With all the accusations, heated debate, and ugliness incited by the tweets and articles in the Dylan Farrow vs. Woody Allen battle, I think the only question that really matters is: Can this help anyone else? We should operate on the premise that it must.
First, we should evaluate ourselves in the things we may have contributed with our tweets, blog posts, op-eds, and casual conversations. If we said nothing that helps the broad range of victims of sexual molestation, we have done a disservice to them. Simply insulting this family or anyone who may disagree with you does not count as making a positive difference.
I have been trying to find a glimmer of hope that this has all been worth something. The first person it should have helped is the victim at the center of it. I hope that her public statements in Vanity Fair and in the New York Times have brought her some comfort. Being able to speak your truth in the face of the very real fact that some will never believe you can be an empowering thing. Most victims do not have the benefit of major publications printing their words, nor the consequences of using such high-profile platforms to be heard. Let’s not forget those who are suffering right now, perhaps trapped in months or years of abuse with no escape, those who have no voice.
Dylan says in her open letter that she hopes she can help other victims come forward and heal. On the face of it, my first reaction was that this painful public battle, in which there can be no winners and only a very long list of losers, will not encourage anyone to speak out about their abuse. Let’s not let that happen.
We can instead address the real issues here, the facts we all must live with in order to have a civilized society. First, sexual abuse can be a very difficult thing for victims to admit and talk about. We should always err on the side of believing a victim, because often these things can be almost impossible to prove. Second, in America we are presumed innocent until proved guilty in a court of law. This is not a trivial matter or a concept to disregard whenever we are all just “sure” someone is guilty. The fact that a guilty man may go free to protect the innocent from being persecuted is a value we as a society have given great importance. We need to support and protect victims, but that imperative must coexist with our rule of law and the burden of proof. We see now that this can be a difficult balance.
We all have varied experiences and feelings. I did not want to prosecute Roman Polanski for raping me—it was very painful for me, and I deeply resented my mother and everyone involved, feeling that they were doing me more harm than Roman had. My mother was not willing to let it go and demanded that at the very least he admit what he had done, regardless of what we may have had to endure. We suffered greatly to achieve that end. However, we, like most victims, were not given a choice. Upon finding evidence that I may have been telling the truth, Roman was arrested and the district attorney’s office set about prosecuting him to the fullest extent of the law. A plea bargain sparing me from testifying in open court was a very difficult outcome to achieve.
So what can we learn from these public battles? How can this help now? There is no undoing what happened 20 years ago, 35 years ago, or even one day ago. We can only try to prevent sexual assault in the future and help those who have already been victimized to recover. I think we can start with these ideas.
If you are a victim who comes forward and resolution through the court provides a conviction, it will not undo what happened to you. You will still have to heal. If you come forward and there is insufficient evidence for a conviction, that is a reality you will have to face, and you can find a way to begin recovering in spite of that. If you are given the choice to not prosecute and spare yourself the trauma of a trial, highly publicized or not, you can make your choice, go forward with your life, and begin to heal. If you never come forward to the authorities, tell no one or only someone close to you, you can begin to recover and overcome what has happened to you. Under any of these circumstances, there will always be those who doubt you and nothing will erase what has happened to you. That does not have to stop you from healing.
The most important thing is to try to begin recovering from within. I don’t think you can heal from outside events happening. Waiting for the actions of others— be it the courts, your family, the opinions of those you care about, or the words of strangers—places you in a situation that you cannot control. And despite what was done to you, you do still have control.
We place too many “musts” on victims. You must come forward, you must display your damage, you must behave in a certain way, you must prove what you say is true. You must not be silent or you are responsible for the actions of a predator in the future. Only rapists cause rape—not the way you dress or behave, and certainly not how you choose to recover from being assaulted. It is time we allow ourselves “cans” instead of “musts.” We can heal and recover under any circumstances. We can accept whatever has happened to us and however we have handled it. We can own our own truths and disregard the skepticism or disbelief of others. We can recover even if there is no punishment for the abuser. We can come forward or we can heal privately. The only thing we can’t do is change what has already happened.
Bitterness and retribution, regret and anger are things that poison you; they do not heal you. We are surrounded by people who may have suffered less or have suffered in ways we cannot imagine. Accept yourself, accept what has happened and how you have handled it. Give no one the authority to judge you and do not judge others in how they have chosen to recover. The last and perhaps most difficult thing: Refrain from jumping to conclusions about the guilt of a person who is accused but not charged with or convicted of a crime. I think we all have a lot of work to do.