As an attorney with over three decades of experience advocating for women and children whose lives have been blighted, some by domestic violence and some by childhood sexual abuse, and as the widow of Elliott Wilk, the judge in the Allen v. Farrow custody case, my interest in Dylan Farrow’s recent disclosures of sexual abuse by Woody Allen is both professional and personal.
Because of Allen’s celebrity, I fear that his deceptive words of denial will reverberate in a way that further silences mothers of child abuse victims, as well as adult survivors, who would otherwise seek justice in our courts. This is one of the reasons his reliance on a flawed forensic report and the testimony of other mental health practitioners, lacking expertise about sexual abuse, is so troubling.
The role of mental health evidence in cases of domestic violence and child sexual abuse has evolved over the last 35 years. Back then, medical and social science research about these atrocities was still in a state of relative infancy. “Domestic violence” was still called “wife beating,” and like cancer, was rarely spoken about in public. Many psychiatrists, trained in the orthodoxies of that profession in those times, viewed its victims as mentally ill masochists. Discussion of child sexual abuse was even more taboo, particularly incest.
Representing a mother whose child was sexually abused by an intimate partner has always been difficult. Allen’s attack on the credibility of Mia Farrow, which was specifically determined to be without basis at trial, is now renewed, again echoing the misogynistic voices in American law that trivialize violence against women and children. This places the mothers of abused children in the untenable position of being savaged as vengeful women, lashing out against the men who have “spurned” them, or being charged with being neglectful parents who have failed to protect their children.
Many attorneys who represented men accused of child sexual abuse and domestic violence resorted to the primitive view that women are unworthy of belief. In one case counsel argued that because my client, her witnesses, and her attorney were all women, her charge of sexual abuse was the result of deceitful female networking. In another, a lawyer concluded that his client, the subject of a claim of domestic violence, was the victim of a female plot — breastfeeding — designed to keep fathers away from their children.
Some jurists were no better. In one of my early cases, the judge began a trial by sternly admonishing me that he would not limit the father’s access to his daughter unless penetration and injury were proved. To him, sexual abuse could mean nothing short of rape, ignoring the fact that sexual abuse often produces no physical injury.
As physicians, psychotherapists and scholars deepened their study of domestic violence and child sexual abuse, our understanding of these social ills increased. Attorneys for victims began drawing upon experts’ knowledge, which became the basis of testimony presented in legal proceedings, criminal and civil.
In child custody cases, the use of mental health testimony had traditionally been a hired-gun “my check is bigger than yours” duel between experts. Over time, judges began appointing impartial forensic experts in an effort to discourage contests between paid partisans and to enhance the quality of the testimony being offered. These mental health professionals did not treat the parents or children. They interviewed family members, other witnesses, and presented their opinions in court, subject to cross-examination.
Unfortunately, some forensic experts, and treating therapists as well, failed to provide ethical and competent testimony. In one disheartening case, also before my husband, a treating therapist, under oath, concealed knowledge of the father’s acts of domestic violence. In another matter, a forensic expert shockingly admitted on my cross-examination that he had no training in domestic violence, a central issue in the case, and that he had not read the clinical notes of the child’s therapist. These contained the boy’s report of seeing his father push his mother down a flight of stairs.
The participation of inadequately trained mental health experts exacerbates already difficult cases. Some have limited knowledge about the clinical issues they are addressing, harbor sexist or other prejudices, or favor a parent whose profession or reputation they admire. Some, in academic and hospital settings, and some in lucrative private practices, give testimony that is deceptive or naÃ¯ve. Some demonstrate ignorance or avoidance of the rules of evidence which govern court proceedings.
It is on the basis of the forensic report in his custody case that Allen attempts to hijack my husband’s trial decision. Minimizing the rejection of the report as “very irresponsible,” he claims that the contents of the report “disappointed” my husband. Elliott was disappointed, but not for the reasons Allen imagines. He was disappointed, even disgusted, because the forensic experts had destroyed their interview notes and because they were unwilling to personally appear as witnesses, to be cross-examined in court. As he stated, those factors “compromised [the court’s] ability to scrutinize their findings and resulted in a report which was sanitized and, therefore, less credible.”
In the 20-plus years since Allen v. Farrow, progress has been made in achieving a better understanding about how childhood sexual abuse can be more clearly and credibly presented to judges and to the many others in our communities whose lives it so destructively affects.
From those professionals who study and treat victims of sexual abuse, we know that patients who were molested as children, especially by a trusted person, often spend years, sometimes decades, trying to avoid thinking about it, shoving it into a drawer and locking it shut. But the connections of traumatic association — the sounds, smells and images, the sensations of physical invasion — insist on returning, fresh and painful, overwhelming those abused with shame and guilt.
As someone who has worked extensively in this field, I find Dylan Farrow’s disclosures to be compelling. The contents of her open letter are consistent with what knowledgeable mental health experts have taught us about the modus operandi of perpetrators of child sexual abuse. She convincingly describes the details of what occurred, its impact on her, including the symptoms that lead to her diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Those who survive childhood sexual abuse have the right to decide how they can best heal. Some will do it privately, others publicly. Both are legitimate choices. Given the inhospitable environment in which such cases are too often addressed, most recently reflected by Allen’s manipulative and cruel response to his daughter, it is no wonder more victims do not speak out.
It is hard to say which among Dylan Farrow’s experiences are the most heart-wrenching. One is the betrayal by the forensic experts who botched the report in this case. Second is the willingness of treating therapists to express opinions on a subject about which they had no expertise. And third is the pain of having had to endure the public adulation of her abuser.
Dylan Farrow, once a child victim, is now an adult survivor. She is fortunate to have a mother who trusted her, protected her and supported her decision to disclose what occurred. She deserves our belief and empathy. She has mine.