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About this week’s eSkeptic
Woody Allen (2006)

Woody Allen (photo by Colin Swan [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

In this week’s eSkeptic, in the wake of passionate and polarized commentary following Dylan Farrow’s recent allegations that Woody Allen sexually abused her when she was 7 years old, social psychologist Dr. Carol Tavris discusses how the science of memory may help guide how we think about cases like this. Carol Tavris, Ph.D., is a coauthor, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Tavris’ lecture at Caltech, based on the book, is available on DVD from Shop Skeptic.

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Believe the Survivors or the Science?
What the science of memory can teach us
about the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen case

by Carol Tavris

Like many others, I read the passionate and polarized commentary that followed Dylan Farrow’s letter (February 1, 2014) accusing Woody Allen of having sexually abused her in the attic 21 years ago, when she was 7. As is always the case with sensational charges of child sexual abuse, most people leap to conclusions: “Of course he did it”; “he couldn’t possibly have done it.”

I have no idea what happened that day so long ago, and neither do you. But science and skepticism can, perhaps, help us ask the right questions and avoid emotional reasoning. For example, it’s one thing to be sympathetic to Dylan’s account, but quite another to base one’s support mindlessly on the criterion of “believe all claims of abuse.” One blogger put it bluntly: “One of the bright, glaring, non-negotiable truths I have learned, though, is to believe survivors. Believe them, even if they don’t remember everything. Believe them, even if they remember almost nothing. Believe them, even if the person they say raped them seems like the nicest person in the world to you. Believe them, even if it shatters your whole world to do so. Believe them, even if they don’t want to share details, or press charges, or ever talk about it again. Believe them, even if their story sounds implausible to you.”

That kind of argument makes my heart sink. Believe the children in the Los Angeles McMartin preschool case, who claimed their teachers were molesting them in (nonexistent) underground tunnels and taking them on plane trips (on a preschool teacher’s salary?). Believe the children in New Jersey, who accused their daycare teacher Kelly Michaels of, among other things, licking peanut butter off children’s genitals, making the children drink her urine and eat her feces, and raping the children with knives, forks, and toys, although no adult noticed and no child had symptoms? Believe the women who, after years of therapy, hypnosis and “truth serum,” claimed that their fathers had raped them every day for 16 years only they forgot until now?

I was also dismayed to read claims by many of Dylan Farrow’s supporters that have long been scientifically disproved:

  • Children never lie about sexual abuse.
  • If a memory is vivid, detailed, and emotionally laden, that is evidence that it is accurate.
  • In the case of Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow, one must be “lying.” As Aaron Bady posted in The New Inquiry, “If one of them has to be lying for the other to be telling the truth, then presuming the innocence of one produces a presumption of the other’s guilt. And Woody Allen cannot be presumed to be innocent of molesting a child unless she is presumed to be lying to us.”

In research spanning 30 years, psychological scientists have demonstrated repeatedly what is wrong with these assumptions. Their goal is not to take sides, but to help prosecutors, judges, parents, teachers, and the rest of us to think more clearly about the issues—both to support children who have been molested and protect adults from false claims. Their research helped bring an end to the hysterical epidemic of daycare abuse and recovered-memory-therapy allegations, but not before hundreds of innocent daycare workers had been convicted and imprisoned and thousands of families torn apart. Some daycare workers are still in prison and some are “free” but burdened by the label of lifetime sexual offender. These miscarriages of justice were the result of mindlessly “believing the children,” something that can be said only by adults who don’t have children, know children or never were children themselves.

Consider “lying.” This is an adult term, referring to someone who knowingly and intentionally tells a falsehood. But a child or adult does not have to be lying to be wrong. Children, like adults, make up stuff, sometimes for attention, sometimes to avoid punishment, sometimes for reasons they don’t know. I told my fifth-grade teacher I missed school the previous day because I’d gone to the racetrack. A child I know told her mother that her first-grade teacher had hit her; shocked, the mother removed the child from the classroom and ended a close friendship with the teacher over the claim. Four years later, the child tearfully admitted she’d made it up.

More to the point: children, like adults, misremember, and their certainty that their memory is accurate—no matter how vivid and emotional—is no indication that it is. I have a powerful memory of my beloved father reading James Thurber’s The Wonderful O to me when I was 8, but that book was published when I was 13—a year after my father’s death. Memories can be distorted and confabulated both through the normal failings of memory and through the manipulations of adult questions, as happened repeatedly in the daycare cases. In a study of schoolchildren who were asked for recollections of an actual sniper incident at their school, many of those who had been absent from school that day reported memories of hearing shots, seeing someone lying on the ground, and other details they could not possibly have experienced directly. They weren’t “lying”—they were misremembering, as we all do. The emotion and trauma of the experience caused them to insert themselves into the event.

In her TEDGlobal talk in 2013, the eminent memory scientist Elizabeth Loftus said that memory was less like a recording device and “more like a Wikipedia page—you can go in there and change it, but so can other people.” She and other researchers have implanted false memories even of bizarre events—such as, she says, “being attacked by a vicious animal, nearly drowning and being rescued by a lifeguard, or witnessing demonic possession.” False memories can be implanted with suggestions, misinformation, hypnosis, and even doctored photographs. She calls these “rich false memories,” because people truly believe they are accurate. They “recall” them with confidence, adding details as they go and feeling deep emotion, as I felt about my memory of my father reading The Wonderful O. Rich false memories can persist for years. That’s why Dylan Farrow doesn’t have to be “lying” when she reported her version of events. But without independent corroboration, we don’t know.

Likewise, perpetrators are not necessarily lying when they claim innocence: many are self-justifying, unable and unwilling to accept evidence of the harm or cruelty they caused another. Doesn’t every couple—or family, or politician—understand this? “You betrayed me,” she says. “You started it,” he replies. He isn’t lying; he really believes his actions were not as devastating as she does. Woody Allen could be self-justifying rather than lying. So could Mia Farrow.

When an emotionally compelling story hits the news, it’s tempting for all of us to jump to conclusions. Many people are inclined to believe, as I first did in the McMartin case, that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Wrong: sometimes there’s just smoke—and mirrors. The problem, as studies of cognitive dissonance show, is that as soon as we take sides, the brain sees to it that we will justify and solidify our position by seeking only the information that confirms it, and deny, ignore or minimize evidence that we could be wrong.

That is the reason for the vehemence with which many of Farrow’s supporters are shouting down the opposition. (The title of a research paper captured this phenomenon perfectly: “When in Doubt, Shout.”) Given a choice of whom to believe, they say, we must always side with the accuser in a rape or molestation case; otherwise we are supporting the patriarchal “rape culture.” As Bady writes, “if you are presuming his innocence by presuming her mendacity, you are rape cultured.” Anyone who asks skeptical questions of Dylan Farrow’s story is a pedophile or a sexist who is abetting the abuse of children and women. That kind of self-righteous certainty shuts down thoughtful inquiry. It does not help the cause of feminism or justice.

How, then, should we think about Dylan Farrow’s allegations? It’s relevant that they occurred during a bitter custody dispute, when Mia Farrow’s understandable rage at Allen over his affair with Soon Yi was going at full blast. We might ask why Dylan is making her story public now. We might wonder whether she has been influenced by recovered-memory therapists or, as her brother Moses writes, by an angry and vengeful mother. We would want to take into account that this family remains bitterly divided. Most of all, we have to accept the most difficult lesson of critical thinking: tolerating uncertainty.

What we should not do, as my coauthor Elliot Aronson has said, is “sacrifice our skepticism on the altar of outrage.” Outrage is good when it leads to constructive, mindful efforts to promote justice—for innocent children and for innocent adults. But outrage without skepticism and science is a recipe for hysteria and witch hunts. END

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  1. Roy Niles says:

    I’ve also heard it claimed by memory professionals that every time you call up a memory of some significant event in your distant past, you tend to change that memory a bit, apparently preserving and enhancing bits that made you feel better about your side of the story than might have otherwise been the case. And that’s not even considering the pressure that others may put on you to change your story of some past event to their benefit, which they may also have persuaded you is to your benefit as well.
    And all the parties in this drama are weird enough to change, in one way or another, as many memories to fit their divergent purposes as they possibly can.

  2. Raquel Baranow says:

    Darn, thought this was going to be an article about Holocaust survivors and a forensic, logistical examination of the alleged murder weapon: It’s not practical to exterminate millions with louse disinfestant (dumping it through holes in the roof and sweeping it out the doors) or Diesel exhaust (Diesel has inert amounts of carbon monoxide) and cremate thousands/day with several kilograms of coke or in pit-fires, etc.

  3. Bob Pease says:

    “But science and skepticism can, perhaps, help us ask the right questions and avoid emotional reasoning”

    If this ever becomes the social norm , a lot more lawyers will be looking for work.

    Dr. S

  4. Bob Pease says:

    an example of “false” (or distorted ) memory:

    I have a distinct memory getting out of a car on the right side after stopping
    and pulling over to observe a landmark.

    I was a passenger and we were going North, driving on the Right-hand side of
    the road.
    The only problem is that we were in AUSTRALIA, and my memory is a mirror image of what actually happened.

    If I were asked to testify in court, I would have to testify that I distinctly remember it the way I described it, with the disclaimer that I know the scene actually happened in a reversed way.

    (no lawyer would allow me to testify on their side, with this kind of a statement.)

    In the ’60’s I was a debate judge for many years at NFL ( Forensics) .
    Unchallenged emotional arguments would get points.

    Bob Pease

  5. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    This article reminds me of a line I use in my lecture on the nature of science, in the section on reliable evidence:

    Many a man has been sent to the gallows on the word of a respectable
    person. This ‘evidence’ would carry little sway in the court of science –
    NO ONE would take Newton’s, Einstein’s or Hawking’s word for it. Claims
    must be tested and verified before being accepted.

  6. Brian W says:

    “Aaron Bady posted in The New Inquiry, “If one of them has to be lying for the other to be telling the truth, then presuming the innocence of one produces a presumption of the other’s guilt.”

    Not necessarily. We must always presume innocence until proven guilty in the case of both the accused and the accuser.

    • Roy Niles says:

      “We must always presume innocence until proven guilty in the case of both the accused and the accuser.”
      That only applies as a rule in the court of law and then only in the adversarial system.
      And in any case two people can be telling different versions of what they believe to be the truth in which case neither would be knowingly lying.
      Although in this case I imagine that all parties are to some extent lying to protect their individual interests.

    • James says:

      Some people believed the mantra of “seperate but equal” : or “all men are created equal”. It doesn’t work in real life. The “best” lawyer can win the case.

  7. Brian W says:

    It should apply in life generally otherwise we end up accusing and attacking the innocent. I must confess I haven’t always lived up to it but it is the ideal.

  8. Frank Stagg says:

    Excellent, well balanced article!

  9. John says:

    Well balanced article? Yes, so due to a few anecdotal accounts, most children who claim abuse are lying or mistaken? What are the stats about children who accuse someone of abuse that are deemed to be true? How about such claims against those who are rich and powerful? This isn’t even touched on in this article. I don’t know if the author was molested as a child, but I was at age 6 and decades later I can vividly recall what was done to me, the location of the abuse, and by whom. There is no mistake and I have no reason to lie as my abuser had been dead for nearly 20 years. I don’t know Mr. Allen except through his films, but it seems to me it’s not a leap to assume what else someone who would marry their own adopted daughter would attempt to abuse another adopted daughter. Mr. Allen’s own son, who I assume knows him a tad better than this article’s author, backs up Mrs. Farrow’s account. I believe Mrs. Farrow.

    • Roy Niles says:

      My understanding is that the son actually backs Allen’s position.

      • John says:

        I was referring to Ronan. Apparently one of the adopted sons sides with Allen.

        Anyhoo, from Dylan’s own words:

        “My memories are the truth and they are mine and I will live with that for the rest of my life. My mother never coached me. She never planted false memories in my brain. My memories are mine. I remember them. She was distraught when I told her. When I came forward with my story she was hoping against hope that I had made it up. In one of the most heartbreaking conversations I have ever had, she sat me down and asked me if I was telling the truth. She said that Dad said he didn’t do anything. And I said, ‘He’s lying.’”

        • Roy Niles says:

          Ronan is reportedly Sinatra’s son, which, if so, his mother doesn’t want to admit.
          So that form of lying in the family is apparently nothing new. Making your evidence that Ronan and his mother are more likely truthful to be shaky at best.

    • Doug says:

      Allen did not marry his adopted daughter. Soon-Yi is the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Andre Previn. He never considered her his daughter and she never considered him her father.

  10. Chris D says:

    Doug- Can you please explain to me why people tie themselves into mental knots trying to justify the extremely creepy and disgusting, if not actually illegal, actions of Woody Allen regarding his relationship with Soon Yi? Because from where I’m sitting, it looks a lot like he was grooming a child bride for himself.

    That was an excellent, well balanced article. My one caveat, and this has been noted elsewhere, is that towards the end you ignore your own assertions.

    “as soon as we take sides, the brain sees to it that we will justify and solidify our position by seeking only the information that confirms it, and deny, ignore or minimize evidence that we could be wrong,”

    You then spend the rest of the article examining Dylan Farrows allegations with ever ONCE examining the claims of Woody Allen. Allen had been seeing a therapist for “his unnatural obsession with Dylan.” He refused to take a polygraph.
    Allen subsequently lost four exhaustive court battles—a lawsuit, a disciplinary charge against the prosecutor, and two appeals—and was made to pay more than $1 million in Mia’s legal fees. Judge Elliott Wilk, the presiding judge in Allen’s custody suit against Farrow, concluded that there is “no credible evidence to support Mr. Allen’s contention that Ms. Farrow coached Dylan or that Ms. Farrow acted upon a desire for revenge against him for seducing Soon-Yi.” Oh, and he was secretly having sex with his long-time partners adopted teenage daughter.

    Memory is extremely malleable. This is absolutely true. Could Mia Farrow have implanted false memories in Dylan’s mind when she was of an age to be vulnerable to such manipulations? Certainly. But when one considers the life long trauma she was subjecting her daughter to, all in the name of getting back at Woody Allen, and when one then puts that single assertion up against the pile of circumstantial evidence and frankly disturbing nature of Woody Allen’s actions?
    My own skepticism leads me to one conclusion. Woody Allen most likely raped Dylan Farrow. He’ll never face any sort of punishment or sanction because of this. He has a MOUNTAIN of supporters who will defend him to the last, just because he’s a great filmmaker. Personally, I feel having this all dredged up publicly every time he wins an award or receives any accolades is just deserts for his disgusting behavior .

    • Doug says:

      It is not my intention to “justify” Woody Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi, nor am I convinced that he is innocent of molesting Dylan. I do believe, however, that facts are important. Don’t you? People jumble together the two scandals: his affair with Soon-Yi and his alleged molestation of Dylan. I have heard people say, “He was charged with molesting his daughter, and then they dropped the charges when he married her.” That’s not what happened, and it isn’t defending him to point out that that’s not what happened.
      I agree that it was sleazy of Allen to cheat on Farrow with her adopted daughter. It was sleazy of Mia to cheat on him with Frank Sinatra. It was sleazy of Sinatra to cheat on his wife with Mia. None of these people are saints (the one person I do feel sorry for is Dylan; whether she was molested by Allen or brainwashed by Farrow, she is an innocent victim).

      • Chris D says:

        Yes, absolutely, facts are vitally important. And you’re right, the facts have been repeatedly muddled. I apologize if I came across as hostile, I realize you were not defending Allen’s affair with Soon Yi. It’s just that I’ve seen the “he wasn’t her father” line used so many times to try and defend this mans actions… well, I guess my reaction has become knee jerk as well.

        I do feel, however, that there was a power dynamic there that was not present during those other affairs. Leaving aside legalities and assertions to the contrary by both parties, Woody Allen appears to have had, at the very least, perceived authority over Soon Yi to some extent. I believe it is reasonable to conclude he may have abused that authority in initiating a relationship with her, especially if he did so before she reached the age of consent, all of which seems unclear. But even in the absence of concrete facts, some conclusions become inescapable.
        Since this is all a just matter of opinion anyway(Woody Allen will never face any concrete sanctions for his actions, unless you count the largely useless public shaming he has received.) I feel it is also reasonable to conflate his actions regarding Soon Yi with the allegations made by Dylan.
        We’ll never really know, though, will we? Unless someone confesses, and even then there will be doubts. You’re absolutely right about one thing. Dylan Farrow is the victim in all this, and continues to be victimized, and will be her entire life. It all so me sad. Either way, the poor woman faces a memory of trauma that will stay with all her life.
        At the end of the day, the memory manipulation defense just isn’t convincing to me. Not the science behind it, but the circumstances in this particular case.

        • Roy Niles says:

          Sadness tempered by the sensations that arise from being a public figure where you can see yourself gathering the sympathy from millions and revel in it a bit more than the “little people” victims have been able to do.

  11. Jim says:

    The simple fact is that none of us has enough information to know whether Woody Allen sexually abused Dylan Farrow. To take any position other than “I don’t know” is to make assumptions that may not be justified.

  12. Spiro Condos says:

    Thank you, thank you, Skeptics and Carol Tavris!

    Balanced, rational article alike this are the reason I joined the Skeptics.

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