Soon-Yi Previn & The Empty Chair

Photo: AGF s.r.l./REX Shutterstock.
This week's New York magazine cover, featuring 35 women who've accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, has rightly rocked the media by boldly exposing the screaming silence of rape culture. #TheEmptyChair soon began to trend across social media, inciting a conversation about all the women who cannot or are not ready to come forward with their stories. But that chair also recognizes the many women who may never sit in it because they don't believe they should. It holds a space for those who live in the gray area of sexual abuse or assault. I believe it holds a space for Soon-Yi Previn.

In an interview with NPR's Sam Fragoso released on July 29, Woody Allen blithely answered questions about his marriage to Previn, who is the daughter of his former longterm partner, Mia Farrow. Throughout the piece, he explores his "paternal" role and his pleasure in her "youth and energy." Despite his iconic status as the world's favorite goofball neurotic, Allen always appears unruffled when discussing the darker chapters of his past. It's this projected air of casual faultlessness that's allowed the general public to agree with him that perhaps those chapters aren't so dark after all. "The heart wants what it wants," he offers as his ever quotable mantra. Ah well, we think. Classic Woody.

The scandal broke in 1992, when Previn was 20 and her mother found nude Polaroids of her, taken by Allen. But he acknowledges that the relationship began in the late '80s, when Soon-Yi was a teenager. It was a tumultuous time for the Allen-Farrow family, as the couple was embroiled in an ugly, drawn-out separation, made all the more complicated by the children they shared. Allen is the biological father of Ronan Farrow and the adoptive parent of Dylan and Moshe Farrow. Many referred to Soon-Yi as Allen's stepdaughter, though he never assumed legal guardianship over her or any of Farrow's other children.

It's these legal intricacies that many point to when arguing Woody's innocence, and an argument that Woody himself employed for years. "I am not Soon-Yi's father or stepfather," he told TIME in 1992. "I was not a father to [Farrow's] adopted kids in any sense of the word." Though, many of those children — even those who defend him — refer to him as their father or father figure. "False," says Robert Weide, director of Woody Allen: A Documentary. "Soon-Yi saw Woody as her mother’s boyfriend." Then, there's Soon-Yi's own quote, perhaps seen as the most potent piece of evidence: "To think that Woody was in any way a father or stepfather to me is laughable."

It's certainly curious that Woody now reflects warmly on their father-child dynamic ("She responded to someone paternal. I liked her youth and energy. She deferred to me..."). But this collection of contradictory quotes adds up to a red herring. We know you don't need legal documents to be a parental figure, nor does being a parent make you not a predator. We'll never solve that particular mystery — and we don't need to. What's clear is that Woody Allen was a consistent adult presence in Soon-Yi's life for most of her childhood. Parenting is not the issue at hand — grooming is.

Grooming is a prominent factor in child sexual abuse cases, and one that's often overlooked when teaching children about predators. We talk to kids about "stranger danger" when in fact, an estimated 93% of child sexual predators are known to their victims. Grooming is the method by which the abuser gently coerces a child: gaining their trust, isolating and bonding with them, slowly backing them into the perfect conditions for sexual contact, then sealing it all with a secret. It creates a sense of complicity and guilt. It's likely that this is the reason the majority of child sexual abuse goes unreported.

We cannot know what exactly went on between Woody and Soon-Yi when she was a child and he was an adult, 35 years her senior — nor can we know how their dynamic plays out now. Many have tried to come to her defense with the wrongheaded assumption that she's somehow weak or feeble-minded, as if only stupid people get molested. We say it wasn't abuse because he wasn't her father. We say it wasn't abuse because she married him (and they're "going strong"). All of this reveals our willful misunderstanding of sexual abuse and what it looks like. Just as rape is rarely committed by a stranger with a knife, sexual abuse is rarely perpetrated by a stranger with candy.

Even more telling is our own willingness to believe in Woody Allen, with all his endearing, oddball soundbites. He is, after all, a constant presence in our own lives, too. Every year comes another quirky comedy. No matter how many flops he produces, we're used to them and culturally comfortable in knowing that the next one is just around the corner, ready to bathe us in familiar disappointment. The familiar part is all that really matters anymore.

And with every interview he gives, shrugging through another icky comment on his marriage, we become more familiar with that, too. He takes public photos standing hand in hand with Soon-Yi, both of them adults now. He ignores another allegation of child sexual abuse and continues making movies right on schedule. He gently scatters bits and pieces of predatory jargon throughout decades of press. One day we look up and we're used to it. The scandal has become mundane.

In concluding his NPR interview, Fragoso asked Woody what he'd like to be remembered for. Allen gave a brief reply of gallows humor, so typical and dry, but didn't really answer the question. He doesn't have to. The answer is clear: We will remember him exactly as he wants us to. We've given him the upper hand and been backed into our own corner. It matters little what he says. What matters is we're still listening.

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