I have been trying to write about Dylan Farrow and her adoptive father and her resilient naming of his actions and the way the whole world has something to say to her about it. I want to write about how, when you tell your story, things get better — because of course, people believe you, people will listen, people will take action. But, of course, that’s not true. We know that’s not true. Many of us told, both directly and indirectly, and were not protected or were not believed.
It’s hard for me to write about this. The people tell me that I have to be articulate, calm, composed, and objective when I write or talk about sexual violence and sexual violators (otherwise I’m just another angry victim shooting off her mouth). If I speak about W.A. and his actions (both copped to, like marrying a very young woman who had been a surrogate child of his, and not copped to, like sexual abuse of an adoptive child), or if I speak about how horrifying it is that the Interweb wants me to understand that they’d very much LIKE to believe Dylan Farrow’s story, but, oh, look, she was a child who didn’t tell the story the same way every time, and, oh, look, her parents were involved in a really terrible custody battle and her mother was very, very angry, and oh, look, the conditions under which she was supposed to have been abused are totally unbelievable and oh, look, W.A. is a pretty great guy who makes all these films and has all these big Hollywood films who’s never been accused of child abuse *before* and oh, look, there was no physical evidence, and oh,look,the cops came and other authorities came and they investigated and they came to the conclusion that no charges should be pressed and that means that, sorry, Dylan Farrow is probably a liar but it’s not her fault because she was just a kid and she was being manipulated by a lying, scheming, money-grubbing, crazy mom — when I speak about all this, I have to be quiet and calm and composed about my response if I want anyone to listen to me.
Here’s my calm response:
There are kids who lie who are also raped.
There are kids who are in the middle of terrible custody battles who are raped.
There are kids who are sexually violated under the most unbelievable of circumstances. I don’t know if you can surprise me anymore, given the stories I’ve heard. Would a terrible claustrophobic climb into an attic for just a few moments to act out sexually with a child he was supposed to be caring for? Of course I believe that could happen.
There’s often no physical evidence of sexual abuse, with kids or adults. The fact that this continues to be a standard that has to be met in order to prove that violence has occurred astounds me.
Many, many people who are seen as pillars of their communities are also sexual violators.
None of these so-called logical reasons make me question what I’ve heard of Dylan Farrow’s story, nor anyone else’s. This, of course, isn’t just an issue for famous folks with major media connections — this issue of how we talk about survivors telling their stories has a huge impact in our communities. If we want to end intimate violence, we need to undo the culture of isolation and silencing that surrounds these violences. And in order to do that, we have to communicate to survivors that they are going to be supported when they come forward.
My sister and I were lucky that we both were abused by our stepfather in similar ways. What a completely awful sentence to write — yet, this is why I say it: when we went to the county attorney in Omaha and revealed who it was who had been harming us for the past decade, we were sure that she would run us out of her office. This was a man who was known in psychotherapy circles, a man who had friends in the court, a many who worked with child abuse victims at Boys’ Town, a man who acted as an expert witness in child sexual abuse cases. You’re going to tell me he did what? There was, of course, no physical evidence, and we were there with our father, a man who had plenty of reason to be completely furious with our stepfather and our mother, both — and a man to whom we had both told a lot of lies about what was going on in the house on 57th Street in Omaha, NE. There were lots of reasons for us to expect not to be believed.
We got lucky; I don’t know how else to say it. The County Attorney said she’d never heard of him (I’ll never know whether or not that’s true), and sent us to speak with detectives — something neither of us was prepared for. We each met with a male detective, separately and alone, and each spoke to those men for a couple of hours, at least, I think, telling our stories. It turned out that we corroborated each other. That’s maybe the only thing that put our stepfather in jail. If either of us had come alone to the courthouse, told our story alone, been expected to defend ourselves with the rest of the family contradicting us, his community contradicting us, what hope would we have had of finding any justice?
(Not that the criminal justice system is set up to offer justice to victims and survivors of intimate violence — it’s set up to protect property and capital. But that’s a different blog post.)
Today I am thinking about the ways that we as a public will make excuses for the men and women who are violent towards others, and the ways that we work as hard as we can to continue living with our own denial, to not have to step out of our comfort zones, to stop listening to music that we liked or stop reading books we liked or stop watching movies we liked or even stop hanging out with friends we’ve liked because we decide we no longer want to support their actions toward others — even if we never directly witness those actions ourselves, but because someone has been able to take the extraordinary action of speaking out into and against that massive cultural denial to say, “This person has done immeasurable harm against me, and I can’t be the only one holding them accountable. I need my community to stand with me.”
My sister and I were lucky; our family believed us, and the community that our stepfather had participated in didn’t obstruct us — they didn’t support us, exactly, but they also didn’t come forward to call us liars.
The community, very often, doesn’t want to stand with the violated. We want to stand with the person with the power. The abuser is infrequently abusive in public; they reserve that behavior for private performances. It’s the survivor who can be challenging for us — so visibly angry, so demanding. So we, their community, feel more drawn to the person who laughs, not the person who’s angry. The person who seems calm, not the person who’s agitated. The person who’s easy, not the person who’s difficult. We, the community, in choosing to stay comfortable, also choose to stand against what we say we believe.
On this valentine’s day, people will enjoy loving, tender, and sweet romantic connections with themselves and their loved ones. And many, many people are going to be harmed by their significant others — both physically and in ways that leave no marks whatsoever. Someone you know is going to tell you something that has happened to them or is happening to them and you aren’t going to want to believe it — you aren’t going to want to have to believe it, because believing is going to mean that you have to change in some way. Believing your friend will mean you have to change how you see and/or behave toward both parties — your friend and the person who has hurt them. This can be difficult, sad, or scary. Standing up for your friend, and your community, means you have to choose to act out what you say you believe about undoing a culture of silence. It means you have to walk your talk.
Maybe let this be the place where your own writing begins today — how can you walk your talk with someone in your community today? How would you have your community walk with you? Give yourself ten, twenty minutes on the timer — and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.
Thank you for the ways you show up for your community, and for the ways you allow your community to show up for you. Thank you for the generosity you show yourself as you move through your layers of tellings. And thank you for your words.