The Problem With That Soon-Yi Previn Profile ...
Everyone has a right to their own story. If the #MeToo era has taught us anything, hopefully it’s just that — to listen. So I’m not here to pick apart the recollections of Soon-Yi Previn, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter and the wife of Woody Allen, based on New York Magazine’s just-released profile of her. In it, Previn breaks decades of silence to address her upbringing in the Farrow household, and the genesis of her romance with her now-husband. It’s a long read, one that presents Mia as an emotionally and physically abusive mother who played favorites with her children, while also confirming that Soon-Yi and Woody got together consensually when Soon-Yi was already an adult in college. For readers curious about the elusive Soon-Yi — a woman often referenced but never heard from — this article is fascinating. But for readers hoping for new information about Woody’s alleged molestation of Dylan Farrow, that isn’t what this profile is concerned with. That event and the legal drama that unfolded around it is treated as another chapter in Woody and Soon-Yi’s love story — a storm of controversy that helped push their affair to the next level.
So instead of offering a blow-by-blow of Soon-Yi’s account (which you should read for yourself), I’d like to explore the context of the piece, which also includes quotes from Woody himself as well as Soon-Yi’s adoptive brother Moses (who has already shared his own recollection of Mia’s alleged abuses in his own words). The story OF the article is just as interesting as the story IN the article, and that is something that is worth unpacking. What do I mean by that?
The Author Is Biased As Hell
But don’t take my word for it — Daphne Merkin, the writer of the profile, admitted as much herself right from the get go!
I myself have been friends with Allen for over four decades and have always been somewhat mystified by him, in part because of the almost Aspergian aloneness of the man and in part because of the genuine diffidence — the lack of a discernible ego — that lies just beneath both a lifetime’s worth of ambitious productivity and his nebbishy film persona. His unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to contest his ongoing vilification — or, when he does take it on, to fan the flames (“I should be the poster boy for the #MeToo movement,” he recently told Argentine TV. “I’ve worked with hundreds of actresses, and not a single one — big ones, famous ones, ones starting out — have ever, ever suggested any kind of impropriety at all”) — also contributed to Soon-Yi’s decision to talk publicly.
On her own website, Merkin brags that her first fan letter came from Woody Allen (in addition to numerous other documented examples of their mutual admiration, as covered by The Hollywood Reporter). It’s also worth noting that Merkin was the author of that one New York Times op-ed that accused the #MeToo movement of stripping women of their agency, fostering a “victimology paradigm,” fundamentally confusing the different levels of sexual misconduct, and overall having “an inquisitorial whiff.” So even aside from her friendship with Allen, Merkin clearly already has an ax to grind.
In some ways, that kind of insider knowledge can help a writer offer a deeper view of their subject, and better parse their subject’s reactions — but it also means that the portrait they’re creating won’t be, ya know, objective. And look, I completely understand why Soon-Yi and Woody would want to talk to a friendly face. After all, their story is a thorny, contentious one and knowing the writer is sympathetic would be a huge comfort.
That is the exact reason why New York Magazine should probably have declined to publish this profile unless it came from another writer. Their spokesperson defended their decision to The Hollywood Reporter, claiming that “Daphne approached Soon-Yi about doing this piece, not vice-versa,” that “The story is transparent about being told from Soon-Yi’s point of view,” and that “Daphne Merkin’s relationship to Woody Allen is disclosed and is a part of the story, as is Soon-Yi’s reason for speaking out now.” But the fact is that Merkin’s coziness with Woody and Soon-Yi do the piece, and Soon-Yi’s own story, a disservice. When the profile finally approaches the time of the alleged molestation, it suddenly becomes starkly, blatantly antiseptic:
That summer, Soon-Yi went to work as a counselor at a camp in Maine, where Allen called her frequently under the code name “Mr. Simon.” Soon-Yi was fired because of the constant calls and returned to New York to stay with her friend Alexis. Until this point, Farrow had been under the impression that the pair’s relationship was over. On August 1, she called Susan Coates, a psychologist who’d been helping the family, and described Allen as “satanic and evil” and entreated her to “find a way to stop him.” From here on in, the battle between Mia and Woody grew ever more heated, with charges and countercharges flying. On August 4, the sexual abuse of Dylan, in a small crawl space in Mia’s house, allegedly took place. Mia eventually produced a video in which she asks Dylan about what occurred, a video that has been the subject of great contention over the years. Mia and her various confederates who are said to have seen it contend that it’s proof Dylan was molested, while Woody and his confederates who are said to have seen it insist that Dylan was obviously manipulated into accusing her father, as was played out in the custody action.
A little over a week after Dylan’s alleged abuse, Allen says, two of Mia’s lawyers, Alan Dershowitz and David Levett, floated to him the idea of an immediate confidential settlement of $5 million to $7 million. The same day, Allen sued Mia in New York State Supreme Court for the custody of Satchel, Dylan, and Moses, contending that they were unsafe in her hands and were going to be turned against him. Four days later, Allen released a statement confirming his relationship with Soon-Yi, saying it is “real and happily all true.” He also announced that he loved her, which Soon-Yi says took her by surprise: “I only knew that he loved me when he gave the press conference and said it publicly. Even then, I wasn’t sure if he meant it. We had never said those words to each other.” Maybe, she says, she kept quiet about her feelings to avoid “scaring him away,” or maybe “I didn’t want to admit to myself how much I had fallen for him.”
On March 18, 1993, after a seven-month inquiry by a team of three child-abuse investigators at Yale-New Haven Hospital, Allen’s lawyers reported that he had been cleared of molesting Dylan Farrow. Mia’s lawyers called the confidential report “incomplete and inaccurate.” On May 3, 1993, a sworn statement by John Leventhal, the pediatrician who headed the team, was released, theorizing that Dylan was emotionally unstable and had been coached by Mia to accuse Allen. But a month later, in a 33-page decision, Judge Elliott Wilk questioned the work of the Yale group, calling it “sanitized.” While Wilk wrote that it was “unlikely that [Allen] could be successfully prosecuted for sexual abuse,” he credited Mia’s testimony that Allen was “aggressively affectionate, providing [Dylan] with little space of her own and with no respect for the integrity of her body.” Wilk denied Allen’s custody request, as well as visitation rights with Dylan; a year later, Allen lost an appeal of that decision. In the meantime, New York State child-welfare investigators completed a second inquiry into the case, concluding that “no credible evidence was found that [Dylan] has been abused or maltreated.”
In the course of three paragraphs, the only quotes from Soon-Yi concern Allen’s confession of love — everything else is just a characterless presentation of the circumstances. Now, compare that with Soon-Yi’s own stated reason for doing this profile now:
More than a quarter-century after the public learned of the affair that “broke every taboo,” in the words of child psychiatrist Paulina Kernberg, the 47-year-old Soon-Yi is ending her silence. She’s long believed that her relationship with Allen fueled the inquiry into the allegations surrounding Dylan, but only recently has she felt compelled to tell her own side of things, to talk about what drove her away from her adoptive mother, Mia Farrow — and toward the man who’s now been her husband for 20 years. “I was never interested in writing a Mommie Dearest, getting even with Mia — none of that,” Soon-Yi tells me quietly but firmly. “But what’s happened to Woody is so upsetting, so unjust. [Mia] has taken advantage of the #MeToo movement and paraded Dylan as a victim. And a whole new generation is hearing about it when they shouldn’t.”
By Soon-Yi’s own admission, Dylan’s allegations are the impetus for her telling her story — so why is it that the moment the profile catches up to that moment in her history, nobody is saying anything? Another journalist might have probed deeper, asked the questions, shown the uncomfortable answers or refusal thereof. Merkin, however, glosses over it almost entirely. She doesn’t even question Soon-Yi’s assertion that Mia Farrow is taking advantage of #MeToo by pointing out that Dylan’s allegations preceded the #MeToo movement by decades.
Other times, Merkin shares her own speculations as color for the piece — again, without actually asking the damn questions and getting answers:
During our many talks, I ask Soon-Yi several times if she has any positive recollections from her years with Farrow. She unfailingly answers that she doesn’t. “It’s hard for someone to imagine, but I really can’t come up with a pleasant memory.” Despite that, I’m unsure whether Soon-Yi has always seen her mother in such stark terms or whether this is a portrait that has been shadowed over time, its darkness inevitably added to by the abrupt and almost surreal way in which their relationship would come to an end after Farrow discovered some nude Polaroids Allen had taken of Soon-Yi after their affair had begun.
I wholeheartedly agree with New York Magazine’s assertion that Soon-Yi is entitled to her story and to be heard. I do not believe Daphne Merkin is the person who should have written it. And I’m not alone — Yashar Ali, another writer for the magazine, offered a whole thread on Twitter for why he disapproves of Merkin’s hiring for the piece:
1. The decision by NY Mag (disclosure: I write for NY Mag) to have @DaphneMerkin write the Soon-Yi Previn profile is quite disappointing. First, my experience with Daphne…about 9 years ago she attended a dinner party in the Hamptons that I was a guest at https://t.co/bQ78jlgbB8— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) September 17, 2018
It’s Possible To Believe Dylan AND Soon-Yi
I may be slamming Merkin for being too subjective, but she herself acknowledges that when it comes to stories of abuse, often subjective interpretations are all that we can make (though, again, that’s for the listeners — not the fucking JOURNALISTS covering the stories, and who should probably be trying harder):
I can’t pretend to know what actually occurred, of course, and neither can anyone other than Allen and Dylan. Even the judge who eventually denied Allen custody of Dylan opined that “we will probably never know what happened on August 4, 1992.” All of life is filled with competing narratives, and the burden of interpretation is ultimately on the listener and his or her subjectively arrived-at sense of the truth.
On one side, Soon-Yi and Moses are painting a picture of Mia Farrow as unreliable, abusive, and manipulative — the mastermind behind Dylan’s allegations against Woody, as revenge for his affair with Soon-Yi. On the other side, Dylan and Ronan defend their mother against attacks while continuing to assert that Woody molested Dylan when she was seven years old.
Statement on New York magazine, which has done something shameful here: pic.twitter.com/xGeQP341OG— Ronan Farrow (@RonanFarrow) September 17, 2018
My statement on New York Magazine: pic.twitter.com/xml6pdaZqb— Dylan Farrow (@RealDylanFarrow) September 17, 2018
And here’s the thing: Mia Farrow could have been a terrible mother to at least some of her children, like Soon-Yi and Moses, AND ALSO Woody could have molested Dylan. Certainly nothing in this particular profile directly contradicts the allegations against Woody. The problem is the idea that heaping doubt upon the motivations of Mia Farrow alone will somehow prove Woody’s innocence. That’s just not how it works.
So what’s the takeaway here?
Honestly, I’ve always been more or less comfortable with the relationship between Woody and Soon-Yi. I’m willing to take her word for it that he didn’t take advantage of her, that they became romantically involved consensually when she was an adult, and that the most unfortunate part of the affair was that they did it behind Mia’s back. It’s a shitty situation, but not a criminal one. Soon-Yi’s story clarifies how she became involved with Woody, and describes his relationship with Farrow’s family during the time he and Mia were dating from her perspective. But for those who still conflate Woody’s marriage to Soon-Yi as proof that he’s a pedophile, or use it as justification for why they believe Dylan, well — that was never necessary in the first place. We may like to establish patterns of behavior, but even if Woody never illicitly touched any child other than Dylan, it doesn’t make Dylan’s allegations less valid somehow. Dylan’s story is her own, and you can believe her without side-eying Woody’s relationship with Soon-Yi. And just because Woody didn’t take advantage of Soon-Yi, it doesn’t mean he never molested Dylan.
We can believe Dylan, and Soon-Yi. We can support Woody Allen, or we can believe that Amazon Studios was right to shelve his most recent film as of a few weeks ago. And while some might want to question why Soon-Yi is coming forward now of all times, I don’t think it’s fair to speculate on her reasons. If we accept that victims of abuse often take years to process their pain before coming forward, then we need to afford Soon-Yi the same acceptance in regards to her childhood trauma.
Personally, I’m thankful for the opportunity to learn more about Soon-Yi, in her own words, after decades of her being used in absentia as a symbol, a shield, a victim — and I’m disappointed in the manner with which her story was presented, by Merkin and by New York Magazine. It is Soon-Yi’s story, yes — but somehow the author and the magazine seem to be using that fact as an excuse to not do their jobs effectively. It’s a failure of journalistic standards that does a disservice to readers, and to the story itself.
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