What we learned from Allen v. Farrow episode 3: 'What matters is what's believed'
After two episodes establishing the backdrop and context for Dylan Farrow's sexual abuse allegation against Woody Allen (which the filmmaker has consistently denied), part 3 of HBO's Allen v. Farrow dives deep into the fallout from the accusation, while also scrutinizing the allegation itself. It's a lot to take in, but the crux of the argument here is that Allen and his powerful team of lawyers and publicists were allowed to control the narrative, suppressing and drowning out voices that spoke to Dylan's credibility.
Allen first spoke publicly about the abuse allegation at a news conference at the Plaza Hotel in New York on Aug. 18, 1992, accusing Mia Farrow of using the children "for vindictive and self-serving purposes" and declaring his love for Soon-Yi Previn. Farrow family friend Priscilla Gilman claims that declaration was Allen's first major step toward dominating the conversation around the allegation: "There's a calculated reason why love enters the picture. He's trying to distract. This is a woman scorned, this is an unhinged woman — that's Woody's narrative."
Mia Farrow's son Fletcher Previn claims that Allen also hired private investigators to find dirt on Mia and the rest of the family; Mia and Gilman recall being followed at that time. Meanwhile, as Mia Farrow continuously declined interviews, Allen went on a PR blitz, speaking with the likes of Time, Newsweek, and 60 Minutes, and pushing the narrative of Mia Farrow using the abuse allegation as revenge for Allen's affair with Soon-Yi.
"The way he spun it was just perfect," says Rosanna Scotto, an anchor for Fox 5 New York who was a general assignment reporter at the time. "Don't forget, Woody Allen at that time had some really high-powered people in his court… He had a very powerful PR machine behind him. They were doing a great job painting Mia Farrow as a scorned woman who would say anything."
In the midst of this, authorities began to look into the sexual abuse allegation. After Dylan's initial accusation, Mia Farrow took her to a pediatrician, who reported the allegation to the police. The New York City Child Welfare Administration and the state of Connecticut both opened investigations, and Dylan was interviewed by a team from the Yale-New Haven Hospital's Child Sexual Abuse Clinic. The adult Dylan recalls an "intense" and "grueling" process — she was interviewed nine times over a three-month period — that eventually wore her down.
"The more I was asked the same question over and over, the more I started to wonder, 'What do they want from me?'" Dylan says. "And feeling like the more I said the same thing, that it was the wrong answer… If I change a word here, they say I'm being inconsistent. If I use exactly the same words that I used every other time, I was coached."
Ultimately, the Yale-New Haven team's report concluded that Dylan was not abused by Allen, but other experts state that the clinic's methods were seriously flawed — for one thing, all notes from the examination were destroyed — and point out that the core of young Dylan's account remained the same throughout the process. (Dr. John Leventhal, who headed the Yale-New Haven evaluation, declined to be interviewed for the doc.) The filmmakers also had several experts view Mia Farrow's videotapes of Dylan from the time (glimpsed in last week's episode), all of whom say they believe Dylan was telling the truth.
"Mia Farrow was actually pretty careful in her questions," says psychologist Anna Salter. "There were no overt suggestions, like, 'He molested you, didn't he?'… It's not just what the interviewer says, it's whether the child is suggestible or not that matters. And Dylan says, 'No.' She's very consistent in her story."
Paul Williams, the caseworker for the New York investigation, also found Dylan "to be quite credible," according to former CWA supervisor Sheryl Harden, but Williams' attorney Bruce Baron alleges that "there was clearly a strong political climate" to shut down the investigation. (Documents shown on screen also indicate that Williams' superiors told him it was typical for the CWA to "do nothing" in high-profile cases, letting "the 'bigwigs' take over" instead, and instructed him not to speak or write to anyone about the case, including Connecticut authorities.) Williams also corresponded with Jennifer Sawyer, one of the social workers who interviewed Dylan for the Yale clinic, who told him "she not only considered Dylan credible, but believed that she had more to disclose," according to Williams' notes. (Sawyer did not respond to the filmmakers' requests to be interviewed.)
Meanwhile, a week after he learned of Dylan's allegation, Allen sued Mia Farrow for custody of Dylan, Moses, and Satchel — a strategy, experts in the documentary say, that alleged abusers often use to distract from the allegations against them. In the trial, Allen and his lawyers sought to cast Farrow as an unfit mother, continuing to claim that she manipulated Dylan into accusing Allen of abuse.
As former New York Times culture reporter William Grimes recalls, "The Woody who appeared at the trial was a frightened, defensive creature who was out of his element. There was no sense from him that the motivation for wanting sole custody was his deep love for these children, his concern for their welfare. I think you did get a sense of his anger with Mia Farrow."
Ultimately, the judge in the custody trial ruled against Allen, writing in his decision that "Allen's behavior toward Dylan was grossly inappropriate and… measures must be taken to protect her." He also criticized the Yale-New Haven report, stating that the destruction of the notes (as well as the team's refusal to testify during the trial) "resulted in a report which was sanitized and, therefore, less credible." Allen appealed the decision, which was upheld by an appellate court, while the New York Court of Appeals declined to hear the case.
What happened next? The closing minutes of the episode note that Connecticut's investigation was still continuing as the custody trial concluded, but Allen was ultimately never charged with a crime. And his filmmaking career continued, more or less unaffected, for the next two decades. It's perhaps best summed up by something Mia Farrow says Allen told her: "It doesn't matter what's true. What matters is what's believed."