s a reflection of a situation that’s more complex and more human. Sometimes a woman is willing to tolerate a certain amount of problematic behavior when she’s in a relationship with a man, but once that relationship is over, the implied permission suddenly stops.

Children’s lives are hostage to an ephemeral force: their parents’ romantic relationship. In this case, while the relationship between Farrow and Allen was intact, Farrow apparently had been willing to tolerate Allen groping Dylan. In the way of these things, his behavior allegedly escalated as time passed. But the viewer is still left wondering: If the relationship had remained intact, and had Allen never seduced Soon-Yi, would Farrow have reported him, or would she have found another way to justify Allen’s actions as she had done so many times in the past?

Mia Farrow and Woody Allen were shaped by the 1960s, but in very different ways. Allen was disdainful of all things hippie, California, and counterculture. He moved around the world like a figure out of Salinger: jazz, Ivy League clothes, an assumption that Manhattan is the center of the known world. On the surface, he seemed more of a backward glance than a leap ahead. It was his attitude toward sexuality that suggested the change in the culture. Manhattan, rightly hailed as a great movie, is about a middle-aged man sleeping with a 17-year-old girl. It was, in the large, received as a comic premise. Allen had no interest—other than parodic—in the mess and confusion of Haight-Ashbury or the self-indulgence of Los Angeles. But the sexual revolution runs through many of his most famous movies.

Farrow was a perfect example of a familiar type of her era: flower child turned earth mother. She was, literally and imaginatively, a Californian. She was spacey, generous, uninterested in material possessions, capable of making things (Christmas stockings, elaborate scrapbooks, dollhouses), an artist. She was dreamy, poetic, certain that a better society was near, and that she could be instrumental in its creation. While she was mending a broken heart after her first marriage fell apart, she went to India to study Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Beatles eventually showed up, but she was first. Like Allen, she had a movie star’s narcissistic belief that whatever she wanted, she should have.

Farrow had become famous at age 19, when she was cast in the television adaptation of a trashy best seller: Peyton Place. The title refers to the conservative New England village where the story is set, and its plot focuses on three women who struggle with a variety of sexual, romantic, and criminal entanglements, including abortion, incest, adultery, lust, and murder. The phrase Peyton Place entered the common vocabulary. If something was “very Peyton Place,” it meant that it involved people who were in extremely complex romantic relationships, which they strove (often unsuccessfully) to keep secret. The series was first broadcast in 1964, but the book had been written in 1956, and it was a pure product of ’50s sensibility: narrow-minded, conformist, and suspicious of anything that hinted at code-breaking.

[Read: The Hollywood tide turns on Woody Allen]

The ’60s did not eliminate any of the behaviors described in Peyton Place; they just took them out of the shadows and drained them of shame. It was the beginning of the erosion of these old codes, making sex; extramarital romances; the possibility of safe, guilt-free abortion; and the sovereignty of personal desire not just possible, but the kinds of things that could stand in the foreground of a person’s life. One consequence of this new way of living was that it laid waste to what we now call—sometimes with reverence, other times with derision—the “traditional family.” Farrow gave birth to four children by two different men (Previn and either Allen or, as she has hinted, Sinatra) and would ultimately adopt 10 children. For all or most of their lives, she raised them as a single mother; the presiding idea seems to have been that it would be better to be a part of her big, complicated family than not—even without a live-in father, often without any father.

Beginning in the mid-’60s, the country started rapidly exchanging a common code of behavior—a code that was not universally followed (not by a long shot), but that was universally understood to be the prevailing social contract—with a kind of non-code. Or, more accurately, with 300 million different codes. Do your own thing, man. To the extent that the individual should be bound by morality, it should be a private morality of one’s own making. It was time to reject the tyranny of conformity and to respect the sovereignty of self, which is a demanding—but simplifying—regime of commitment and sacrifice, the hard bedrock of human survival.  

After Farrow learned of Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi, she took all her children—including Soon-Yi—to be baptized in the Catholic Church. In her moment of crisis, when her large, blended, and nontraditional family began to fall apart, she didn’t take her children to India so they could learn Transcendental Meditation. She reached out for a familiar code, the authority of her own tradition. She had been raised in a Catholic family, but had strayed, through her complicated life: her marriages and divorces, romances and multiple adoptions. “Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes,” Nick Carraway tells us after returning from the East, “but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on.” Farrow brought her children to be baptized, because she wanted a moral order that her own pursuit of pleasure and desire had not brought her.

Like all Christian baptisms, the Catholic rite of baptism includes an anointing with oil and a blessing with water. But it also includes a Prayer of Exorcism and the questioning of the parents and godparents to make sure they are worthy of caring for this child.

The priest asks, “Do you reject the glamour of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin?”

And, “Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?”

According to the mysterious, ancient faith, every child needs more than the kingdom of God. She also needs protection from the devil himself.

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