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Personal is Political: Open Letter to Dylan Farrow – The Feminist Wire

Personal is Political: Open Letter to Dylan Farrow

Dylan Farrow

TRIGGER WARNING: This letter includes descriptions of sexual abuse.

Dear Dylan,

My father worships Woody Allen. Until I read your letter yesterday, I never understood exactly why. You see, when Allen assaulted you in 1992, my own father had just barely escaped criminal charges for molesting me. A child psychologist decided that the evidence of abuse was conclusive, but my father intimidated her with death threats and claimed that she had implanted false memories into my mind. He also hired an expensive attorney, who made sure that he received disability benefits instead of doing jail time. I was too scared to say anything in front of a judge (he asked about the abuse several times, and dismissed my claims when I remained silent), and my mother chose not to press criminal charges because my father had already attempted to kill her, and she feared that he would do so again. So my abuser- like Allen- avoided punishment for the assault. However, the judge ordered that visitation with his children had to be supervised. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Like you, Dylan, I underwent an examination of my hymen, and the memory has haunted me for years. I recall the quick movements of silent doctors and the cold sharpness of the instruments. I remember my confusion, followed by the sudden realization of what was going to happen, and my legs thrashing in a futile attempt to fight off the masked doctor. Hands pinned my shoulders to the table, and a nurse attempted to block my view. Pity filled the room, and yet no one comforted me. Barely four years old, I re-dressed myself while sobbing inconsolably. Even after being violated by my father and penetrated by a large, pointy, and painful speculum, I was deemed “intact.” I find that ironic.

Many child survivors of rape are treated with disrespect, suspicion, and even disgust. And for this reason, I am not surprised that our society collectively celebrates Woody Allen. But your bravery has sparked a national debate, and I would like to discuss the connections between sexual violence against children, cultural idols like Woody Allen, and pedophiles like my father. Please accept my heartfelt gratitude, for your letter reminded me that all survivors gain strength when one of us challenges an abuser and highlights the power of institutions that support them.  I hope that my story is not too triggering for you to read. I sensed that your public letter was purposeful in that it did not expose many details of the assault, and I contest those who say that your words do not provide enough proof of what he did.

Why should you be obligated to reveal every detail (some of your worst memories, to be sure) in order to gain credibility with the public? Why do strangers and bystanders wish to revel in the minutiae, to replay the scenes in their mind, and- still– to toy with the idea that you are a liar, delusional, or untrustworthy? As survivors, everything we describe poses a potential harm to us: a harm that we cannot yet identify, but one that we know exists. Maybe you can’t share your whole story, but I can, and I offer it in solidarity.

***

My dad was a physically repulsive man. All of his teeth had fallen out by his mid-thirties, and alcoholism and a poor diet left his body flabby and stringy, with a distended abdomen. He categorically rejected showers, preferring to wipe himself with wet rags. He never washed his clothes, but rather dampened them in the bathtub and hung them to dry on the towel rod. He was covered in greasy oil, he stank of body odor and stale nicotine, and his nails were ridged and yellow with fungus. He passed most of his time lying down, watching old movies on a tiny screen, thrown hopelessly atop a futon on the floor and tangled permanently in a heap of wool blankets. He drifted in and out of sleep during the day, awaiting nightfall. He phoned his mother often, begging for cigarette and food money. My siblings and I were prohibited by court order to be alone with him, but our mother would drop us off for extended periods—days on end, and sometimes a week at a time.

I became his sexual plaything at a very young age, and he first put his mouth on my genitals when I was only two years old. By the time I was three, he had taught me where to find my clitoris, and he regularly introduced his coarse fingers into my vagina and anus while he flicked me with his tongue. He waited until I was drifting off to sleep, and then he would approach me. Massaging my feet and legs gently, he pried apart my thighs despite my weak attempts to keep them closed. He would stroke my vulva with his thumbs and then tweak my nipples, moistening my vagina with his mouth until I pushed my hips into his face, submitting to the pleasure and anticipating the pain. We both knew I was not asleep when he kneaded my g-spot, holding two or three fingers inside of my tiny body. He loved to point the fingertips upward, ignoring my gasps of pain, and tap my stomach gently with the other hand, just below my bellybutton. He was, in a sick way, giving himself a high-five– presumably delighted to reign over such a vast expanse of his daughter’s body. Seeking greater thrills, he placed his pulsating head inside the lips of my vulva. He pushed gently, restraining himself, until he exploded with excitement.

Desperate for a mental escape, I used to imagine a place where no one could touch me. I envisioned a magical land that resembled the house that carried Dorothy from Kansas into the land of Oz: a tornado raged outside, spinning the home and scattering debris, but Dorothy was inside, alone with Toto, and she was safe.

My mother continued to abandon me at his house. After the custody battle was over, she ignored the blatant signs of abuse– depression, yeast infections, soiled underwear, and overtly sexualized behavior. He would rub his dripping penis in circles on my lower back and in the crack of my butt, slowly masturbating himself to sleep in front of the loud television. I lay silently, six inches from the screen, my eyes open wide in disbelief. After he passed out in a drug-induced stupor, I would peel my sticky, naked body from the futon and seek refuge in the cramped bathroom, wedging my thin four-year-old frame between the iron radiator, the moldy tub, and the fetid, perspiring toilet. I felt safe there, and I still lock myself in the bathroom when flashbacks torment me. In the morning he would approach me: penis hanging out of his open bathrobe, eyes begging both for forgiveness and further titillation. He would slather lotion all over my body, citing dry skin and pleading to know why I trembled, squirmed, and fought desperately to escape his clutches. My resistance enraged him, and he dug his fingers into my small limbs until they bruised.

With sad, guilty eyes, he would beg me to force sugary cereal into my churning stomach. I wanted nothing to do with his food, as I only wanted to die. For decades after, I would remain alone inside of my head, turning to the thought of death as my only source of comfort. When my mother would retrieve me from my father’s house, she offered harsh accusations instead of comfort. She admonished me for the slightest infraction, labeling me “disgusting” and a “liar”. She would insist throughout my youth that there was something wrong with me, and she vocalized that I should just kill myself. I tried, several times.

Having fantasized about running away since age 5 (and once, at age 7, making an unsuccessful attempt to stow away in a UPS truck), I fled from my parents at the age of 14. When I outstayed my welcome with friends and tried to return home, my mom refused to house me. I lived in a house of runaways- most of them alcoholics and drug abusers- and then shuffled between various locations with friends and boyfriends.  I suffered from anorexia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and engaged in a series of emotionally and physically abusive relationships.

Incredibly, somehow, I also graduated high school, did well in the local university, and became a PhD student in a prestigious program. It will be a miracle if I can finish a dissertation with all these memories weighing me down, for I have been terrorized by flashback-nightmares for my whole life. As a teenager, one dream could send me into such a bad depression that I would sleep for more than 24 hours straight. Sometimes I would keep myself awake for days at a time in hopes of preventing the next night terror. In some ways, I have lost most of my youth. I never felt innocent or carefree like my peers, and I failed many classes because I was having flashbacks about a faceless old man penetrating me.

I confronted my father about the abuse when I was 17, and his mother told me that I am no longer part of the family. However, my siblings support me unconditionally, and they have witnessed the degree of pain this has caused me. I’ve suffered panic attacks for my whole life, and although all of these symptoms are decreasing with trauma treatment, sexual intimacy is extremely difficult. Recently I touched my boyfriend’s penis, and I was suddenly catapulted backward in time to re-live yet another memory: At the age of 5, I gradually woke from sleep while my father rubbed himself with my small hand. Fear overcame me, and I elbowed and kicked my partner away, resisting the urge to cry and scream. Needless to say, it was difficult to explain.

***

Until recent decades, psychiatrists viewed father-daughter incest as relatively benign. Furthermore, they claimed that it generally resulted from a girl’s Oedipal instincts rather than her father’s pedophilia. In 1950, when Woody Allen was coming of age, a prominent U.S. psychiatrist wrote the following:

We believe that the actual consummation of the incestuous relation, which constitutes a secondary process derived from a former grave state of melancholy, diminishes the subject’s chance of psychosis and allows better adjustment to the external world (emphasis added).

Leading professionals proposed that incest was mostly harmless, and that it could even be psychologically beneficial to both parties. They also claimed that abused children demonstrated abnormal sexual desire, and usually enjoyed incestuous encounters with adults. While the international community of mental health professionals has certainly altered their views on the dangers of sexual abuse, I am not so sure that this epistemological shift has transferred to our society at large.

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual assault, and more than 90% of juvenile victims know their perpetrator in some way. Sexual abuse is also one of the most under-reported crimes, with an estimated 60% of cases left unreported. Judging by the popular celebration of Woody Allen, these national statistics are of little importance to those who play key roles in promoting popular culture.

I can now comprehend why my father idolized Woody Allen. He embodies a father figure who seeks pleasure in girl’s bodies however he saw fit. The fact that Allen sexually assaulted you, married Soon-Yi, and was allowed to adopt two more girls sends a message of empowerment to pedophiles like my father. My abuser, notably, used to rail incessantly against “angry feminists”. With a half-hearted laugh, he would also proclaim: “I’m just a dirty old man, honey, you gotta understand.” He sent me a letter last year, with a picture of breasts that I had supposedly drawn (as a child). He wrote “Daddy’s wife” and “Horny girl”.

As you know, Dylan, the ongoing celebration of Woody Allen does not just mean that high-profile individuals are turning their cheek, silencing and invalidating you in the process. It also means that pedophiles like my father enjoy tacit permission to rape their daughters, stepdaughters, and even their sons. It is important to recognize male victims: my father’s own dad abused him, and many abusers are survivors themselves, although abused boys are much more likely to become pedophiles than girls. It appears that patriarchy is harmful to men as well as women, and that a lack of emotional support for abused men results in epidemic levels of pedophilia. This, in turn, is encouraged by media portrayal of young girls and women as sex objects, as well as political efforts to subordinate and repress women. Sexualized political repression is long-standing, and many prominent theorists (such as Saidiya Hartman, Bell Hooks, Andrea Smith, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldúa), have demonstrated that the ongoing historical legacies of exploitation, rape, and murder of women have shaped contemporary gender relations. The rampant sexual abuse of black, indigenous, and immigrant women has caused widespread social trauma in this nation, and efforts to challenge these atrocities have been met with the cultural politics of denial. This debate is not just about an intra-familial “cycle of abuse”. Rather, it is about the sexualized, racialized violence at the heart of nation building throughout the United States and much of the world.

With every public celebration of people like Allen, our society takes a step backward. It’s a step away from healing, and towards dark, closet-like attics. I was in one too, Dylan– but like you, I am healing. You inspire me, and I’m writing to thank you for your courage.

________________________________________________________

The writer of this essay prefers to remain anonymous.

 

13 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    February 11, 2014 at 8:35 am

    Kudos to the author for her courage and strength in sharing her story for the benefit of those of us who were victims of childhood sexual abuse. I want her know that she can finish her dissertation. I did.

  2. Omenita

    February 11, 2014 at 9:08 am

    I am speechless! How can people be so cruel to ruin the lives of other human beings and rob children of their childhood? As parents we are to be their guardians, yet so many are subjected to crueland inhumane experiences that they spend the rest of their lives trying to overcome. Please know that you survived inspite of the parental betrayal and system refusal to step in and save you. Know that you are a survivor and for that reason alone you should not be ashamed or live an anonymous life. Take your power back! Say who you are and name those who betrayed you. Time to free yourself!

  3. Deniece Decision

    February 11, 2014 at 9:09 am

    Dear Writer,
    Thank you for sharing your story. So glad you found your voice. I stand as your witness of survival.
    Standupsistah

  4. Stephanie Gilmore

    February 11, 2014 at 10:30 am

    To the author: I believe you. I honor your words and your story. And I say again: I believe you.

  5. Aaminah Shakur

    February 11, 2014 at 11:33 am

    Thank you. I can’t form much more than to say thank you for speaking to this.

  6. Victoria Pynchon

    February 11, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    I am sorry to say that I hear stories like this far too often from women who are recovering alcoholics and drug abusers. This tale is so graphic and so horrendous that it’s scandalous but not surprising that the entire culture is in denial. As a sponsor to a couple of decades of women in recovery, I’ve seen cutting, suicide attempts, relapse, paralysis, panic disorders and the like. Mostly I am amazed at the resilience of the HUGE community of survivors of sexual, physical and mental abuse of children. And this is not my field or the center of my interest. This is the part of my life that is about recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. I write this only to say it disturbs me so much to read this that even I, who have heard repeated stories like this, want to pull the covers up over my head and scream NOOOOOO. I do not believe we will move from denial to accountability until thousands, tens of thousands of women as brave as this writer tell their desperate stories to the rest of us, we lucky ones who no matter how tough our own childhoods may have been, were not actively, physically and mentally tortured by parents, step-parents, uncles, older brothers when they were at their most vulnerable.

  7. Brooke Axtell

    February 11, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    Thank you for sharing your powerful story. You are an incredibly brave and moving writer. I deeply respect your decision to voice your truth in this space. I stand with you and support your healing path. May you thrive in every way.

  8. Sharon Goodier

    February 11, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    This is such a difficult issue. I, too, am a survivor of father incest and exploitation. Of course, he denied it. They all do. But that doesn’t mean that every man who denies it is guilty. There ARE cases on record where children admitted having been coached to accuse a father, a teacher. It’s important to read Woody Allen’s rebuttal in the NYT. Pedophiles seldom are satisfied with one victim. Yet no one else has accused Allen of incest. Sun Yi was the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Andre Previn. Allen never lived in the same residence with her — or with Mia Farrow for that matter — and he never formally adopted her. Since he an Mia Farrow never lived together, there would be no reason for him to.
    I have always been a fan of Mia Farrow. Allen’s marriage to Sun Yi hurt her terribly.
    It’s a complex situation and unfortunately there are no scientific test which will absolutely confirm incest years after the fact. People lie — alleged victims as well as alleged perpetrators. It’s too bad. I, as a fan of Woody Allen, would like to know, too. If he IS guilty, I would have a lot of trouble watching a movie of his ever again.

    • Anonymous

      February 13, 2014 at 2:04 am

      Here’s what I wonder: Children may be coached at a young age, but – do they still believe exactly, explicitly the same thing 20 years later if it is not true? Children who are indoctrinated into a certain way of thinking (whatever it is) tend to come into their own and often utterly rebel against what they were taught by the time they reach young adulthood. What is Dylan gaining by rehashing this, if it isn’t a quest for the truth that gnaws at her and that she can’t set aside? Are we to imagine she is actually setting us up for her tell-all book and Lifetime movie? Unless that develops, I don’t see how bringing this up again could possibly be for her own gain.

  9. Sonja Del Kennedy

    February 12, 2014 at 2:56 am

    Thank you for telling your story. I to am a survivor of incest from my father and rape by two other men.You are much braver I. My father was finally caught as a child molester in his 70’s. Because of his age he only spent a few weeks in the county jail and this released on probation, never again being aloud to to live where there were children again. By then he hurt and raped so many children I’m sure he couldn’t count them himself. He was a horrible man. He started molesting me at age 5. As I grew older, the abuse got worse. He hated me and told me many, many times “I was too ugly to be one of his children”. Guess that made him feel better. he beat me on a regular basis, every chance he got he would corner me and make me do terrible things to him. I can still feel his body on me and him holding his hand over my mouth and nose to where I almost passed out. He started penetrating me when I was but 8 years old. I felt like dagger were going threw my body. It hurt so bad I thought I would die. I know I passed out several times. When he got what he wanted and was done with me he would push me off the bed or couch and throw a nickle of dime on the floor and make me pick it up. Guess that made him feel like he paid for the pleasure of doing anything he wanted to to me and that was it till the next time. He constantly threatened to kill me, he would chock me until I thought I was taking my last breath. I have gone to therapy 14 years for this. I was married to someone I thought could take me away from this constant torture, but we were together for 2 days and I had to leave him. I felt so badly for him, he had just come home from Viet Nam and he hadn’t a clue what was happening. We had met about 3 months before he went to war and we wrote each other for a year when he asked me to marry him. We were married 10 days after he got home. I have felt the guilt of ruining his life and making everyone in my home town wonder, what the hell happened there. I just got out of a relationship with a Lesbian I have had for almost 8 years. I should of left after about 3 years, when I realized she didn’t love me like I loved her. My dad finally died and I am an older woman 65, who really for the first time have lived on my own. It is scary, I don’t make enough money to really support myself, i was hit by a semi back in 1985 and have been on disability ever sense. At least I did work for AT&T long enough to get vested, but with my other bills I already had I know I will end up filing bankruptcy before too many more months. I never learn how to handle money, didn’t finish school, i did get a GED and by the grace of God was about to pass it enough to get me into a good job. Thank you so much for sharing all that you went threw. i just can’t go that far, but I know what it is to live in fear almost my entire life. God bless You unknown writer and all the children that had to go threw a life of fear and neglect. I know my mom knew what what going on and I told her at 16. she didn’t leave him. I felt so alone most of my life. God Bless You All!

  10. Anonymous

    February 13, 2014 at 1:31 am

    I really appreciate the fact that this author was willing to describe EXACTLY what had happened to her. This is because, no matter how many news stories about pedophiles and the violation of young children have splashed across my screen, I have never been able to comprehend how or why an adult would want to be sexual with an undeveloped child. As disgusting as this crime was to read about, the complete honesty of the author helped me to see how such things happen. Deepest thanks and love to the author.

  11. Amita Swadhin

    February 14, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Thank you for sharing your story. I too am a survivor of years of rape and sexual assault by my father, and I too have struggled with my healing process (which I know will be a lifelong process). Thank you for speaking out. I hope many more of us will share our stories publicly, because the worst part of this experience for me was growing up thinking I was the only one…healing comes in community, and there are (sadly) SO many of us. Sending you lots of love.

    • Sonja Del Kennedy

      February 15, 2014 at 7:57 pm

      I understand Amita. God Bless You.. You are loved and it is not your fault friend!