Unless you’ve lived off the grid of American culture for the last 50 years, you know that Woody Allen is a renowned screenwriter, director, actor, comedian, author, and playwright, who’s written, directed, or acted in more than 60 movies, received 24 Academy Award nominations, and introduced the world to a certain kind of antihero: the insecure, morose, whiny, thin-skinned, not particularly handsome, but strangely winning neurotic. His movies have never been popular blockbusters in the manner of, say, Harry Potter, Titanic, Star Wars, or Spider Man, but he’s become something between a tradition and an institution among a certain urbanized swath of filmgoers, who—given the uneven quality of his work—have become used to being periodically disappointed that this or that film hasn’t reflected his reputation as a master filmmaker and an authoritative voice for his—and their—era.

Of course, even his most devoted admirers have sometimes admitted they’ve found his predilection for women many decades younger than himself—teenagers, when he was in his 50s!—a little creepy. And people were even more ruffled when he courted (or “seduced”) and married the adopted 20-year-old daughter of Mia Farrow, his long-time partner. Then in 1993, during the long, ugly custody fight between Allen and Farrow over their three children (two adopted, one biological), allegations were made that Allen had sexually abused their adopted seven-year-old daughter, Dylan, the previous year. The judge found the allegations “inconclusive,” but denied custody and even visitation rights to Allen.

There things sat, or stewed, bubbling away not entirely underground until January of this year, when Allen won a Golden Globes Lifetime Achievement Award. Some of the old accusations burbled up again—should an accused child molester get such an award?—but the story seemed destined to simmer back down: that is, until Dylan Farrow went public, writing an open letter in the New York Times blog of Nicholas Kristof (long a champion of sexually abused women and children) describing in excruciating detail what she remembers happening as a seven-year-old girl. If true, it’s a deeply disturbing and damning story.

True or not, however, as the long-burning embers over what did or didn’t happen between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow erupted into a renewed firestorm, many people had little difficulty deciding whom they believed—Allen or Farrow—despite the swirls of conflicting assertions and documented testimonies. Did Allen lure his daughter more than 20 years ago into an attic and sexually molest her (while engaging in what sounds like inappropriately sexualized behavior with her at other times)? Or has Farrow been victimized for years by a vengeful mother, who’s convinced her that a fictitious episode really took place? Or is the truth in some genuinely ambiguous actions that took place in the web of conflicting drives and desire between father and daughter that Freud described?

Per their professional ethics codes, no therapist without access to Allen or Farrow or their pertinent official records and therapy notes can publicly offer any firm conclusions about either person’s culpability or innocence. But therapists can offer an important perspective on the roiling emotions that solidify into the kind of rock-hard certainty that eventually becomes its own truth.

Psychologist Joyanna Silberg, author of The Child Survivor: Healing Developmental Trauma and Dissociation, is a fierce advocate for abused children and for mothers accused by their husbands of encouraging their children to fabricate stories of abuse. “Ninety-eight percent of children’s stories of being sexually abused turn out to be accurately founded,” she says. “It would be hard for me to imagine that any child clinician would believe that Dylan Farrow is fabricating, but adult clinicians who’ve talked with people like Allen might tend to back him up.”

Silberg views the Allen–Farrow controversy through the lens of a seriously flawed legal system. She’s particularly concerned about cases in which one parent has superior financial resources and a narcissism that hoodwinks or steamrollers judges, custody evaluators, and therapists, turning what should ideally be an objective decision-making process into a hall of distorting mirrors. The assessment and evaluation system for determining abuse and custody, Silberg insists, is often informed by naive therapists and expert witnesses. Currently engaged in a review of custody decisions involving allegations of abuse, Silberg has already found 57 turnarounds—instances in which judges have eventually reversed the original custody determinations that had exonerated fathers of sexual-abuse allegations. Many such fathers, she says, had denied abusing their children and had later been caught abusing them again. Such fathers often use what psychologist Jennifer Freyd calls the DARVO defense (Deny, Attack, and Reverse the Victim and Offender roles), which many people have accused Allen of using. But mistakes can go in both directions, exonerating abusers or tarring innocent parents. After all, there are still cases in which children make false accusations.

Even if there is abuse, many therapists believe that what matters most is what happens subsequently within the family (assuming the parent doesn’t resume sexually abusing the child). “We have to ask ourselves what protecting the child really means,” says child therapist Lynn McIntyre, who’s done evaluations for Illinois’s Department of Children and Family Services. She’s seen children who want to remain in contact with their fathers, but the mother and court (and occasionally the children’s therapists) block visitation, even under supervision. Years later, she notes, such children may suffer from depression, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, and academic and social failures. While some might contend that those outcomes result from the abuse, it’s likelier, McIntyre says, that they result from an enforced separation from the father that was contrary to the child’s wishes.

“Dylan Farrow needs to be telling and developing her story in a way that helps her heal,” says trauma expert Mary Jo Barrett, director of the Center for Contextual Change and coauthor of Treating Complex Trauma: A Relational Blueprint for Collaboration and Change. Barrett believes that Farrow, Allen, and everyone who’s busy choosing sides should think in terms of what Barrett calls the “third reality,” which means accepting that the differences about what really happened between Allen and Farrow are unlikely to ever be resolved. “Dylan’s got her reality, Woody’s got his, and the future is the third reality,” she says. It seems safe to say that at this stage, neither of them will budge from their version of what did or didn’t happen. Optimum healing may come only if Allen and Farrow let go of expectations of changing each other’s accounts of what took place between them or getting the world to come to a final conclusion of guilt or innocence.

According to Barrett, Farrow’s breaking of her silence can either be empowering or something that can actually get in the way of her moving on in her life. “If I were her therapist, I’d be both encouraging her to tell her story and also helping her examine her intent in how she tells it,” Barrett says. If the goal of her story is revenge, says Barrett, then as her therapist, she’d hope to stop Farrow, since any damage she does to Allen is likely to be minor and short-lived and probably won’t lead to any long-term healing. If her goal is to coerce Allen into confessing, that’s also likely a futile exercise. But if her goal is to tell her story in a way that doesn’t depend on what happens to Allen or what the world believes about him, everyone might finally be freed from this decades-long battle.
Meanwhile, as members of the public, we may find ourselves inescapably drawn into this miserable family drama as involuntary voyeurs, while being virtually compelled to come down on one side or the other for a host of reasons—our personal histories, loyalties, ideologies, the omnipresence of the story that forces us to think about it—but not because we have any idea what “really” happened. In fact, the truth will likely never be known except by the direct participants, and perhaps not even by them.

If we’re admirers of Allen, it’s hard to square his prodigious accomplishments with the image of him as a child molester, even as we realize that marvelously talented people can also be monsters. Of course, admirers may find this idea—Allen as child abuser—hard to swallow, just because they’ve become attached to the Woody character on screen as a reasonably faithful projection of his genuine self. Also, over the decades, Allen has come to occupy a position in our culture as an artist who seems to have revealed us to ourselves in so many ways, making us aware of how foolish we are, how flawed, and yet, how basically decent, even as we recognize our childish antics as indeed ridiculous.

But there’s nothing remotely decent about these accusations from a young woman about what happened to her when she was a vulnerable child. What Dylan Farrow has said, true or not, makes us wonder if we’ve been had, if we should feel ashamed for admiring Allen’s work so much and, implicitly, the person behind the work. So many of us feel caught between obscurely wanting to stand up for our old friend, Woody, while wondering at the same time if we should dump the perp, swear never to see another of his movies, and demand that he be stripped of all his awards. Are we enabling him if we don’t drop him? Or are we punishing an innocent man if we do? And around and around and around it goes, with no exit in sight—only a murky sense of sadness and anger and disgust, aimed at what or whom we aren’t exactly sure.

Garry Cooper

Garry Cooper, LCSW, is a therapist in Oak Park, Illinois.

Mary Sykes Wylie

Mary Sykes Wylie, PhD, is a former senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker.