Why I Worked With Roman Polanski, Even Though I Was Sexually Molested as a Child

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 10 2014 5:02 PM

Why I Worked With Roman Polanski

I was sexually molested as an 8-year-old, I wrote a movie for Polanski, and I choose to believe Dylan Farrow.

Woody Allen, Roman Polanski
Woody Allen and Roman Polanski.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Jeff Christensen/Reuters,AFP/Getty Images.

I worked for a man who raped a 13-year-old girl. I knew he had raped her, everyone knew he had raped her, and I was eager to get the job. I did not hesitate even though I had been sexually molested when I was 8 years old. I did not pause although I was still struggling from ongoing complications 30 years after an adult seducer had permanently interfered with my sexual development.

Roman Polanski was, and is, one of a handful of directors who have made movies that deserve to be called great works of art. In 1992, Warner Brothers asked me to adapt Ariel Dorfman’s play, Death and the Maiden, for Polanski to direct. The play is about a woman who has been raped and tortured. Paulina, the heroine, takes a man captive whom she believes was her rapist and torturer. The kidnapped man denies it vehemently and the drama, at least on the surface, is about whether she is right and whether she will kill him. I took less money than other jobs on offer to write this adaptation for Polanski. It was an opportunity that was too rewarding to my artistic aspirations as a writer, and a righteous refusal too vague in its benefits to society, for me to choose otherwise.

Sexual assault, statutory rape, sexual abuse, and sexual molestation are clinical and legal terms that irritate me as a writer because they are vague and mislead the hearer. I used to say, when some part of me was still ashamed of what had been done to me, that I was “molested” because the man who played skillfully with my 8-year-old penis, who put it in his mouth, who put his lips on mine and tried to push his tongue in as deep as it would go, did not anally rape me. I assumed that if I said he had sexually assaulted, raped, or abused me, my listeners would conclude that he had sodomized me, deepening my feelings of humiliation that at 8 years of age I had failed to crush every bone in his molesting hand in a Superman grip. Instead of delineating what he had done, I chose “molestation” hoping that would convey what had happened to me.

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Of course it doesn’t. For listeners to appreciate and understand what I had endured, I needed to risk that they will gag or rush out of the room. I needed to be particular and clear as to the details so that when I say I was raped people will understand what I truly mean. I wasn’t physically forced or brutally violated. In fact—and this was what I was most profoundly ashamed of—my penis had reacted with pleasure when artfully stroked by an adult, the first time I was made conscious of the alert response the nerve endings there were capable of. It was 20 years after I was sexually misused before I understood what my molester had actually done to me: He had permanently associated my first experience of sexual pleasure with my having no say in the matter. That, I believe, is the true, human meaning of rape.

Naturally enough, when I first read Dylan Farrow’s letter alleging Woody Allen had sexually assaulted her, I thought she was making a mistake in not writing exactly what he had done. A practical mistake because detractors could—and did—point out that investigators had found no physical evidence of sexual abuse. I was sexually assaulted but there was no physical evidence.

I also thought she was making a mistake of credibility. Woody Allen is one of the world’s greatest directors. He is especially beloved by my generation, a generation that is sentimental about the importance of movies and is justly proud of Woody Allen’s films as the finest America has produced. For people who have been lucky enough not to have been sexually misused when they were children, there is a world of difference between summoning an image of a beloved artist yanking apart the legs of a 7-year-old girl and shoving his penis in her anus or vagina as compared to visualizing a charming, seductive man fondling a child’s buttocks or vagina. Either way, Dylan Farrow would have been sexually assaulted, but focusing on what she experienced clearly and in detail would affect how her allegations are perceived and would be fairer to the accused. Only those who have experienced it can readily understand how a man in a position of authority whom a child wants to please—I hope everyone can agree that an adopted father qualifies—could progress over a period of time from a child’s desire for hugs to snuggling in bed, to rubbing her nipples, buttocks, genitalia without the demarcation being as clear to a 7-year-old as it would be to a psychiatrist, a police investigator, or a movie critic. Under the almost absolute sway adults have over children, even penetration does not require the physical violence implied by the word assault.

A nanny allegedly testified that Dylan at age 7 had to be coaxed over a period of days to talk about being abused. I was one year older when I was molested. I never told anyone what had happened. I would have been mortified if anyone attempted to get me to say what had been done—I didn’t even have the vocabulary to do so—and would have done my best to deny it. A few weeks after I was molested the first time, the same man, using his seductive, insinuating technique, molested a friend of mine while I was present and then molested me as well in front of him. We never discussed what had happened with each other. The man who molested me was not a relative, not a stepparent, not an adopted father, not a priest, not a teacher. He had no position of authority over me. I had a friend who presumably would have backed me up. Yet I never considered telling anyone, most of all my parents. If they had somehow gotten wind of it and confronted me I would have reacted like a guilty party and tried to hide it. I barely knew this man, but he was an adult, and I believed him when he told me I liked what he was doing and I had somehow invited it.

Some have made much of the fact that investigators and psychiatrists at the time declared Dylan to be disturbed. A few months after I was sexually misused at age 8, I burned my room down. My parents’ apartment was trashed by firefighters containing the fire. Two years after my friend and I were molested, we stopped speaking. At 14 I was drinking, smoking grass and hash, and cut half a year of eighth grade. By 15 I had dropped out of high school and run away from home. If you had asked me at the time whether my behavior had anything to do with being molested—which you couldn’t have known to ask since I had told no one—I would have been infuriated. Anyone observing me would have said I was disturbed. I was disturbed. I had been robbed of the ability to know my own desires, to trust that someone who showed me affection wasn’t going to lead me somewhere I did not want to go. I was burdened with a secret that I denied was important and that I dreaded anyone knowing.

Do I think it’s possible, as Woody Allen claims, that a vengeful Mia Farrow coaxed and seduced a child who wanted to please her into making false accusations? Yes. It is also easy for me to believe that a self-involved genius might decide his love for a child should be expressed sexually. Both could be true at once. Do I think it’s possible that over the years Dylan Farrow has conflated false memories into believing them since the alternative, admitting to herself it was a lie, is too devastating to confess? Yes, but less so than the other alternatives. Today Dylan is volunteering, as an adult, to be attacked and humiliated by a famous beloved man and his millions of fans. For Dylan to be lying now she would have to be much more than a child of divorce eager to please her vengeful mother. For her to be lying as an adult she would have to have lost contact with reality.

Twenty years after I was molested, I was 28, the same age as Dylan is now. My life had, through considerable effort, stabilized. I had a thriving career, I was married, and I was a father. I had every reason to be happy. I wasn’t. I had told my wife what had happened to me. I had told a few of my closest friends. I had no idea what the man who molested me was up to and I made no effort to find out—I am ashamed of my passivity in this regard to this day. The man who molested me was not famous. I did not have to regularly read of his success. I did not have to endure that every talented person I admired was eager to work with him. There were no laudatory documentaries that ignored my fate at his hands. I did not have to watch him being honored on national television. And yet, 20 years after I was molested the memories of what had happened, my resentment and grief over what it had cost me, came flooding back. In my case, it is impossible that these memories were implanted.

When I finally went to a therapist and told her, she didn’t linger over the details or attempt to discover if there were any memories I couldn’t consciously recall. She concentrated on encouraging me to understand that no 8-year-old is responsible for the actions of an adult. In my 40s, when I told my parents what had happened, neither wanted to coax details from me or linger on its effects. Neither did my wife or my friends. People felt sad for me, wanted me to feel better, but no one cared to discuss it at any length other than to loudly express revulsion and pity—and profound incomprehension that any adult could behave like this. They liked to use words like "monster" to describe him. I can’t help but wonder if they would have believed me so readily and condemned him so ferociously if he had also made some of their favorite movies. Ah. There’s a lie from me. I don’t wonder. I know some doubt would creep in.

I am not an expert in child sexual misuse. I am not a prosecutor. I am not a trier of fact. I have not heard all the evidence I would need to in order to feel legally confident of this judgment: I believe that Woody Allen, at the very least, behaved in a way that was manipulative and seductive toward Dylan Farrow and touched her in a way that I consider to be a sexual assault. Who cares what I think? No one. And that is the way it should be. Woody Allen is under no legal or financial threat. The statute of limitations has run out. His movies will continue to be made, watched, and honored. My choosing between the likelihood of whether 28-year-old Dylan Farrow is a deeply disturbed victim of false memories implanted by a vengeful woman, or a victim of an entitled, narcissistic man who was unable to control his desire to seduce and bully a child has no real consequence. I choose to believe Dylan Farrow.

I do not, however, share Dylan’s extension of the responsibility for punishing Woody Allen to filmmakers. Actors, writers, and producers are not cops, judges, or jurors. In the work they choose to do, writers, actors, producers, and directors can be held accountable solely for its quality and its ideas.

When I first spoke to Roman Polanski about writing an adaptation for him of Death and the Maiden, I told him I would only write it if we could make two significant alterations. In the play, Paulina never says exactly what was done to her and she is never able to prove to her husband, the one person in the play who doesn’t know whether she is right, that she has correctly identified her rapist. I told Polanski that Paulina would want to tell her husband precisely what had happened to her and now would be the occasion for her to be detailed about her rape. “Of course,” Polanski said. “She should say what he did to her.” The second change I wanted to make was to write a final, truthful confession by the rapist, confirming that Paulina had correctly identified him. The play had been praised for its “ambiguity” in this regard. I told Polanski I thought that given the heroine’s final act, letting her rapist go, ambiguity made her mercy meaningless. Also, I said, it was a cheat. The rapist and the heroine know the truth—why are we deprived of it? “Of course,” Polanski said. “Not telling the audience whether or not he is guilty is bullshit.” Working with a rapist is not the same as condoning rape.

I do, however, wholeheartedly agree with Dylan Farrow that I should not honor a man’s so-called life achievement because I enjoy his movies. By his own account of himself, Woody Allen is not an example of an admirable life, including when it comes to the thematic content of his films. “The heart wants what it wants,” he is fond of stating. As all who have been raped, sexually assaulted, abused, and molested know, the heart’s desire is not always admirable.

Rafael Yglesias is a novelist and screenwriter.  His latest novel is A Happy Marriage.

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