Carol Tavris has written a lucid response to the issue of child abuse in Woody Allen & Family. I didn’t make an opinion when this issue first came up. I simply didn’t feel I could know without more investigation; there were good reasons for either or both parties to have the issues wrong, or right…how to know?
The social worker side of me that used to work in a shelter for battered women wanted to opine that victims are too often rejected and told they exaggerated. But occasionally, victims also have reasons to be dishonest or I should say they misattribute or have human memory. Which is to say the brain is a metal sieve that keeps patching and reinforcing, not even caring if it gets it right, but only if it pleases. Like many of these cases both parties are neurotic as hell, ladened with emotional intensity, and it would be difficult to know what’s going on in the best analysis.
I have no idea what happened that day so long ago, and neither do you. But science and skepticism can, perhaps, help us ask the right questions and avoid emotional reasoning. For example, it’s one thing to be sympathetic to Dylan’s account, but quite another to base one’s support mindlessly on the criterion of “believe all claims of abuse.”…
I was also dismayed to read claims by many of Dylan Farrow’s supporters that have long been scientifically disproved:
- Children never lie about sexual abuse.
- If a memory is vivid, detailed, and emotionally laden, that is evidence that it is accurate.
- In the case of Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow, one must be “lying.” As Aaron Bady posted in The New Inquiry, “If one of them has to be lying for the other to be telling the truth, then presuming the innocence of one produces a presumption of the other’s guilt. And Woody Allen cannot be presumed to be innocent of molesting a child unless she is presumed to be lying to us.”
Here is the takeaway, you don’t have to be lying.
In her TEDGlobal talk in 2013, the eminent memory scientist Elizabeth Loftus said that memory was less like a recording device and “more like a Wikipedia page—you can go in there and change it, but so can other people.” She and other researchers have implanted false memories even of bizarre events—such as, she says, “being attacked by a vicious animal, nearly drowning and being rescued by a lifeguard, or witnessing demonic possession.” False memories can be implanted with suggestions, misinformation, hypnosis, and even doctored photographs. She calls these “rich false memories,” because people truly believe they are accurate. They “recall” them with confidence, adding details as they go and feeling deep emotion, as I felt about my memory of my father reading The Wonderful O. Rich false memories can persist for years. That’s why Dylan Farrow doesn’t have to be “lying” when she reported her version of events. But without independent corroboration, we don’t know.
This mismemory is a huge isssue. How many people have refined their memories to reflect what they want without their knowing it? As Dennett famously says, every time you remember something you are creating another version. Be aware that that version is edited.
What this means for free will is a salient point. If I will not remember correctly then how am I responsible? Contextualization, selfawareness. and verification. Knowing that our memories are not representations but interpretations we seem locked in some sort of “all interpretations are misinterpretations” unable to sort truth from not. That’s why we have science and verification by others, as well as contrasting and comparing other similar cases that help clarify. It also means to always be aware that your most cherished opinion could be crap.
This seemingly insane mental memory variance should make us more compassionate towards others in empathy that memory can be wrong, regardless of how intense it is. Religious visions and revelations are often part of this confabulation. I have had many religious friends insist they have heard god speak to them or they have seen an angel. I would rather call them mistaken than crazy–if they are crazy we all are.
The difficult to digest irony is the more you have studied something or think you know a topic the more prone you are to confirmation bias. Yep, the more sure you are the more likely you are to be wrong–your assertion is more dogmatic than conceptualized–you are more willing to negate contrary evidence because you have so, so much supportive evidence that it seems like, mistakenly, a classic “big claims need big evidence” situation. If you are willing to say “I am absolutely sure…” in the face of another’s questioning beware.
That is the reason for the vehemence with which many of Farrow’s supporters are shouting down the opposition. (The title of a research paper captured this phenomenon perfectly: “When in Doubt, Shout.”) Given a choice of whom to believe, they say, we must always side with the accuser in a rape or molestation case; otherwise we are supporting the patriarchal “rape culture.” As Bady writes, “if you are presuming his innocence by presuming her mendacity, you are rape cultured.” Anyone who asks skeptical questions of Dylan Farrow’s story is a pedophile or a sexist who is abetting the abuse of children and women. That kind of self-righteous certainty shuts down thoughtful inquiry. It does not help the cause of feminism or justice.
This kind of psychological profiling can be somewhat correct. More women are raped then men and it’s more likely that the victim is telling the truth. For the same reason we don’t want to support profiling people of color in stop and frisk laws or muslims in airport security, we don’t want to assume that all accusations of sexual violence from women are true. Most cases it’s clear but too often we don’t want people we admire or like to be immoral. Especially if one practices shunning–you won’t believe or follow anything of the person any more–the investment to be correct is so strong as to make the opinion even more biased.
How, then, should we think about Dylan Farrow’s allegations? It’s relevant that they occurred during a bitter custody dispute, when Mia Farrow’s understandable rage at Allen over his affair with Soon Yi was going at full blast. We might ask why Dylan is making her story public now. We might wonder whether she has been influenced by recovered-memory therapists or, as her brother Moses writes, by an angry and vengeful mother. We would want to take into account that this family remains bitterly divided. Most of all, we have to accept the most difficult lesson of critical thinking: tolerating uncertainty.
It is extraordinarily difficult for me to not see Woody as a brilliant but deranged person whose personal neurosis and/or personality disorder has thrived in cinematic exposition and whom could be capable of anything–especially after considering the example of marrying an adopted duaghter. It is equally suspect when a child of a fighting-contesting-divorcing parent comes up with extremely negative evidence of abuse. I would be the idiot to think I can guess who’s right as it’s too easy for me to see any and all of them bullshitting, sincerely.
This situation is so over the top, the take away is not how a powerful man got away with everything but rather everyone is mistaken and they are all sincerely deluded. In most sexual harassment and abuse cases the victims need support and that should continue. It is also true that when women have more power there may be more balance in verified claims of abuse to men but that’s not true yet. Even though Mia Farrow is famous Allen is more so but they are/were more equal in power than the average couple.
I can’t imagine after such a long time that any revision will occur. But I can guarantee that every new memory “retrieval” (writing) of the episode will carry slight confirmation biases that support each other over time. They all will go their death believing their view is correct. What is clear is they all need deep therapy.