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Here's What You Should Know Before Judging Soon-Yi Previn's #MeToo Comments About Woody Allen

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Renée Fabian, The Mighty’s associate editor, news and lifestyle, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

People are quick to take sides following each new #MeToo accusation. As Woody Allen’s name comes back in conversation, this time, we might need to believe both those who accuse and defend him. On Sunday, Vulture published an exclusive interview with Soon-Yi Previn, Allen’s wife and the center of much controversy, telling her side of the story for the first time.

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Previn, the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and pianist Andre Previn, married Allen when she was 21 years old. They started dating a year prior when Allen was still in a relationship with her mother, Mia. Up until Sunday’s interview, we have only heard one side of the story. Now, Previn alleges that Mia Farrow abused her as a child and the well-publicized abuse accusations against Allen are “unjust.”

Allen was previously accused of abusing his then-7-year-old daughter Dylan Farrow. Journalist (Satchel) Ronan Farrow, who broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal that spear-headed the current #MeToo movement, has stood by his sister’s account, along with their mother Mia. Many actors have denounced their associations with him while others, such as Diane Keaton, have stood by the filmmaker.

In combination with his marriage to Previn when he still was a father figure to her, Allen has become a flashpoint in the #MeToo movement. Here Previn also gives a different account. Allen never officially married Mia, and he had a transient role in the children’s lives when Mia and Allen were dating. “We didn’t think of him as a father,” Previn said. “He didn’t even have clothing at our house, not even a toothbrush.”

Previn said that she and some of her younger siblings, a family that included 14 adopted and biological children, including Previn, were abused by Mia. When she was adopted, Previn didn’t speak English. “She tried to teach me the alphabet with those wooden blocks,” Previn said in the interview. “If I didn’t get them right, sometimes she’d throw them at me or down on the floor.” Previn’s younger brother, Moses Farrow, shared a similar experience with Mia in his own blog post in May.

In response to the Vulture article, both Dylan and Ronan issued statements reasserting Dylan’s abuse allegations against Allen and supporting their mother Mia. They point out that Vulture’s article, written by a long-time friend and fan of Allen’s, Daphne Merkin, presents a biased account of their family history. “The idea of letting a friend of an alleged predator write a one-sided piece attacking the credibility of his victim is disgusting,” Dylan wrote.

We have two directly opposing stories of abuse — on one side Mia, Dylan and Ronan’s accusations against Allen. On the other side, Previn and other siblings like Moses point to Mia as an abusive parent. The resulting response to Previn’s interview has been mixed. Though Merkin drew negative attention for her casual use of the R-word multiple times in addition to using autism as an adjective to describe Allen, writing, “the almost Aspergian aloneness of the man,” it’s the interview’s implications for the #MeToo movement that really have people talking.

Much of the response hinges on how we place Previn’s story in the context of #MeToo, especially given how vehemently the Farrow clan have denied Previn’s narrative. Though she says otherwise, even Previn’s account of her relationship with Allen reads a bit like a classic grooming narrative. Previn came from an abusive situation and “ran” to the first authority figure who showed her compassion.

“I wasn’t the one who went after Woody — where would I get the nerve? He pursued me,” Previn said. “That’s why the relationship has worked: I felt valued. It’s quite flattering for me. He’s usually a meek person, and he took a big leap.” In the grooming process, a predator makes their victim feel special, which serves to isolate and control them if the process proceeds unchecked. “Mia was never kind to me, never civil,” Previn added. “And here was a chance for someone showing me affection and being nice to me, so of course I was thrilled and ran for it.”

I was sexually abused by a high school teacher who followed this very pattern. I wanted affection and to feel understood, and this teacher, who was 25 years my senior, was the first person who provided that. Before I knew what was happening, I was in a “consenting” relationship. I thought this was a choice I was making. It was the best I could do given my circumstances at the time. But after this teacher followed me to college, I ended the relationship and reported him, at which point I was already over the age of 18.

As the case made its way through the system, at each hearing, anything that happened with my teacher after the moment I turned 18 was dismissed from evidence. At that point, I was a consenting adult, as if at 18 we throw on a switch that erases everything that came before. Of course, it’s never that simple. Legal age doesn’t always mean much in the larger context of consent and agency. Yet Previn has been, by her account, happily married to Allen for 20 years now. 

Not everyone’s #MeToo story will be straightforward. Sometimes it takes years for survivors to untangle a manipulative relationship and see it for what it is. Or maybe they never see a relationship as abusive in the first place, as is the case with Previn. There may be competing stories, like Dylan’s accusations against Allen versus Previn’s accusations against Mia. It feels like we have to pick sides or sort Previn’s story neatly into the pre-existing paradigm. But all of these narratives can be true at the same time. We don’t need to choose only one victim’s story as the “right” one. We can make space for all of them, and that’s good news if you too have a complicated story.

It’s much easier to see abuse as black and white — to have a clear perpetrator and victim — so we know exactly where to point our finger. In reality, the narrative is usually more complicated. I would argue it’s part of the reason so many sexual assault cases aren’t taken seriously in the first place. We still can’t wrap our heads around the idea that a woman may go to a party in hopes of finding a consensual hook-up and at the same time NOT be “asking for it.”

Previn’s story asks us to stretch our empathetic capacity beyond a black-and-white ideal. A person can both have agency and not be able to see all the dynamics at play in any decision. Trauma makes this more complicated because it leaves us blind is some really important ways, like unmet emotional or physical needs. We make the best choices we can at the time with the information we have. When we make decisions about our lives, sometimes we realize these are the wrong choices, and we do something different. For others, perhaps for Previn, it ends up being the right choice. 

The power of #MeToo hinges on creating space for survivors to share their stories, to speak their truth in their own words, to break the silence. Sometimes those stories are complicated. Sometimes they are contradictory. And sometimes these opposing truths are all valid at the same time. We can believe both Previn and Dylan, Moses and Ronan. If your story isn’t clear-cut, that doesn’t make your truth any less valid. The #MeToo movement doesn’t ask us to serve as an ad-hoc court of law. It empowers survivors to speak their truth, even when it’s messy.

Header image via David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons.

Originally published: September 18, 2018
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