Internet Debate Is Never Going to Solve the Case of Woody Allen


It has been about two decades since the collective conversation about Woody Allen shifted from critiques of his creative output to arguments about his personal life. This was partially due to his relationship with and eventual marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his then-longtime girlfriend, Mia Farrow, with whom Allen became intimate while still dating Farrow. The other, more sinister side of the tale is the allegation that he sexually assaulted Dylan, the daughter he adopted with Farrow. Allen’s relationship with Previn had, until last year’s Vanity Fair profile of Farrow brought those allegations back into the public consciousness, long been the major blight on his reputation. But in the months since that piece’s publication, the internet has become the site of another public trial, in which Allen has often been judged guilty of the sexual assault charges by a jury of cultural critics and online commenters.

This month’s Golden Globes ceremony, in which Diane Keaton accepted the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award on his behalf, added even more fuel to the Woody Allen Debates — especially following his son (or, depending on whether you believe Mia Farrow’s recent suggestion about her relationship with Frank Sinatra, his alleged son) Ronan Farrow’s tweets that night:

Frankly, this is a situation that is not well served by the kinds of debates that ensue on blogs and over social media. On the one hand, we have the allegations from a child that her father molested her. On the other, we have the lack of proof that her father touched her in any sexual way. We also have the fact that the child in question was caught in the middle of a custody battle, one made all the more complicated and painful because Dylan’s father had left her mother for Mia’s daughter from a previous relationship. Top it all off with the fact that this family is quite famous. It’s a big mess, and it’s been playing out in public for 22 years now.

The story has taken another turn this week, after Robert B. Weide, who directed the critically acclaimed documentary about Allen’s life and work for PBS’ American Masters series, published his take on the controversy at The Daily Beast. “Countless people have weighed in on this,” Weide writes, “many of them without the slightest idea of what the facts are in this matter.” And it’s true: most people my age (30 years old) or younger who are casual fans of Allen’s are probably too young to have been involved in this conversation the first time around. Our perception of Woody Allen has generally been that he’s a good director who did a really gross thing: he married his stepdaughter. And that is the common misconception that Weide makes a point to dispel:

Every time I stumble upon this topic on the internet, it seems the people who are most outraged are also the most ignorant of the facts. Following are the top ten misconceptions, followed by my response in italics: #1: Soon-Yi was Woody’s daughter. False. #2: Soon-Yi was Woody’s step-daughter. False. #3: Soon-Yi was Woody and Mia’s adopted daughter. False. Soon-Yi was the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and André Previn. Her full name was Soon-Yi Farrow Previn. #4: Woody and Mia were married. False. #5: Woody and Mia lived together. False. Woody lived in his apartment on Fifth Ave. Mia and her kids lived on Central Park West. In fact, Woody never once stayed over night at Mia’s apartment in 12 years. #6: Woody and Mia had a common-law marriage. False. New York State does not recognize common law marriage. Even in states that do, a couple has to cohabitate for a certain number of years. #7: Soon-Yi viewed Woody as a father figure.False. Soon-Yi saw Woody as her mother’s boyfriend. Her father figure was her adoptive father, André Previn. #8: Soon-Yi was underage when she and Woody started having relations. False. She was either 19 or 21. (Her year of birth in Korea was undocumented, but believed to be either 1970 or ’72.) #9: Soon-Yi was borderline retarded. Ha! She’s smart as a whip, has a degree from Columbia University and speaks more languages than you. #10: Woody was grooming Soon-Yi from an early age to be his child bride. Oh, come on! According to court documents and Mia’s own memoir, until 1990 (when Soon-Yi was 18 or 20), Woody “had little to do with any of the Previn children, (but) had the least to do with Soon-Yi” so Mia encouraged him to spend more time with her. Woody started taking her to basketball games, and the rest is tabloid history. So he hardly “had his eye on her” from the time she was a child.

Furthermore, Weide, albeit uncomfortably, addresses a few other issues in the case: the plausibility of Woody Allen choosing to molest his daughter while visiting his ex-girlfriend and her family (Dylan, who now goes by a different name, alleges that Allen molested her in an attic four months after breaking up with Farrow and acknowledging his relationship with Soon-Yi), in the midst of a very public custody and child support battle; and the fact that the videotape in which Dylan confessed what happened, at Mia Farrow’s behest, includes many breaks and edits, and we don’t know what happened during those pauses.

There’s no way to even quote what someone else has written about the allegations without being construed as a rape apologist or victim blamer. But that’s not what I’m getting at. I don’t believe it’s impossible that Woody Allen molested his daughter, but I also don’t believe that it definitely happened. All I know — all any of us here on the internet know, unless we are privy to information about the case that someone who made a three-hour documentary on Allen doesn’t have — is that someone isn’t telling us the truth.

Because this cast of players is made up largely of public figures, it’s easy for those of us at home to jump into their personal lives, assuming that the slices of their personalities that are open for scrutiny give us definitive insight into who they are as whole people. And the fact that now we are digesting this story online, for the first time, has only made these conclusions harsher and less supported by facts. The internet is a place for knee-jerk outrage, where social justice can quickly become vigilante justice for those who can comfortably hide behind Twitter avatars. It’s a place where everyone thinks they know best, even when they don’t know what happened at all.