From left: Moses Farrow, Soon-Yi Previn, Dylan Farrow, Woody Allen (Courtesy of HBO)

The Art of Survival

‘Allen v. Farrow’ and ‘Consent’

Nobody asks themselves whether it’s possible to separate the art from the artist unless they’ve already fallen at least a little bit in love with both. When a celebrated artist is credibly accused of sexual abuse, a schism begins to form in the minds of those who previously felt close to his persona and work, but it could take years, decades even, to fully investigate that rupture and finally break away—if that happens at all. Often the schism persists for a long time as a dilemma of ethical consumption (“I love the art, I despise the man, does that make it not all right to buy his work? How about just watching it?”), as if there were ever a clean way out of such a sentimental entanglement. If the devoted are incapable of closing the investigation, perhaps it’s because the art seems so much more layered and complex, so much truer to our felt experience than the flat, almost crude reality of a stranger’s unequivocal hurt.

The injunction to set aside the man and judge the work on its own merits, then, seduces precisely to the extent that it privileges the public’s attachment to an artistic legacy over the people who suffered to maintain it. To integrate such wildly unequal experiences would spoil the fan’s personal connection to artistic greatness, and, ultimately, change the quality of attachment that once did the work of etherealizing the ambition of a single man.

Two formidable works of narrative nonfiction released earlier this year reimagine popular accounts of abusive artists from the perspective of survivors, both of them born out of disenchantment with the prevailing genres of literary attachment that have rendered these survivors disposable: Parisian writer and publishing-world figure Vanessa Springora’s memoir, Consent, an account of her damaging sexual affair with celebrated French author Gabriel Matzneff, which she says began when she was fourteen; and Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s four-part documentary series, Allen v. Farrow, a reexamination of Dylan Farrow’s abuse allegations against her father Woody Allen, and the ensuing custody battle between him and his former partner Mia Farrow, much of it drawn from interviews with the Farrow family. Taken together, these two works attempt to blot out the romantic lies that have thrived in the cultures of both France and the United States for going on three decades—when their respective cases first came to public attention—by understanding that artists are always embedded in communities of readers (or viewers) and personal relationships that help form the work and are in turn shaped by it. This understanding emerges from a desire to speak from the margins of popular narratives that survivors have been written out of by omission, obscurity, and distortion. Consent and Allen v. Farrow rewrite these stories, undermining the personas that were enshrined in the art by turning that art against itself, as well as correcting the factual record.
 

Vanessa Springora (JFPAGA)

Vanessa Springora was in high school when the writer Gabriel Matzneff first committed a version of her to the page. The two met in 1986, when Matzneff—a known pedophile who had just published an account of abusing children as young as eight during a trip to the Philippines—noticed Springora at a literary party she attended with her mother, who worked in publishing. He pursued her with flattering letters and vows of love; when they first slept together, she was fourteen and he was nearly fifty. The relationship’s warping effect on Springora’s identity only intensified after she ended it two years later, at which point Matzneff transformed the girl he’d conscripted as a muse into a temperamental teenage mistress and a figure of doomed romance. From the time she was sixteen until she was twenty-five, he published a series of novels based on their relationship. Then came diaries about the same, released, she writes, “with the precision of a metronome, one book a year.”

The control Matzneff practiced in his writing reinforced the control he exercised in the flesh. In her memoir, Springora describes the aesthetic of self-denial he imposed: moderating her diet, forbidding her from smoking or wearing makeup, instructing her to read the Bible each night, though she’d been devoutly secular. Sometimes he treated Springora as a prompt in a literary exercise, cherishing his mastery of her voice so much that he demanded he write one of her school essays. In his books, she found reproductions of letters from former conquests, but they all “seemed strangely familiar: in their style, their enthusiasm, and even their vocabulary, it was as if they constituted a single body spread out across the years, in which the distant voice of a single idealized young girl, composed of all the others, could be heard.” Matzneff read Springora the stories of Edgar Allen Poe and his Virginia, and of Lewis Carroll and his “real Alice,” as if he was just the latest disciple of a perverted literary catechism, one that enabled him to marshal the glamour of great art to cloak behavior that was abusive not just in content but in form, wedding love and individuality to docility and deprivation.

Springora soon experienced the full brunt of her coached conformity to Matzneff’s style. When she read his published diary entries about her, in which she is first idealized and later demonized, it had a dissociating effect she likens to being caught in a trap, or a prison. “I discovered, at my expense, how books can be a snare to trap those one claims to love,” she writes. “As if his appearance in my life had not been devastating enough, now he had to document it, falsify it, record it, brand it forever with his crimes.” For Springora, Matzneff’s art and his abuses are inextricable. The abuse furnished him with opportunities to hone his exacting style and material for his art, whose success gave him license to continue the destructive behavior.

Matzneff shaped not only the narrative of his time with Springora, but also the broader perception of sex between adults and minors, maneuvering public opinion to prop up his defense. For decades, it had been fashionable among certain circles of French intellectuals to unabashedly promote sexual liberty, including what was presented as the sexual liberation of children. Views to the contrary risked being cast as prudish, censorious, and unimaginative. Matzneff helped uphold this consensus by confessing to his own abusive behavior at every opportunity, crafting his disclosures to appeal to his readers’ romantic sense of their own exceptionalism. In 1977, he drafted an open letter supporting the full decriminalization of sex between adults and minors, which was published in the French newspaper Le Monde and signed by a number of writers and intellectuals, most of them on the Left, including Roland Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-Paul Sartre. A similar letter published later that year received even more support—this time Louis Althusser and Jacques Derrida joined the signatories. By authoring the letter, Matzneff perpetuated a fiction of sexual freedom in which many real people were complicit, and by which many real people were harmed.

It’s as if Springora has disappeared into the chasm Matzneff curated between life and art and must somehow reconstruct her story there.

But Springora doesn’t stop at delivering trenchant analysis of the strategies Matzneff employed to consolidate and maintain his standing in French literary society; she aspires, she says, to construct a narrative trap of her own, a book to corner him as his body of work cornered her. She keeps the nature of this trap ill-defined, though it’s clear that the memoir is designed to directly challenge Matzneff on aesthetic as well as journalistic terms.

As her memoir progresses past the obliteration of romance, it’s as if Springora has disappeared into the chasm Matzneff curated between life and art and must somehow reconstruct her story there. This is a painful process. She has regular panic attacks and her high-school principal requests that she voluntarily take leave of her studies. She suffers loss of appetite, insomnia, and an episode of psychosis. Her romantic relationships with men don’t feel equal or safe, and every few years she packs up her life and moves to another city, another country. She writes of this time, “I had lived so many different, fragmented lives that I could barely find the slightest link between them. I was endlessly trying to piece myself together.” The finished book has the intensity of the dissipated, who with the right words could bring her life into focus. In keeping with this aesthetic propulsion, Consent is remarkably concentrated, as if worn to the bone.

It’s one of many subtle ways the book demands self-awareness from the reader. In what I found to be one of Consent’s most unexpected and affecting sections, Springora—now in her late forties and working in the Parisian publishing world that continues to burnish Matzneff’s reputation and disseminate his literature—apprehensively shows the manuscript of the memoir to her mother. The two have long argued about the mother’s decision to condone the Matzneff affair; more than thirty years later, she still resists her daughter’s understanding of the relationship as an abusive one. But her response catches Springora off guard: “Don’t change a thing. This is your story.” It’s a terse reply and not very redeeming for the mother; nonetheless I found her abdication of control and her very inability to say more at the moment genuinely moving. It signals, if not a reversal, at least a turn in her thinking away from a consoling alliance with powerful intellectual conventions. In many ways Springora’s book, which examines how involved a society can become in the telling of just one story, encourages this kind of reading.

 

Like Matzneff, Woody Allen has splashed his side of the story in the press, a simple but highly effective narrative intervention that has helped protect him since 1992, when his seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, accused him of sexually assaulting her in the attic of their family home in Connecticut. In a court case for custody of Dylan and the two other children he shared with Mia Farrow, Allen branded his former partner as an unfit mother pursuing revenge because he’d left her for her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. In this useful story of a woman scorned, Allen claimed that Mia fabricated Dylan’s abuse to get back at him for sleeping with her daughter. Thereafter, what might have been treated as an incriminating piece of evidence suggesting a pattern of abuse—namely, Allen’s sexual relationship with Soon-Yi, to whom he had become a father figure only a few years after she was adopted from Korea at the age of about six—was held up as proof that he could not have molested another of Mia’s children. This exoneration did not occur in any courthouse, but in the culture, where Allen’s narrative of a radical, rule-breaking love freed him to go on making a movie every year. 

Dylan Farrow (Courtesy of HBO)

As Allen v. Farrow demonstrates, the love story Allen told in his own defense has had far-reaching consequences, not only for the Farrows but for others living in its shadow. During his custody trial, Allen deployed the concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), a theory with no basis in scientific research that claims mothers commonly turn their children against fathers during custody battles. A child psychiatrist named Richard Gardner devised the theory in the mid-1980s based on his belief that mothers were fabricating child-abuse claims in custody courts. Gardner was a vocal supporter of Allen during his custody trial, and Allen constantly used the language of PAS at this time when speaking to the media about Farrow. The documentary offers compelling evidence that Allen’s public campaign against Farrow helped popularize the theory’s use in custody hearings for decades to come, with devastating effects: research conducted at the George Washington University Law School found that only one in fifty-one children’s abuse allegations are believed in court when the father claims parental alienation, even though it’s rare for such allegations to be the result of coaching.

The public fallout from the scandal made it possible for many people to continue believing Allen. Like Matzneff’s letter campaign, it also made survivors of child abuse less believable. It made people who were susceptible to this solipsistic reasoning worse readers of art and life, and it made us structurally less equipped to care for one another.

Allen v. Farrow may not be a direct aesthetic challenge to Allen’s films the way Springora’s book is to Matzneff’s oeuvre, but it does engage certain formal preoccupations of his that haven’t been used to tell this story before. Though reviewers have tended to focus on how much of the information that Allen v. Farrow presents is truly new, it didn’t seem to me like just another piece of true-crime journalism, the kind that dangles an unimpeachable conclusion just out of reach. Instead, it’s concerned with attaining a richer understanding of the Farrow family drama, one that doesn’t prioritize or always refer to Allen’s particular invocation of love. Just as Springora writes against the version of herself that Matzneff conjured in his writing, the documentary seeks to upend Allen’s version of the Farrows by composing the portrait of a family that’s wounded but defiant, and has been dealing with the damage all these years.

One way the series does this is by creating its own distinctive visual identity, separate from Allen’s, through the use of previously unseen footage recorded in the Farrow family house where the kids spent much of their childhood and where the alleged abuse took place. The opening scenes of the first episode, a brief flight of fancy over Central Park—across which Mia and Woody famously signalled to one another from their separate apartments in what many considered to be a platonic ideal of grown-up intimacy—quickly gives way to the Connecticut home. This domestic space, crowded with the faces of family photographs, resounding with voice-overs from Dylan and Mia, is the visual at the heart of the film. The documentary’s polished footage of cluttered interiors flows into grainy home videos of Mia, Woody, and the kids, a visual aid for the kind of intimate continuity the film tries to capture. This choice feels especially salient as a contrast to Allen’s quintessential images of New York City as artist’s playground: skyscrapers and skylines, Lincoln Center, Elaine’s, the Coney Island boardwalk, the Queensboro Bridge.

Another of these preoccupations is the complexity and weight of trauma when it besets a large, close-knit family. The abundance of interviews with Farrow family members point to the conflict going well beyond what allegedly transpired between Woody and Dylan in that attic. Soon-Yi’s relationship with nearly all of her family never recovered, a concatenation of consequences that has also mostly been written out of popular memory. (The film acknowledges that in recent years Soon-Yi and another of the Farrow children, Moses, have accused Mia of abusive behavior when they were growing up; both declined to be interviewed.) Mia recounts how in her custody battle with Allen she grappled with the fear of losing not just Dylan, Satchel (commonly known by his middle name, Ronan), and Moses, but the rest of her adopted children as well, if she were believed to be an unfit mother. Fletcher Previn, Mia’s biological son with her ex-husband André Previn, told producers that the damage to the family’s cohesion was irreversible. “People went into survival mode,” he says. “We were all devastated,” adds Daisy Previn, Mia and André’s adopted daughter. “It was a sad time.” Ronan recounts how on several occasions Allen offered him financial support contingent on his speaking out against Mia and Dylan. This he would have had to do on behalf of his father and his step-mom, who is also his sister. Shortly after Mia discovered naked photographs of Soon-Yi in Allen’s hotel room, she held a family meeting where each child was allowed to process their sister’s affair with the man they considered a father figure.

The film exhibits a rare interest in the survivor’s ongoing process of healing and change.

There’s more than enough material here for several Greek tragedies, much of it more compelling than Allen’s story of wayward attraction. Part of the reason for this is that the film exhibits a rare interest in the survivor’s ongoing process of healing and change. In the series’s final installment, Dylan meets with Frank Maco, the former Connecticut prosecutor who opted not to press charges against Allen for fear of further traumatizing her. She tells Maco how she’s long blamed herself for not being deemed capable of withstanding a trial, and Maco admits the case has followed him through the years as well, though he doesn’t regret his decision. The meeting doesn’t offer closure, but it does suggest the existence of a developing relationship between survivor and justice decades after the spectacle of litigation has concluded.

Elsewhere, interviews between the filmmakers and Dylan about the distorting effects of incestuous abuse (how it “warps something inside of you because...it happens by someone you love and someone you trust”) echo Springora’s lines about the fracturing of her life in the years after she broke away from Matznefff, redescribing abuse and its aftermath as a disorienting and uncertain process of transformation. This experience jars with Allen’s quips from his media tour about being an almost tragically consistent guy (“Isn’t it illogical that I’m going to…pick this moment to become a child molester?” he told 60 Minutes in 1992), and jocular post-trial remarks about how little the family turmoil upset his everyday life. Conveniently, these attitudes are of a piece with the kind of character Allen had spent the past two decades portraying in his films who, in an endearing and comical way, is never really changed by his relationships.

 

Springora opens her memoir with a quote from Proust that’s as pertinent to her case as it is to Dylan’s: “Our wisdom begins where the author’s ends; we would like him to give us answers, when all he can do is give us desires.” I suspect that art operates with greater force in our society than it is sometimes given credit for. It does not tell us right from wrong, but it is part of a collective process of deliberation that plays out through intimate encounters with others, and with the art itself. Delineating the line between art and artist is an intellectual exercise with severe limits when the desires they produce live on in us.

What desires did Matzneff and Allen, through their art and stage-managing of their personas, encourage in their audiences? At base, I think, it was just to believe them, to believe in their version of the world and live untroubled by it. They didn’t invent new ways of relating and feeling so much as romanticize deep power imbalances that were already in place, inculcating audiences with the pleasure of their repetition.

But desire can be a lot stranger than wishing to find the world already suitable to one’s needs. In the final scene of Consent, Springora mentions that while planning a recent visit to France’s Institute for Contemporary Publishing Archives she discovered that Matzneff’s manuscripts, including letters between him and former lovers, had been added to their files. “I imagine myself applying for permission to access those letters,” Springora writes. “I’d have to invent some untruth, a thesis on transgression in the fiction of the second half of the twentieth century.” She wonders if such a request would need to be cleared first with Matzneff and pictures a fellow visitor leafing through the letters she penned at fourteen, now classed among her abuser’s biographical materials. The very integrity of Matzneff’s legacy splits Springora, who is barred from entering the archive even as a version of herself is caught within, never to grow up or get beyond him.

The memoir rejects a culture that would enshrine such an arrangement as the height of artistic responsibility. The book ends with Springora’s fierce desire to destroy the correspondence with Matzneff she recently discovered at her mother’s house, to “snip them carefully into tiny bits” with “a big pair of scissors.” The image recalls the memoir’s first pages, in which she describes her early fascination with books as objects, her ambition to create a bounded story out of found scraps even before she could read or write. What began as a simple instinct to reproduce her surroundings bloomed into a desire to change their form, and smash the legacies that muzzled her. Calling her book a “trap” is an understatement when she took everything that man stood for apart.

Allen v. Farrow
HBO

Consent
A Memoir

Vanessa Springora
HarperVia
$27.99 | 208 pp.

Published in the September 2021 issue: 

Hannah Gold is a freelance writer who has worked at The Cut, Mask Magazine, Jezebel, and the old Gawker.

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