For the record, I abhor celebrity gossip. I couldn’t care less who got noticed wearing the wrong dress with the wrong body, who tripped in front of everybody, who might have gotten drunk and unruly on a flight and WTF Ellen has been lying about all these years.
It’s none of my business. I don’t have time for their silly distractions. Not when I’ve got bucket loads of my own, mostly entirely invented, critics harping on my many faults and others telling me to please go serve up some Rum Raisin ice cream and quick.
So how is it I’ve suddenly gone down the rabbit hole?
I may have been drawn there by my shock that Phillip Seymour Hoffman had died at 46. He was a lovely, empathic, generous spirit whose magnificence telecommuted to my brain through sound waves and sight lines. He taught me the phrase, “I sharted.” This came in handy when I was digestively impaired by cancer treatments.
Here’s the thing. I am continually educated by the addicts and alcoholics I know and love. The emotional and physical torments that face them are vicious and unrelenting. Cancer survivors like me are lucky. I cannot begin to imagine the shame and craving and compulsion and despair that fueled Seymour’s last binge. Those of you who are angry at him for leaving his kids, please, just read a little about disease and neuroscience and indulge yourself in a warm bath of there for but the grace of God go I.
In case you were finding me tryingly sympathetic to this famously homely, fabulously charismatic and sublimely talented player in the motion picture industry, do not worry. I am taking one last whiff of restrained good-heartedness before plunging into the quicksand of questions regarding another titan of the movie industry who bit the dust this week.
He too lacks the classic good-looks of Hollywood. He too was a talent many admired, including myself, if not for all of his movies, for his quotable one-liners.
I dreamed last night that Phillip Seymour Hoffman was driven to his death by despair over Dylan Farrow’s Sunday letter about her abuse at the hands of Woody Allen. Not necessarily because all of its accusations were true (or false) but because, like Ibsen’s onion, the story unravels to expose layers of futility, of betrayal, of uncertainty and of such sordid details that they can not be easily unremembered.
The basics as far as I can sort them out: In 1991, after going to therapy for “inappropriate behavior” with his seven year old daughter for nearly two years, Woody Allen continued to be a fixture among Mia Farrow’s extended family. Then, in December of that year, Mia, visiting Allen’s apartment, discovered a stack of Polaroids of her 19 (or 21) year old daughter, Soon Yi, legs akimbo, full frontal nudity, face lit by the radiance of attention.
Later, Mr. Allen would marry the girl, whose modeling aspirations he claimed to be nurturing the only way he knew how. Mia Farrow was upset. Everything that happened afterwards was later characterized by Allen’s spokespeople as the vengeful actions of a woman scorned.
Even after this December discovery of an affair, however, Allen’s visits to Mia’s farm continued. He slept in a guest bedroom when he visited the children. According to babysitters interviewed later, there had been a longstanding, two year rule that Mr. Allen was not to be left alone with Mia’s seven year old daughter, Dylan. In August of 1992, while her mother and sisters were out, the babysitters began to worry when they couldn’t locate Woody Allen and the little girl for a period of somewhere between five to fifteen minutes.
When Mia returned, she found Dylan outside in a dress, without underwear. (Others dispute this.) Another babysitter testified that she’d walked in on Daddy worshiping daughter by kneeling on the floor with his head in her lap. (The sitter couldn’t say why it seemed "intimate.")
After Allen left the next morning, the little girl told her mom that her father had taken her to a play space behind a closet and penetrated her with his finger while whispering that if she was quiet, he would take her to Paris and put her in his movies. She asked her mother if this was okay, if this was what Mia’s daddy had done to her.
Mia took her to the pediatrician. At first Dylan said Daddy had touched her shoulder, later she told her mom she’d been too embarrassed to say where he’d touched her. They returned to the pediatrician, who reported the alleged abuse to the police, as required by law. During these first days, Mia recorded a video with her daughter. Unfortunately, because it was stopped and started several times, it was impossible to know if the mother had coached the alleged victim to say what she did. One brother, who now sides with his father, says her mom had to take it over several days because Dylan wasn’t interested and kept not wanting to discuss what happened. (As a mother, I think a child who had been genuinely traumatized might very likely seek to avoid talking about it.)
Murky leads to murkier, with famous psychologists convening to question and interview seven-year-old Dylan, reporting that they found no evidence (physical or otherwise verbally convincing) that the penetration or abuse had taken place.
Meanwhile, the details of the story that stick with me, that seem to awaken in me a protective mother’s instinct, have little to do with the question of whether the attic incident took place. Rather, it’s Allen’s reported propensity to follow his daughter from room to room, to ask her to play under the covers with him, both dressed in their underwear. His request that she suck his thumb was enough to make me feel slightly ill. There is something to this detail that is telling in its ability to be denied as sexual and also to be interpreted as clearly sexual. (While one babysitter among many sided with Allen and said she felt the mother had coached the daughter, most others (and there were many) sided with Mia. So have all but one of the children, unless you count Soon Yi.)
Even if these were the mild boundary crossings of an intellectually gifted but emotionally stunted individual, what I find perhaps most chilling is the perfectly legal seduction and courtship of Ms. Farrow’s daughter, Soon Yi. Can the world-famous, fabulously-wealthy, universally-feted director seriously not find another woman who is not the child of his longtime romantic partner to fetishize and photograph naked? Further, can he, when questioned about it, do something better than proclaim grandiosely that “the heart wants what it wants.”
Notice the dis-assembly of the heart from the self, from the brain and will. There is something very adolescent about his worldview, as Joan Didion pointed out many years ago.
Finally, back to the accusation that Farrow’s outrage had to do with being a woman scorned: I think Mr. Allen overestimated his sex appeal. I think her fury was not that he was leaving her for her daughter but that he was taking her daughter for a similar ride as he’d taken her. She knew only too well how easily a young woman could be cowed by the charms of the Great Artist. She herself had been led down the garden path so skillfully that she sought to find reasons that would explain away several ‘what is wrong with this picture’ moments involving Dylan. She must have felt responsible for the possible infringement of both girls.
So, there you have it, the ravings of a woman who’s been hoisted by her own petard, her pride about not sinking to the level of discussing sordid details of the rich and famous, coupled with a mild prompt from a dream about a man she greatly admired to explore the underbelly of a universe in which a formerly admired man’s pleasure became that same reduced man’s poison. And so the mighty have fallen, including me. I’ve been drawn into a family feud I've got nothing to do with, kind of like Downton Abby or Bleak House, but darker, dimmer. Maybe more like a Lolita, except with a narrator who’s willfully ignorant of the pain he causes object of his obsessive attentions. Oh wait, that is Lolita. Never mind. Perhaps this is a real-life Greek tragedy into which the great director couldn’t help but insert himself as the leading man while the unwitting cast could find their only solace in the unceasing chorus of outsiders’ unseemly, daemonic laments.