For the purposes of this story, let’s agree not to talk about Woody Allen—especially the thick cloud of ick that hangs over him. Let’s agree not to talk about his marriage to his much younger, sorta’-kinda’ stepdaughter; or the faintly creepy feeling you get from attending even his best movies, as if you’re paying to support the very good work of a very bad man; or the serial romantic pairings of young women and much older men in so many of those movies.
Let’s especially not talk about the longstanding allegations of sexual abuse in the 1990s of his then very young daughter Dylan. (Allen has denied the allegations.)
Let’s talk instead about Dylan herself and her older brother, Ronan Farrow, reporter, television personality and attorney, who went public on Wednesday with an essay in the Hollywood Reporter blowtorching their father—on the eve of his being feted at the Cannes Film Festival —for his alleged crimes against Dylan. Farrow was unstinting in both the accusations aimed at Allen and his faith in the truth of what his sister has said.
“I believe my sister,” he wrote. “This was always true as a brother who trusted her, and, even at 5 years old, was troubled by our father’s strange behavior around her: climbing into her bed in the middle of the night, forcing her to suck his thumb—behavior that had prompted him to enter into therapy focused on his inappropriate conduct with children prior to the allegations.”
He is also unsparing in his admission of some indirect culpability, too. “I had worked hard to distance myself from my painfully public family history and wanted my work to stand on its own. So I had avoided commenting on my sister’s allegations for years and, when cornered, cultivated distance, limiting my response to the occasional line on Twitter.”
But he is coming forward now—loudly. The question for anyone with a sibling is why it took so long—why a loving older brother did not speak out much, much earlier. And the answers are in some ways both terrible and wonderful.
I spent several years immersed in the science of brothers and sisters when I was writing my 2011 book The Sibling Effect. If there was one truth that struck me most from both my research and my personal experience (I have three full brothers, a half brother and a half sister, and for a brief interlude when I was in grade school, had two step-sisters) it’s that a brood of siblings is rarely just a collection of individuals. It’s instead a unit, “a loud, brawling, loyal, loving, lasting unit,” as I wrote at the time.
That means that an individual injury can be a collective injury; an individual triumph can be a shared triumph. And an individual betrayal—atrocity, really—like parental sexual abuse, is very much the abuse of the entire brood.
Parents, even bad parents or indifferent parents, are still almost always protective parents. They’re the ones who make sure the front door is locked at night, who go down to the living room with a flashlight to investigate a strange noise, who chase off the neighborhood bully. But when the parent becomes the attacker—especially when the attack is as primal and personal as a sexual assault—no sibling is safe.
So, paradoxically, the brothers and sisters may be brought closer by their shared fear and shared vulnerability. That’s true even if the molested sibling doesn’t tell. Predator parents drop way too many clues—in their touches, in their glances, in their approach to and avoidance of the targeted child—for the brothers and sisters not to notice.
But that very familial intimacy serves to protect the offending parent, too. Children have a fierce loyalty to their parents, even flawed parents, and don’t want to see them suffer any more than they want to see a sibling suffer. In fact, there’s a particular terror associated with something happening to one of the adults in the home.
The parental relationship is described by psychologists as the family’s executive relationship—with mom and dad in a sense occupying the corner office of the home. You can get a fellow employee in trouble—or even fired—without shaking up the rest of the organization too much. But get a parent in trouble—or even arrested—and your small, predictable world falls apart.
So kids stay mum—at least when it comes to spilling the secret outside the sibling circle. Indeed, in some ways, that conspiracy of silence may even make it easier for them to talk to one another about what is happening to the targeted child.
I was twice the victim of the criminally wandering hands of a camp counselor when I was 12 years old and he came to sit on the edge of my bed and, ostensibly, talk after lights out. I reacted the way most children do, which was to freeze, wait for it to be over, try to forget about it and not even think to report him or confront him. I also did not tell my brothers, who attended the same camp, though I surely would have felt safe sharing the information with them. But I also knew that they—ferociously protective of me as I was of them—would have ratted out the malefactor the moment I dropped his name and I wanted no part of the humiliation that would follow. And so I didn’t discuss it with them until we were all much older.
Ronan Farrow, enmeshed in the family of Woody Allen and Dylan, had the freedom to know the kinds of things my brothers didn’t—but he did not have the freedom to tell the world. Now he has told. Many people, even in adulthood, never do—such is the specter of the parent. Farrow’s candor does not come too late; it is worthy and courageous that it came at all. And if it prompts siblings of a victimized brother or sister to come forward, then Farrow’s stand will have been a very brave thing that also had very good results.