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HBO’s four-part documentary series addressing Dylan Farrow’s story of child sexual abuse at the hands of Woody Allen has everybody talking. The hour-long episodes, dropping every Sunday until March 13, feature chilling commentary from Dylan herself, and zero cooperation from Woody and his wife, Dylan’s sister Soon-Yi. Unfortunately, most of the appraisals have circled around the same conversations that have become familiar as the #MeToo era has matured: on one side, the victim’s supporters, insistent that her voice be heard and believed; on the other side, admirers of the alleged abuser, eager to defend a brilliant, powerful man, poking holes wherever the evidence for guilt is thinnest.

As I watched the first episode (which was paired with the Predator movies in Amazon Prime’s search results), it became clear that there was a dynamic in the Farrow-Allen family that was going undiscussed. This family was built for the benefit of the parents, not the children. Together, Mia Farrow and Woody Allen constructed a family tree that was more like a thorny thicket than a strong, solid oak. And when he grew bored, Allen took an ax to it.

Adding babies, subtracting parents

In terms of gathering a family from the ends of the earth, Mia Farrow was a 1980s version of Angelina Jolie. Her first three children were the result of an affair—and later, a marriage—with Oscar-winning composer, André Previn. Farrow and Previn began adding to their family through adoption before their third biological child was born. The household grew with the arrival of Daisy and Lark, two girls from Vietnam. Then came Soon-Yi, an older girl from Korea with an unknown birth date. By this time, Previn and Farrow’s marriage was on the rocks. But Farrow was undeterred in her quest to add to her family, and after the divorce she adopted another child from Korea as a single mother: a little boy, whom she christened with the name of another famous adoptee, Moses.

At this point, Woody Allen entered the picture. Allen, who had made a career out of being a neurotic auteur, encountered Farrow for the first time at Elaine’s, the famous New York restaurant hot spot for celebrities. The two fell in love. But he was an odd choice of boyfriend for a mother of seven children. “He didn’t want to meet them at all,” Farrow says in Allen v. Farrow. “He said, ‘Look, I have zero interest in kids.’ So I thought about that, and I thought . . . still, in my free time as an adult, it’s wonderful to have a boyfriend . . . and I thought I could make this work.”

After a while, though, Farrow began to get baby fever again. The documentary describes the bizarre discussion she and Allen had on the subject of conceiving a child together. “He said, ‘Yeah, I would not object to that. But you have to understand, I have zero interest in a kid, so you would be entirely responsible, financially and in every way.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Farrow remembers. In his appalling memoir, Apropos of Nothing, Allen gives his own take on the conversation: “Mia assured me I could participate in rearing a new child to any extent I cared to. If I wanted to be a hands on father, great. If not, she’d raise it, and I would be the same free soul I’d always been.”

In the documentary, this is treated as an unremarkable decision. No one, it seems, thinks it might be wrong for a couple to deliberately conceive a baby whom the prospective father has already declared he has zero interest in parenting. A child has a right to be brought into the world by parents who want her and will care for her. It doesn’t always happen that way, but when it doesn’t, it’s usually by accident, not the purposeful decision of a pair of spoiled celebrities for whom the decision to create new life seemed little more momentous than getting a new pet. Farrow and Allen appeared to believe a baby would be like a poodle, who wouldn’t be all that bothered if Allen was never involved in refilling the kibble dish.

The wished-for baby didn’t arrive on schedule. “After some years of trying to have a baby and not conceiving a child, I asked how he would feel about adopting a child,” Farrow says. “He said if I wanted to do that it wouldn’t ruin [our] relationship, but he wanted nothing to do with it. . . . He said, ‘Well, I might be more kindly disposed if it was a little blonde girl.’ I thought, if he cares about that, I should try to find a little girl like that. Maybe he’ll love her.” Although this was definitely a deranged way of treating adoption like ordering up a designer accessory, Farrow obligingly brought home two-week-old Dylan, whose golden locks fit the bill perfectly.

“I was totally indifferent to the whole enterprise,” declares Allen in his memoir.

The documentary chronicles Allen’s growing obsession with his girlfriend’s youngest daughter, who was legally fatherless. Contrary to the disinterest he’d proclaimed, he hovered over her, stared at her while she played, and separated her from the other children. Family friends and babysitters caught him cuddling in bed with her, wearing only underwear, or with his face in Dylan’s lap. Dylan recounts one horrifying occasion, sitting with Allen on the porch steps of the family’s country home. “He was directing me on how to suck his thumb,” she says in the documentary. “There was nobody else around. . . . He was telling me what to do with my tongue.” Dylan became sad and withdrawn and started locking herself in the bathroom when Allen came over. Farrow recalls being aware something was wrong but resisting the thought she was dating a pedophile; instead, she sent him to therapy to “learn how to behave with a child,” as the therapist put it.

Abuse at the hands of nonbiological parties in the home

The responsibility for child abuse always remains squarely with the abuser. But the sad reality is that Farrow is not alone in living to rue the day she brought a boyfriend into her children’s life. This is not to say that there aren’t many healthy, nurturing blended families (there are) or that abuse doesn’t happen in families with two biological parents present (it does). But no matter how uncomfortable it is to point it out, decades of research shows that family situations like the Farrows’ put kids at higher risk.

In particular, the U.S. Fourth National Incidence Study of Abuse and Neglect or NIS-4, found that children raised in families that include a live-in, unmarried partner are an astonishing 10 times more likely to be abused.

Why is this the case? Evolutionary psychologists point to what they call the “Cinderella effect,” speculating that step-parents and caregivers without a genetic stake in a child’s survival may be simply less driven to control their impulses and protect the little one’s welfare. Others note that abusers have been known to target single mothers, hoping to take advantage of the family’s economic or emotional vulnerability to gain unfettered access to the children. Allen defenders make much of the fact that he and Farrow never married and retained separate residences. But, as events would show, that’s a red herring. Allen was often with the children from waking to sleeping, and his wealth and fame made it possible to groom them.

In 1991, in spite of the therapy, in spite of what she’d seen with her own eyes, Farrow allowed Allen to adopt Dylan. “I had felt a little strange about it,” she says. “But once he was in therapy and once he said he wouldn’t get mad at me anymore [about objecting to his behavior]. . . , I felt maybe it’d be great if she had a dad.” Moses, the Farrow son from Korea, was included in the adoption as sort of a package deal, because he was the only other child in the family who didn’t have a legal father. By this time, Farrow had finally gotten pregnant and given birth to her and Allen’s son, Satchel Ronan Farrow. And the other children all belonged to Mia’s ex-husband, André Previn.

“Moses wanted a dad so badly. . . . The reason I let him adopt them was because I thought he was my life’s partner, and I believed in our future. And that we were going to go on and have a wonderful life,” Farrow says. The adoption was finalized, and Allen was now a father of three.

That was on December 17, 1991.

On January 13, 1992, Farrow discovered a stack of pornographic photos of her daughter, Soon-Yi, then a college freshman, at Allen’s apartment. According to court records, they had begun having sex about two weeks before. The timeline of Allen’s belated decision to formalize his relationship with Dylan suggests the disturbing possibility that he was locking down legal access to her, before embarking on a sexual relationship with her sister that he knew might put Dylan out of his reach.

And indeed, after the family was destroyed and the abuse allegations became public, Allen had the chutzpah to sue Farrow for custody of three of the kids, including Dylan. That’s why the case (and the documentary) is titled Allen v. Farrow: The plaintiff’s name comes first. Justice Elliott Wilk, determining that something was badly amiss in the relationship between father and daughter, awarded custody of all the kids to Farrow and denied Allen visitation rights to Dylan.

But the tangled family tree was not done growing. After the court battle, Farrow went on an adoption spree, seemingly desperate to fill the gaping wound left in the family with more kids. She added five more to her brood, for a total of 14 children. One of them she named Thaddeus Wilk Farrow, after the custody judge.

Where they are now

Two decades later, Ronan Farrow, Allen’s only biological child, is the most high-profile member of the clan. A staunch advocate for Dylan, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his era-defining reporting on Harvey Weinstein. Three of Farrow’s adopted children have died: Tam and Lark, both reportedly from addiction-related problems, and Thaddeus, who died by suicide in 2016 at age 27. Moses, meanwhile, became an adoption trauma therapist. He has claimed that Farrow physically abused him, and that Dylan’s reports of sexual abuse are entirely imaginary. In 2020, he expressed his willingness to take Allen’s last name, and attempted to start a movement, #TruthIsLouder, to spotlight all the ways adoption can go wrong. It was a not-so-subtle rejoinder to the #MeToo movement which his brother Ronan has been so connected to.

Soon-Yi, of course, is married to Allen. That fact has been used to excuse Allen’s behavior, even though grooming and abuse sometimes do end in matrimony, with the victim unable to recognize their victimization. In recent years Allen has described their relationship as paternal, apparently trolling his critics by leaning into the pervert step-father narrative instead of away from it. Soon-Yi’s own adoptive father, André Previn, told Vanity Fair before his death in 2019: “She does not exist.” A devastating dismissal to hear from one’s father, no matter the circumstances. The fate of her part of the family tree is saddest all, with connections growing where they should not, and the trunk sawed off at its roots.

“I’m open-minded about sex. I’m not above reproach; if anything, I’m below reproach,” Allen told People magazine, years before he ever met Farrow. “I mean, if I was caught in a love nest with 15 12-year-old girls tomorrow, people would think, yeah, I always knew that about him.”

Open-mindedness about sex is sometimes treated as the chief virtue, to the exclusion of all others, and a certain elasticity in the definition of the contours of a family is also on-trend. But a tangled tree is not always a healthy one. No one wants to talk about it, but Allen v. Farrow shows how it’s possible to stretch the boundaries of family so far, they break—with tragic results. 

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