'The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants': The Damaging Societal Message Exposed in Dylan Farrow's Brave Stand

02/13/2014 12:14 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2018

The recent brave stands of Nicholas Kristof and Dylan Farrow insist that we face the prevalence of sexual abuse of children, the deviousness of adults who abuse them, and the dangers to a society that does not face insidious behaviors that callously inflict pain. It is now common knowledge that on Sunday, Feb. 2, the columnist Nicholas Kristof tore open an unfolding Child Sexual Abuse Pandora's Box. And he did so much more. Please read on...

For any who have not followed the story closely, In Kristof's New York Times column, 28-year-old Dylan Farrow -- Mia Farrow and Woody Allen's adopted daughter --  recounted the alleged sexual abuse that she said the filmmaker inflicted on her at age 7. This happened following "grooming" experiences, including separating her from her mother and siblings and sleeping with her in his underwear, sticking his thumb in her mouth, and burying his head in her naked lap and exhaling.

Dylan wrote that when she sees anything to do with Allen, she becomes physically and emotionally ill. The accolades Allen got from receiving the Golden Globe lifetime achievement award made her decide finally, as an adult, that rather than become ill, she would speak out for herself and for victims of child abuse.

Woody Allen, who was never prosecuted in this case, vigorously denied all accusations, calling them "untrue" and "disgraceful."

For over 25 years, I have worked with men and women of all ages who have been sexually abused as children. My experience validates what statistics show: In almost all cases, the abuser is one the child knows. Those who abuse children are terrified of adult sexuality and intimacy and seek outlets with the young and vulnerable who do not threaten their well being and their need to control everyone and everything.

Adults who violate in this way usually do so with superb manipulative skill and charm. They are extremely skilled in weaving a clever web of confusion and denial around their actions.

Sexual abuse is often never reported and is far more common than most people recognize: Research from the Crimes Against Children Research Center estimates that at least 20 percent of American women and 5 to 10 percent of American men are sexually abused as children.

In my years of practice, I have met only one person I believe lied about sexual abuse, and this was abuse said to be received as an adult. I have never met an adult I believed was lying about the abuse he or she endured as a child. The closest thing to a cure for childhood sexual abuse is an apology. This, I assure you, rarely happens. The second closest is to speak out.

In his follow-up commentary in the New York Times Allen blamed his daughter's sexual abuse charges entirely on Mia Farrow's "festering anger," lack of "integrity, and "dishonesty." Dylan responded that she hopes that "the pain and suffering" her father "continues to inflict on me" can "help others stand up to their tormentors," stating that she would not "let truth be buried," or be "silenced."

Often when a family member does speak out, there is family opposition, as in the case of Dylan's brother, Moses Farrow, 36, who claims that his mother contrived the story as a "vengeful way to pay (his dad) back for falling in love" with his sister, Soon-Yi Previn.

We will never know what really happened in August, 1992 when Dylan and Allen were together in Farrow's Bridgewater, Connecticut home, and Allen was accused of taking his daughter into the attic and violating her.

But we do know what precipitated Mia and Woody's split after a 12-year relationship. In January 1992, while visiting Allen's apartment, Mia discovered explicit, nude photos of her daughter, Soon-Yi, with her legs open, on the mantelpiece in Allen's living room. At the time Allen was 56. Adoption records are unclear -- Soon-Yi was either 19 or 21. (Allen and Soon-Yi married in 1997.)

"The heart wants what the heart wants," were Allen's words to justify his affair with Soon-Yi.

That summer 1992, Allen began a lengthy, brutal custody battle for Dylan, Moses, and Satchel (now Ronan), which he lost. A few days following, police confirmed that they were investigating sexual abuse charges. The prosecutor stated his belief that Allen had molested Dylan, but, with Mia’s support, did not prosecute to avoid a traumatic trial for a young girl.

We also know that Allen's films are an undisguised, autobiographical blend of fact, fantasy, and the determination to get whatever "the heart" wants. Some are delightful, hopeful diversions. Others show destruction of people as blood sport. These protagonists struggle with fears of impotency, intimacy, and commitment. They compensate for deep feelings of inadequacy and inferiority through grandiosity and entitlements. They delight in sexual fantasies about very young girls and women (Muriel Hemingway, at age 16, got her first kiss from Allen in his film, Manhattan); tales of murderers; and the successes and freedom of wealth and power, achieved any way possible.

Autobiographical misogyny has been an Allen theme: After he and his first wife, Harlene Rosen, were divorced in 1959, the newspaper reported that she "had been violated" outside of her apartment building. Allen's response, in a stand up comic routine: "Knowing my ex-wife, it probably wasn't a moving violation." In Jim Jerome's profile in the October 4, 1976 People Magazine, one finds the following: "I try to have sex only with women I like a lot...Otherwise it is fairly mechanical." He continues: "(It's) no accomplishment to have or raise kids. Any fool can do it." And goes on: "I'm open-minded about sex... I mean if I was caught in a love nest with 15 12 year olds tomorrow, people would think, yeah, I always knew that about him... Nothing I could come up with would surprise anyone... I admit it all."

This autobiographical work focus flows through his written work. 1991 Allen's affair with Soon-Yi began as Mia Farrow was filming Husbands and Wives. Allen's plot revolves around a couple whose relationship topples when the husband pursues a woman about 21 years old. In his latest film, Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchette's disintegration, as she is tossed out and replaced by a younger woman, is the authentic story of many women. It also parallels Mia Farrow's horror as she found the nude photos of her young daughter. Another true-life parallel in this film is the son who sides with his father, breaking off all ties with his mother (as Moses has done), helping to push her over the cliff. (Mia, however, has survived, obviously not Allen's fantasy.)

In Allen's 2011 revised one act play, Honeymoon Motel, (one of three comedies by three artists, titled Relatively Speaking) the graphic sharing of a woman being fondled by her uncle with his fingers when she was a young girl, being "turned... this way... (and) that way," is surrounded by hilarity.

So I ask this with heartfelt apology to Emily Dickinson: Just because the "heart" wants it, is it OK? Think of terrified children, molested daily. Also recall the days of endless traffic jams in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which put lives at risk and terrified children, and the closing down of our government, putting our fragile economy at graver risk.

Many of the college and graduate students I work with are intrigued by actress Kate Mara, who plays Zoe, a ruthless reporter in the Netflix series, House of Cards. Perhaps you read Mara's recent quote in Vanity Fair: "In my mind Zoe is still a good person. But the stuff she does to get ahead is fun stuff to do as an actor. Stepping over people is fun." "Is Zoe a good person," my clients ask? "Are her means good for society?"

The same can be asked of Allen's enmeshed life and work. This month Kristof and Dylan Farrow led the way for a needed dialogue about the victimization of sexual abuse. They helped "ignite" a debate about the "propriety" of a lifetime achievement award. They also asked us to look
at an imperiled societal value system. We owe them our thanks.