Allen v Farrow: Child Sexual Abuse is the Final Frontier

Joan Meier[1] and Danielle Pollack[2]

The Allen v Farrow docuseries currently on HBO brings into focus the unsettling — but all too prevalent — problem of child sex abuse within families. While the film’s narrative about the Allen/Farrow family is powerful and convincing, it is critical that viewers understand that its story is far from unique.

In his 2018 interview with Elle Ronan Farrow stated: “[My mother’s] absolutely one of the many women who were the subject of an old-fashioned smearing and blacklisting campaign. None of it would hold up to one iota of scrutiny today. ‘She’s nuts, she’s jealous’ is an old and thin deflection tactic in child abuse cases. But she was in the crosshairs of that at a time when a certain echelon of a powerful man in Hollywood with the right team of publicists really held all the cards.” (emphasis added)

These remarks reflect a widely shared belief that awareness of family abuse and gender-fairness have improved in the past several decades. But in fact, the tactics Allen used in the 1990s to ensure that the public believed he was innocent of child abuse are the same ones widely and successfully used by many non-celebrity alleged abusers today.

First, Allen seized the narrative, going aggressively public with a campaign to turn the tables against Mia, while she refused publicity, seeking to keep her children out of the limelight. While the ordinary abuser may not have the same access to media as did Allen, they have friends, family, interested professionals, and courts in which to aggressively market their re-framed narrative. In fact, suing for custody is an ideal means of cementing the denial narrative. Custody battles are seen as “he said, she said,” and “bitter custody battle” is notorious code for “vengeful ex-wife,” thereby providing the ideal cover story for abusive behavior. We have both worked on many cases in which the abuser filed for custody and claimed, as Allen did, that the mother’s claims of abuse were evidence that she was pathologically vengeful and unfit to parent. Courts — and society — are naïve about abusers’ strategies and often sophisticated methods of denial, so this strategy is remarkably effective, as research suggests.

Pathologizing and demeaning the mother who seeks to protect her child(ren) is central to the abuser’s disinformation campaign. For centuries, women reporting sexual abuse have been dismissed as hysterics. As recently as 1970, the American Bar Association and the esteemed Wigmore Evidence treatise urged that any such complainant be subjected to an expert mental examination because females were particularly subject to “delusion” and “distortion of the imagination in sex cases.” Allen’s narrative exploited a Yale Child Study Center evaluation which pathologized both Mia and Dylan, asserting that Mia had “an extremely disturbed relationship” with Dylan, and inferring that she had influenced the child to make these accusations. Yet, as pointed out by Mia’s expert, Dr. Herman, there was no evidence anywhere that either Mia or Dylan was pathological or delusional.

Today, such unfounded but “expert” pathologization of protecting mothers is still remarkably common, by means of the quasi-scientific “diagnosis” of parental alienation, a concept invented by the much-discredited Richard Gardner and referenced in Allen v Farrow. We have each been involved in numerous cases in which the “alienation” label was affixed to mothers who trusted and believed their children’s reports of sexual abuse by the father, earning the protector casual diagnoses such as “paranoid” “depressive disorder,” and “encapsulated delusional disorder.” (The latter refers to the mother — and yes, it is gendered — who is high-functioning in every other aspect of her life, but “delusional” in her belief in her child’s abuse.) Cadres of “alienation experts” regularly provide testimony on behalf of accused abusers asserting that alienation is as bad or worse than even extreme child abuse. Use of the alienation label to pathologize and discredit mothers is so successful that a recent study found that only one court out of 51 was willing to believe a mother/child’s allegation of sexual abuse by a father when the father cross-claimed that the mother was an alienator.

A third key tactic of the denial strategy is discrediting the victim and protective parent by any means necessary. As Dylan explains in Episode 3, her seven-year-old credibility was attacked as “inconsistent” if she changed any words from one interview to the next; it was also attacked as “coached” if she used the same words repeatedly. This “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” tactic is universal in custody cases involving abuse. Some protecting parents are seen as not credible because of their anger and fear, like Mia, but others we know have been rejected for being “too calm” and unemotional. Similarly, children who act out are discredited because they are “out of control;” while those who behave well with their abuser are surmised to be clearly not abused. Finally when children use childish language (7-year old Dylan referred to the mannequins as “dead heads”) they are found incredible; but when they use normal (“adult”) language (e.g., proper names for body parts) they are often deemed coached.

Why is it so easy for sexual abusers to get away with it? It’s not just the centuries of gender-biased stereotypes, though they surely help fuel denial. But more — sexual abuse of children is horrific to think about or imagine. We all seek refuge from knowing about atrocities in psychological denial — any rationale for disbelieving will do. We live in a culture in which men’s voices and claims are taken more seriously than women’s and children’s, and violence against women continues to be downplayed, despite the recent awakening ushered in by the #MeToo movement. It is not altogether surprising, then, that the far more disturbing image of (predominantly) men sexually abusing their own children is a difficult thing to accept. Yet credible research establishes that one in 9 girls and one in 53 boys is sexually victimized by an adult; 34% of these are victimized by family members.

We are deeply grateful to Dylan, her family, and Jane Doe Productions for the important opening the Allen v Farrow documentary has created. May it awaken society to #ChildrenToo.

[1] Professor and Director, National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University Law School. Meier was interviewed for the Allen v Farrow HBO docuseries.

[2] Policy Manager, National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University Law School

Joan Meier is a Professor at George Washington University Law School, where she founded and directs the National Family Violence Law Center.

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