The Woody Allen Problem Is Our Problem

I should have never read E. E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever, but I did.

My doctoral dissertation was a biography of English educator Lou LaBrant so much of my scholarly work while in that program was focused on biography, specifically guided by feminism as a lens because I was a man writing a woman’s life.

During the mid-1990s, I read dozens of biographies, often on writers I loved. One notable reading was Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E.E. Cummings by Richard Kennedy (who had edited one of my favorite collections of poems by cummings).

My doctoral program was a relatively late-in-life awakening for me, intellectually and personally, so this biography was one of my first experiences with coming to grips with trying to separate the artist from their art.

The more I found out about cummings, the less I felt compelled to cling to his poetry; in many ways, the person he was contrasted too significantly from the ideologies his poetry seemed to represent.

Biographies of Kurt Vonnegut, however, while exposing the many warts and flaws in Vonnegut, have never presented such a vast contradiction that I still wrestle with about cummings.

It’s my fault, then, that I found myself in Chapter 12 of Cheever’s really well done biography, titled “‘I think I am falling in love with you.'”

The chapter is about Nancy Thayer, the daughter of cummings who was raised not knowing he was her father. In the summer of 1946, there is a reunion between cummings and Nancy. Followed by cummings painting a portrait of Nancy in 1948—where the story becomes disturbing:

Nancy was almost 30 years old, and with some distress she realized that she was obsessed with, falling in love with, the charming fifty-four-year-old man who was painting her portrait. (p. 157)

E. E. Cummings: A Life

I couldn’t help thinking about this awful real-life scene—when cummings had to tell Nancy he was her father once she confessed her falling in love—filled with negligent parenthood, dysfunctional family dynamics, and the specter of incest while watching the four-part series Allen v. Farrow (HBO).

This mini-series has rekindled a horrible and complex story of power, art/artist, and white male privilege, including giving much greater space to Mia Farrow and Dylan Farrow than had been allowed throughout the first two decades (before Dylan spoke again and openly about her charges starting about 2014).

While the series seeks to present new and more nuanced details and examinations of Allen’s abuse of Dylan and his controversial relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, there has also been the expected re-energizing of those supporting and defending Allen, including a number of high-profile women actresses in Hollywood.

To say that the documentary is damning for Allen is an understatement, but the series also proves that there is much to be concerned about in terms of the American public and the moral character of our country (if such a thing exists).

The Allen/Dylan abuse is related to but not entirely the same as the Allen/Soon-Yi relationship; both have elements of very disturbing behavior by Allen, but they simply are not the same thing, except for the common element of Allen.

That connection, however, is put into a really ugly relief in the series because viewers are allowed to see and hear Allen with the children (including Soon-Yi as a child) and Mia as well as in taped phone calls with Mia. The duplicity and intimidation are aspects of Allen mostly absent in the hero-worshipping portrayals he has managed in pop culture and fashioned through his on-screen personas.

Mia Farrow remains afraid of Allen, and she physically expresses an incredible weight of guilt for having brought Allen into her family. Dylan finds herself shaking uncontrollably even as she sits holding hands with her husband (who seems to be a wonderful and loving person in her life) while discussing the lingering impact of the abuse on her life.

I am not sure how anyone watches this and remains an apologist for Allen. Much of the documentary is difficult to watch without crying, without taking breaks.

We are left with uncertainty about this detail or that; we also likely recognize that very few adults in this mess are completely sinners or completely saints. Like the awkward and disturbing moment for cummings and Nancy, this is a story of dysfunction as it intersects celebrity and power.

The series briefly walks viewers through the recent list of men appropriately snared in the #MeToo movement—Weinstein, Cosby, etc. But the light now again shining brightly on Allen must make us pause at how many more men live with almost no consequences while abusing and assaulting women.

Allen’s “woman scorned” and “parental alienation” defense is directly identified in the series as a successful strategy now used in divorces by men who gain custody of their children and then often abuse again.

And here is the real issue for anyone still unsure about the specifics of the Allen v. Farrow controversy and its impact on Dylan: The undeniable fact of all this is that women and children remain ignored in the U.S.

False sexual harassment and sexual assault claims are incredibly rare; the problem is that most sexual assault is never reported (see here); note that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Allen was not charged. Dylan and Mia Farrow represent the silencing and ignoring of women’s and children’s voices especially against the power of men’s voices.

Lorraine Ali offers a chilling point at the end of her recent piece about the criticism she has received for reviewing the series positively: “Perhaps these Allen diehards are upset because ‘Allen v. Farrow’ finally exposes the other side of the story, and they’re used to a world where women were simply told to shut up.”

We remain too often offended that a woman or child has the audacity to confront the audacity of men.