"The heart wants what the heart wants" Mr. Allen said, explaining his decision to take up with the daughter of his spouse.
Yes, it does. But why did his heart want this? And why was that the only thing that mattered?
Judging the case of Woody Allen inevitably leads to a single question: who is the monster? Is it the accused, Mr. Allen? Is it the ex-wife who repeats the charges relentlessly, Mia Farrow? Or is it the accuser, Dylan Farrow – then seven years of age, now in her late twenties?
The evidence and arguments are spattered all over the Internet like the debris from a car crash. Picking through it, I see one powerful clue. And like it or not (and most of Allen’s supporters do not like it) that clue is Soon-Yi Previn.
Ms. Previn was the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and composer Andre Previn. She was nine years old when Allen started dating her mother. She was nineteen when she took up with Allen herself. Or at least, when she moved out from her mother’s house and into her mother’s boyfriend’s house. Only she and Mr. Allen know when their intimate relationship began.
The alleged molestation of Dylan occured in the months after the Soon-Yi relationship came to light. Allen had separated from Mia (Soon-Yi went with him). The crime is said to have occured during a visit by Allen to see the children (kids Allen had been father to, one way or another) at Farrow’s home. Dylan reported afterwards a story consistent with molestation. Farrow took the story to the authorities and the whole nightmare unfolded. It continues to unfold, more than two decades later.
Allen and his camp paint it as this: Mia Farrow, enraged at the dual betrayal by both her daughter and her spouse, hatched the story of the molestation, coaching little Dylan into repeating the tale. It was revenge (read Allen’s piece in the New York Times this week as he takes a verbal blow torch to Farrow), pure and simple. Mr. Allen says simply: he didn’t do it. Even if he had wanted to, it would have been crazy to do it during the most pitched moment in the separation from Mia, at Mia’s house, in the attic (“I’m a claustrophobe”).
Accusers point to Soon-Yi, if not as an earlier victim of incestuous pedophilia, then as a near-example of it. Not so, says Allen: he was never her father, never lived with her, never played that role in her life. She was an adult when they became a couple. If he is guilty of anything, he says, it is simply falling in love. “The heart wants what the heart wants.”
Truer words were never spoken. But this pithy aphorism, which speaks to each of us and our own yearnings, fails to explain dimensions of the Allen story which are still troubling – or which ought to be troubling – and which make life uncomfortable for those who would like to believe him.
The first is that while “the heart wants what it wants” that is not, for most of us, a license to just take what we want. However intense Allen’s ardour for Soon-Yi was then, was he blind to the ramifications of acting on that feeling? Could a man this intelligent not perceive that taking-up with Soon-Yi wouldn’t just look like a dual betrayal of Mia Farrow, but in fact would be a dual betrayal of her? Was it nothing to him, that it would tear apart the relationship between mother and daughter, and amongst siblings? We can only assume that this didn’t matter to him.
Okay, so Woody Allen wasn’t the first man, or the last, to leave his wife for another woman. People fall in love and make hard choices all the time. That is not a sin, however much it may hurt everyone involved. But when the all players are entangled by other connections, especially deeply personal ones, these hard choices begin to appear inappropriate.
There is a certain, hard to define yet strong weirdness in crossing over relationship lines. I knew a lovely young woman who was in a relationship with a nice young man. They also worked together. Eventually, they broke up. Some months later, the guy started dating another young woman – in the same office. Why not? Where else can you meet anyone? Yet it is said that woman #2 was wrong to take up with the fellow. This seems harsh, but some people (women, I am told) because those people have a sense that it was out of bounds: the new couple could have resisted the urge, or waited, or kept it secret for the sake of the first woman’s feelings. It sounds like an Edith Wharton novel but, whether wrong or right, in the 21st century many people still harbour the reflexive belief that such conduct is offside. There are boundaries.
And that’s in a workplace. What must such conduct be like inside a home, inside a family? Interestingly, Woody Allen of all people examined this in “Hannah and Her Sisters” where Michael Caine is married to Mia but carrying on a roiling affair with her sister, Barbara Hershey; Diane Wiest starts dating Sam Waterston, only to find out best-friend Carrie Fisher has poached him; Woody, who had been married to Mia, eventually takes up with her sister Diane. Talk about “blurred lines.” Are there any borders which can contain lust in Woody’s universe?
Apparently not. “The heart wants what it wants.” But the question that ought to trouble defenders of Woody is this: why did he want Soon-Yi? How could he want her?
We have read descriptions of the Allen-Farrow familial relationship which describe Allen as a virtual stranger to Soon-Yi when she was growing up. If you believe this (and I would like to believe it) he basically never met the girl until she was suddenly a lovely woman. Maybe. But Woody Allen “dated” Mia Farrow for over a decade. Mia was the mom; Woody was at the very least, the occasional dad or kind-of-uncle to her brood (including little Soon-Yi, who we see in just that role during “Hannah and Her Sisters.”)
I am not a psychologist, but it is my experience that most adults, interacting with a child (particularly in a quasi-parental role), do not later lust after them when they grow up. Your son’s best buddy may grow up to be a handsome dude, ladies, and you may even notice it more than once, but… you’re probably not going to sleep with him. You probably won’t even imagine sleeping with him, no matter how smokin’ hot he is. And that’s because somewhere in your brain there is a limiter switch which gets flipped, re-routing the signals between your aesthetic sensibility and your genital sensibility. Not only do you not do it, you do not feel it. This switch would appear not to be operating inside the brain of at least one esteemed American film-maker.
It is not about the age of people involved, but their personal connection. People often dwell on the age gap issue when finger-wagging at Woody Allen. In his 40s, he had a girlfriend in her teens. He made it a major theme in “Manhattan” too. He was 56 when he took up with 19 year-old Soon-Yi. I won’t pretend this isn’t disquieting, but the truth is that if someone is young and beautiful, it is difficult not to notice they are attractive. Hell, Frank Sinatra was 50 when he married a 21 year-old actress named Mia Farrow (a fact Woody Allen likes to harp on). Nobody hanged an effigy of Jerry Seinfeld for dating teenaged Shoshanna Lonstein, over 20 years his junior. And so on.
So while it may feel odd, it is probably not inherently “wrong” to fall for someone so much younger. But there is definitely something “wrong” with finding someone attractive, to the degree that one might seduce them, after playing a part (even a remote part) in raising them from childhood. Doing that crosses one of those invisible boundaries. And it was this transgression on the part of Woody Allen – choosing the daughter of his spouse, a person he had known from her childhood – that made it so much easier for people to believe that Allen could commit other transgressions.
These are the great dividing lines in the debate about Allen. Sympathizers with Allen will say that being attracted to a much younger person is understandable. Detractors will say that it reflects an immaturity on his part, or a need for control. Allen himself has said, very bluntly, that there is no need for “equality” in a relationship (a statement which ought to shock his progressive-minded fans).
Those sympathetic to Allan will say that men leave their spouses, or long-time lovers, all the time. They break up their homes every day, and not always to ill-effect for the other people involved (an unhappy home is a lousy place to grow up, after all). Critics point to the fact that Mr. Allen’s urges, “normal” or not, led him to explode not only his relationship, but the relationships woven amongst parents and siblings. Mr. Allen might have loved those people enough, not to destroy their world.
He didn’t ruin their world, say Allen’s defenders: Mia did, when she launched the rocket of false sexual abuse claims against Allen as vengeance for leaving her. Nonsense, say the accusers: few women, and certainly not one who had invested so much love and effort building a family of orphans, would destroy her own child’s life and ravage the lives of her other children, because she was mad at a guy for dumping her.
Allen’s fans and defenders say that his falling in love with Soon-Yi Previn does not signal some inner disturbance inclining Allen to sexualize children. His detractors and accusers say the opposite: he met Soon-Yi when she was 9; he was like a father to her. He was a father to Dylan, too, remember?
Allen and his supporters say that he was not Soon-Yi’s father and so there is no “incestuous” tinge to having sex with her, etc. Further, having fallen in love with her, it was fine to become her lover and later her husband. The heart wants what it wants. Others might say that even if his feeling was not tainted with latent pedophilia, acting on them crossed invisible boundaries among family members.
We are not obliged to make a judgment about this matter (although everyone seems frenetically anxious to do so). The truth is known to one person surely – Mr. Allen – and very likely known also to his accuser, Dylan Farrow or to Mia Farrow. I say “very likely” because there is a chance Dylan knows it didn’t happen and has lied to everyone. There is also a chance, we are told, that it did not happen, but the story was planted in Dylan’s brain by her evil and vengeful mother.
So who is the monster?
Did seven year-old Dylan concoct a story of sexual molestation, convince her mother and the police and the prosecutor that it was true, sustain the lie and carry it across the decades into adulthood?
Or did Mia Farrow concoct the story and coach her daughter into repeating it, not just at the time but forever after? And is Farrow so vengeful and low that she would destroy her daughter’s happiness and put her family through a meat-grinder, in order to level a heinous and false accusation against the man who broke up with her? And is she so talented that she fooled the police and prosecutors who wanted to jail Allen, but didn’t think they could convict him?
Or did Woody Allen, having fallen in love with and seduced a teenager he had known (and helped raise from childhood) – breaking the family to pieces in the process – soon afterwards molest another child in the same family?
To judge this case, a reasonable person has to decide, which of those three stories seems the most plausible?
As a lifelong admirer of his work – the wit, characters, romance, wisdom and humanity of his films – it is wrenching to think he did this. In my heart, I feel he cannot be guilty. Turns out, though, that what the heart wants is not always the only thing that matters.