The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof has posted a letter from Dylan Farrow, the daughter of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, in which Dylan says her father repeatedly sexually abused her:
What's your favorite Woody Allen movie? Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother's electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me. He talked to me while he did it, whispering that I was a good girl, that this was our secret, promising that we'd go to Paris and I'd be a star in his movies. I remember staring at that toy train, focusing on it as it traveled in its circle around the attic. To this day, I find it difficult to look at toy trains….
Dylan Farrow (also known as Malone Farrow) has circulated the letter because Allen is the recipient of a Golden Globe Lifetime Achievement Award and is nominated for an Oscar.
In an introductory note, Kristof writes that Allen "was never prosecuted in this case and has consistently denied wrongdoing; he deserves the presumption of innocence" but also that "because countless people on all sides have written passionately about these events, but we haven't fully heard from the young woman who was at the heart of them."
Farrow's letter concludes:
Imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter.
Are you imagining that? Now, what's your favorite Woody Allen movie?
The issue has many similarities with the controversy surrounding Roman Polanski, who in 1978 pled guilty to a charge of unlawful sex with a minor and then fled the United States before the sentencing phase. In 2009, when Polanski was arrested in Switzerland and put under house arrest, many critical admirers and Hollywood associates of the director came to his defense, saying that he should not be imprisoned despite his admission of guilt.
Allen, of course, has never been prosecuted, let alone convicted, of any sex crime. As Farrow writes in her open letter:
After a custody hearing denied my father visitation rights, my mother declined to pursue criminal charges, despite findings of probable cause by the State of Connecticut – due to, in the words of the prosecutor, the fragility of the "child victim."
In a recent story at The Daily Beast, Robert B. Weide, who directed a documentary about Allen, throws significant shadows on the claims made by the Farrows (Dylan, brother Ronan, and mother Mia) over the years while hardly exonerating Allen. "Did this event actually occur?," asks Weide, "If we're inclined to give it a second thought, we can each believe what we want, but none of us know. Why does the adult Malone (Dylan) say it happened? Because she obviously believes it did, so good for her for speaking out about it." By his own admission, Weide doesn't say he can definitively say what did or didn't happen, but he makes a strong case that the accusations, while doubtless believed by Dylan Farrow, are not true.
With the understanding that clarity doesn't abound in the case, I'm curious as to how readers feel about evaluating creative work in light of not simply scandalous but criminal biography. In the case of Polanski, I've generally stopped seeing his films, a decision made easy by the fact that most of his movies are simply terrible. With some few notable exceptions, his output is tilted decidedly more toward execrable junk like Pirates, Frantic, Fearless Vampire Killers, and The Ninth Gate than it is toward Chinatown. Similarly for Allen, who ceased to produce consistently interesting movies decades ago (IMO at least).
But is there a general principle that should be applied? If artists are not simply awful human beings but criminals, should we turn away from their work? Arthur Koestler was a rapist, according to one of his biographers. Does that mean his great anti-totalitarian novel, Darkness at Noon, should go unread? Edmund Wilson was a wife-beater, Picasso well beyond a sociopath, and on and on. When it comes to figures such as Martin Heidegger (an actual Nazi) and Paul de Man (a Nazi collaborator) and others in the past, the question is simpler: We can add new disclosures or information to a study of their influence and an estimation of whether their reputations are deserved. When faced with living, breathing creators such as Allen and Polanski, that sort of dodge isn't really available. Add to that the notion that even the most devoted critic of either would have to really be nuts to claim that The Curse of the Jade Scorpion or another version of Oliver Twist would justify a parking ticket much less sexual abuse of children.
What do you think readers? When—if ever—does the biography of a creator mean that you cannot or should not in good conscience patronize an artist?