No more: All sexual assault is intolerable

On February 1, 2014, Dylan Farrow published an open letter in the New York Times describing how Woody Allen, her adoptive father, had sexually abused her.

A week later on Facebook, I shared a Vanity Fair article that deconstructed, point-by-point, claims made by Allen’s defenders in response to Farrow’s letter. To my surprise, several friends of mine who’d never met argued heatedly over Farrow’s allegations.

At the time, Farrow was pilloried in the press and by people I know. Most believed, if anything, Farrow was a victim of her mother, Mia Farrow, and her longstanding anger at her former partner, Allen.

Reasons to question Woody Allen’s credibility were no more hidden than Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter.’

When she was 20 and he was 55, Allen convinced his stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn, to pose nude in photos he took for his personal pleasure. That they later married and had two children does not make their initial interactions any less predatory on his part.

And Allen’s movies, particularly Manhattan, are crystal-clear windows into his attitudes about women. In his films, mature women are too demanding, too brittle. But young women don’t question older men and often see them as mentors, including in bed.

Ah, the everlasting myth, held and promulgated by men, that young women want to be sexually mentored by older men, no strings attached. (Excuse me while I take some Zofran.)

My story

When I was 16, my father arranged for his friend John (not his real name) to watch me bathe.

John lived two hours away and often visited for days at a time. Months earlier, he had listened in the next room when a boyfriend broke up with me because I hadn’t had sex with him. After the boy left, John, a trained counselor, comforted me.

As one of those adults who didn’t condescend to children, I trusted him.

On an August afternoon, I returned home from Michigan Beach, covered in tanning oil and sand. Sitting at the table next to the bathroom door, my father and John were stoned. They cheerfully blocked my way.

I remember their words, both flattering — there’s nothing more beautiful than a 16-year-old bathing — and shaming. Nothing could be more natural, they claimed when I resisted, than what they were suggesting, especially since John would be naked, too.

None of their words considered my humanity or agency.

For decades, I told myself it was nothing. I had a college friend who was raped by her father for years. Multiple friends have recounted awakening in the middle of the night to find their brothers freely groping them. I’ve known women who’ve passed out at parties and been raped. One woke up with her skin graffitied in permanent marker by her proud rapists.

When I was 19, a boyfriend told me he believed my father had sexually abused me. I vehemently denied it. He didn’t know about that summer afternoon and I found his accusations an unfair judgment of my father’s hippie lifestyle.

Later still, I studied feminist theory at OSU. In those classes, I learned about the male gaze, the objectification of women, the commodification of women’s bodies, the infantilizing of women as reflected in laws across the globe, including in the United States.

But knowledge of institutionalized misogyny did not undo what I had internalized: shame and guilt for that one day and an abiding distrust of most straight men. With the exception of a few close friends, I told no one.

In 2007, my grandma died and my eldest child turned 13. While the death of my father’s mother ripped the prosthetic closure off a festering wound (we were close and only then did I realize I never wanted her to know), I also considered my adolescent son.

What would I do if a friend of mine asked to watch him bathe?

After initial disbelief, I’d call the police. I’d call children’s services. I’d struggle not to commit crimes of violence.

I found a therapist and worked to unpack that day and all it has meant and done to me. And I wrote about it, but never anything I intended to publish. While lighter than before, those events were still mine to carry quietly.

Taking on Weinstein

The common thread of all sexual abuse is power imbalance. And the more powerful the abuser, the more freedom he has to continue abusing, even when it’s a wide-open secret.

Ronan Farrow knows this as well as anyone. He stood by his sister Dylan and claims Allen not only assaulted her and Soon-Yi, but several of his sisters. Ronan Farrow is a privileged white man, but it took more than his power as such to pursue the story on Harvey Weinstein. It took tenacity.

As a reporter at MSNBC and NBC, Farrow was told to drop his investigation of Weinstein. By then, several women had told Farrow of their encounters with the producer, reliving events he described as “their worst moments of a lifetime.” Farrow refused to stop and was released from his television jobs.

Fortunately, the New Yorker picked him up and his stories on Weinstein were printed. Those pieces, along with others published weeks earlier by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey at the New York Times, electrified the #MeToo campaign. Women posted this small phrase on social media to open the world’s eyes to the pervasiveness of sexual assault.

The beauty of those two words smashed together with a hashtag is nobody who shares them has to go through what Dylan Farrow and so many other victims have (and still do): The shaming of the victim.

According to Rachel Denhollander, one of gymnast-doctor Larry Nassar’s victims, “pedophiles are reported at least seven times on average before adults take the reports of abuse seriously and act on them.”

Now, I pray, we have turned a corner.

Mia Farrow, left, becomes emotional as she listens to announcement for her son, Ronan Farrow, right, 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for public service, during an awards luncheon ceremony at Columbia University, Wednesday May 30, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

In January, Dylan Farrow’s brother, Ronan, along with Kantor and Twohey, won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigative reporting on Harvey Weinstein and other powerful predators.

In April, after decades of drugging and raping women with impunity, Bill Cosby was convicted. Two weeks ago, Harvey Weinstein was arrested, his passport revoked and a GPS snapped on his ankle while he awaits trial for two counts of rape and one count of a criminal sexual act.

While I’ll never know, I don’t think my father was done pimping me out. I didn’t wait to find out. I moved back to my mother’s house in Ohio for my senior year.

For me and many others like me, the power of #MeToo is the recognition of all sexual abuse as harmful and intolerable. Abusers of all varieties — sexual, physical and emotional — rationalize gradations of abuse in order to keep the door open for further assault. This must stop.

Thank you Jodi Kantor, Meghan Twohey, Ronan Farrow and all the brave women who shared your stories with these reporters. May your truth-to-power efforts stop society’s willfully blind eye to sexual assault, thereby saving many would-be victims from the violence of predatory men.

And Dylan Farrow, I always believed you.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on June 3, 2018.


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s