On Woody Allen, My Father & Darkness
(Trigger Warning: Discussion of incest and childhood sexual abuse.)
The greatest gift my father gave me was a passion for art. As a pianist and composer with a Master’s degree in Musicology, he infused our home with creativity throughout my childhood. He encouraged me to find my own outlet; instead of sports teams and debate club, my extracurricular activities included violin lessons, piano lessons, drawing classes, painting classes, dance classes, theater camp, and color guard practice. You name it, I tried it.
The day we discovered my true passion was the day my father brought home a video camera. As I started to experiment with filmmaking as a medium of expression, he shared with me his advice about being an artist: “Never compromise your artistic vision for mainstream success.” “Art should never be restricted to those who can afford museum admission or concert tickets – create art that can be accessible to the public.” “Look for the art around you in every day life and draw inspiration from it.” “Let art drive everything else in your life.”
My memory of my childhood is hazy, so I can’t remember if our talks about art started before or after my father molested me. It happened so casually, so blatantly, that I assumed it was normal, loving behavior. Given the way he would constantly praise my appearance, talk openly and explicitly about sex, and encourage me to feel comfortable walking around naked in front of him, I did not realize that what happened to me was abuse until I was an adult. Today, we no longer have a relationship. I have nightmares about hearing his voice when I pick up the phone. Looking at photographs of him makes my stomach churn. But as I write this, I am listening to one of his recordings over and over again, straining to hear the words I know he will never say.
Recently, I’ve started to feel a kinship with a woman I will likely never meet. Dylan Farrow was seven when her father, filmmaker Woody Allen, allegedly molested her. (I say “allegedly” because, in a legal sense, the crime has not been proven. But as someone who knows how hard it is to confront an abusive parent, I believe Dylan’s accusations.) Like me, she is adopted, and her adoptive father was her abuser. Like me, she has memories of being in bed with her father “under the sheets when he was in his underwear.” Like me, she has struggled with a history of self-harm and fearing intimacy with men. Like me, she has become an artist in her adult life, and she is married to someone who supports her and her struggles.
Yet, unlike me, she does not find comfort in her father’s art. In an unprecedented interview with Vanity Fair last fall, Dylan shared:
“To this day it’s hard for me to listen to jazz… He [Allen] would take me with him [when he practiced the clarinet with his band]. I’d be in between his legs, facing out. I felt like a dog or something. I was just told to sit there. I did what I was told. He used to sing to me the famous song ‘Heaven’ [“Cheek to Cheek,” by Irving Berlin]. It really sends shivers up and down my spine and makes me want to throw up, because it’s a throwback.”
And just this weekend, Dylan wrote an essay in the New York Times, directly commenting on her father’s career and her horror at seeing him embraced by the public:
Actors praised him at awards shows. Networks put him on TV. Critics put him in magazines. Each time I saw my abuser’s face – on a poster, on a t-shirt, on television – I could only hide my panic until I found a place to be alone and fall apart…Woody Allen is a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
Ultimately, though I feel a connection to her, my experience is not comparable to Dylan’s. The trauma she experienced reminds me of my own, but mine did not happen in the public eye, nor is my father’s presumed innocence defended in thinkpieces whenever his crimes are referenced in attention-grabbing tweets. Dylan has experienced a unique form of torment, and I can’t blame her for hating Hollywood’s acceptance of her father. So, perhaps it is because my father is not a celebrity, but I have a different take on appreciating art created by abusers.
My father terrified me when I was growing up. I didn’t like the way he touched me. I didn’t like the way he spoke to my mother. I didn’t like the way he manipulated my emotions. But when we talked about art, he was someone else. He was human. He was introspective and thoughtful. He was able to take whatever cruelty was manifesting in his gut and turn it into mournful, poetic music. He never told me what his compositions were about, but he didn’t need to. Watching him play the piano, I knew his pieces were personal. I knew they were his way of seeking redemption. Perhaps that redemption is not owed to him, but listening his music now reminds me of the moments in my childhood that were peaceful and loving. Moreover, listening to his music now is the closest I will ever be to hearing him confess his sins. So I cling to his music. It’s all I have left.
And I cling to Woody Allen’s films. He has been my favorite filmmaker since I was a teenager, largely because of the darkness found in many of his movies. “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Interiors,” “Husbands and Wives,” “Match Point,” and “Blue Jasmine” are just a few of his creations that speak poignantly to issues of morality, atonement, and the truth that some damage can never be forgiven. His work moves me, because I know it comes from a dark place that he will never directly acknowledge in a PBS special. It’s there, even when it’s unspoken. I can’t separate Woody Allen’s art from the crimes he committed against Dylan, but I can appreciate that even the most damaged people deserve an artistic space to work through their demons.
The idea of separating a work of art from its artist sounds nice, in theory. Who among us would want our biggest professional accomplishments to be judged by our most damning personal failures? But in practice, it makes no sense to me. All art is informed by the artist’s mind, lived experience, and imagination. Moreover, art allows troubled people to express their otherwise unspoken truths. So while I can’t separate my father’s art from the abuse he repeatedly inflicted upon me, I feel grateful that the creative outlet he needed to exorcize his sickness allowed him to utter a subliminal confession. Sometimes, when I listen close enough, I can hear the truth reverberate.
The author of this piece has chosen to be anonymous. If you would like to contact her, send an email to [email protected] and it will be forwarded.
[Image via Getty]