As everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock already knows, Dylan Farrow recently published a letter in the New York Times describing her alleged sexual assault over 20 years ago at the hands of her adoptive father, Woody Allen. Immediately the world divided into two main camps - those who believe Dylan and those who think that she is suffering from a memory implanted by her mother, Mia Farrow.
I have nothing to contribute to the facts of the case as I know none of the people involved and don’t have access to any information that is not already public knowledge. Those wanting to familiarize themselves with the facts should read what is available for themselves. What I do have, I think, is an interesting background and perspective on the case.
Twenty years ago I was a high school student in Richmond, VA. The “Internet” was something that almost no one knew about, and even fewer had ever used beyond connecting to one of the “portal” sites like AOL or Prodigy that offered a severely dumbed-down, barely functional platform for accessing what would later become the most powerful research tool the world has ever known.
I was one of those lucky few, thanks to my friend Tim who gave me the credentials to his Virginia Commonwealth University dialup account. This account provided the same access most people take for granted today, albeit at a very slow speed (I think I was still using a 2400 baud modem, which is less than 1/20th the speed of modern dialup and about 1/5000th the speed of the connection I’m using now.)
Most of what we now think of as “The Internet” - that is, the millions of HTML pages that form the World Wide Web - did not yet exist. There were web pages but they were mostly sad, silly little things that were powered by potatoes (OK just one was powered by a potato: http://totl.net/Spud/).
The real action was on Usenet, a decentralized system for discussion of news from around the world. Like just about everyone, I originally used Usenet for downloading porn, but eventually I discovered that you could read actual news on Usenet, and that there was some pretty interesting stuff. It was the beginning of news aggregation and comment threads - you could go into a newsgroup and find posts on a given subject discussing news from almost anywhere.
One topic area that was hot at the time was something called Satanic Ritual Abuse. This was a specific form of child abuse that was allegedly occurring in pockets of depravity all over the country. What was interesting, though, was that evidence was mounting that the abuse wasn’t actually occurring. It was a psychosocial phenomenon - people would become convinced that some preschool teacher or neighborhood weirdo was a crazed Satanist, and experts would be called in to interrogate children until one poor kid coughed up a story - the more implausible and insane the better. Then the other children would be presented with the “facts” gleaned from the first child’s story until everyone agreed that the accused had committed hundreds of shocking acts of child sex abuse.
Something about this phenomenon fascinated me, and I became an activist of sorts, lecturing people endlessly about how our standards of investigation of child abuse had to change, and how people were being railroaded and destroyed by accusations that were not the least bit credible when looked at objectively and dispassionately.
I devoured anything I could find on the subject, and after HBO aired “Indictment,” its excellent dramatization of the McMartin preschool trial, there was a lot to devour. I talked the ear off anyone who would listen, but I found that many people were extremely hostile to the idea that these accusations were witch hunts. It wasn’t so much that people didn’t believe what I was saying as that they were angry that I would say it. People asked - frequently - why it was so important to me to undermine the accusations of children who said they were molested. I was sometimes asked pointedly why I didn’t just believe the children - a difficult, albeit purely emotional, challenge to meet.
The most difficult objection that I heard to my efforts to raise awareness about SRA witch hunts was that by spreading these stories of false child abuse accusations, I would undermine the credibility of accusers generally, leading to real child abusers getting away with their crimes. That contention struck me as not only beside the point (the truth is the truth, no matter what its implications) but preposterous - what I’d seen from these cases was that our society’s eagerness to believe absolutely ANY accusation of molestation, no matter how outrageous or obviously impossible, meant that there would certainly never be a time when an accused molester would gain an unfair benefit from public understanding of false memories and phony accusations.
Fast-forward twenty years and imagine my surprise when, upon Dylan Farrow’s renewal of her 20 year-old claims of garden-variety sexual molestation by her adoptive father, suddenly everyone on the Internet was an expert in the science of false memory. Endless lectures poured forth in blog comment threads, on Facebook, and yes, on Usenet. “Don’t you realize,” these people told us, “how easy it is to implant false memories of abuse? Don’t you know these chlid molestation cases are so often witch hunts? People get falsely accused of molesting children ALL THE TIME.” And then, the bitter irony as all the SRA cases that everyone had once tried with all their might not to accept were witch hunts - McMartin, Kern County, Cleveland, Nottingham, and on and on - now used as evidence that Dylan Farrow must be working from a false memory implanted by Mia Farrow, her witch of a mother.
Far be it from me to say that people aren’t entitled to their own opinion about these things. Farther still from me to say that people shouldn’t hold a certain view because of its implications. But if we disbelieve Dylan Farrow because of Satanic Ritual Abuse and repressed memory hoaxes, the fact is we must disbelieve almost ALL claims of sexual molestation. That’s because Dylan Farrow’s account of her experiences with Woody Allen bear absolutely no resemblance to classic SRA or repressed memory cases. Though I am not an expert in memory or in child sexual abuse, I have been studying these cases as an amateur for 20 years, and they have a few things in common.
The Kern County case is instructive - not least because it involves, like the Woody Allen case, a period of over two decades. In Kern County, California in the early 1980’s, thirty-six people were convicted of participating in a child molestation ring involving over 60 children. Most of those convicted in these cases were exonerated by the appeals process, but one who was not was John Stoll, a carpenter who wound up spending 20 years behind bars.
Stoll was only released in 2004, when four of the six alleged victims who had testified at his trial in 1984 returned to the witness stand to confess that they had lied under pressure from adults, and that the abuse they had reported had never occurred.
The other two accusers - one of whom is Stoll’s son - have not recanted, but they make a claim common to many accusers who maintain that their now-debunked accusations are true. They claim that they do not remember details of the abuse. These are the two common types of false accusations in these cases - those who later admit they were lying under pressure, and those who cannot remember the abuse itself.
So isn’t this evidence that, indeed, Dylan Farrow may be in the same situation, of having been convinced by an adult (her mother) that her father molested her, even though it never happened? On the contrary. While we know that moral panic can often produce accusations of child abuse where none occurred, it is perverse to argue that because of Kern County we should not believe individual children who accuse individual adults of molestation. There is no connection between an SRA witch hunt and the Woody Allen case.
Of course when it comes to the human mind anything is possible. But if Dylan Farrow is suffering from a confabulation - a false memory - it is an extremely nonstandard confabulation because it involves specific details of a traumatic event that has remained stable over a long period of time.
People do lie, and Dylan Farrow could be lying. The Leadership Council, an independent British group that promotes the application of reliable science to human welfare, estimates that a very small percentage, perhaps 1-2%, of child sexual abuse allegations are false (http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/res/csa-acc.html).
Dylan Farrow could be part of that small percentage - we unfortunately have no way of knowing, and this case will probably never be resolved. But the popular, comforting view - that what Dylan Farrow reports having experienced could be a false memory, and that in fact this is all a big misunderstanding that can be laid at the doorstep of our favorite villain, the crazy, jilted mother - is very weak sauce. Chances are, someone in this case, either the accuser or the accused, is lying. People can and will make their own judgments about which one it is. But we should abandon the comforting illusion that this is a case of a witch hunt or a false memory. It’s not.