What Ronan Farrow can teach us about questioning powerful men accused of sexual abuse

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Ronan Farrow, the famous and successful son of Hollywood icons Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, has long been vocal about his complicated feelings towards his father.

The half-joke is an allusion to Allen’s marriage to Soon Yi, Ronan’s adopted sister and Allen’s current wife. But his ill-will toward his father goes much further back, as detailed in an explosive guest column for The Hollywood Reporter published Wednesday.


In the column, the 28-year-old NBC News reporter takes his public criticism of Allen, who has been accused of sexually abusing Ronan’s sister Dylan when she was 7-years-old, a step further by calling out the press for what he calls a “culture of impunity and silence” that empowers powerful sexual abusers and discourages accusers from coming forward.

His message comes at a moment when sexual assault is being publicly addressed more than ever before, but there's still a long way to go. And it's this culture of not supporting or believing victims—and not giving them a prominent platform to share their stories—that Ronan says all but enables prominent men like his father.

Dylan penned an open letter of her own back in 2014 for Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog. In her piece, The now-30-year-old opened with a haunting anecdote:

What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me. … To this day, I find it difficult to look at toy trains.


While Dylan’s piece re-opened the conversation about Allen’s past indiscretions, it didn’t stop him from scoring a “landmark” deal with Amazon this year for a yet-to-be-named comedy series and the rights to his latest film, Cafe Society, which opens at the Cannes Film Festival this week. That’s why Ronan felt compelled to personally address his own handling of Dylan’s allegations, and the subsequent press reaction—or lack thereof.

(Fusion reached out to Allen's publicist for comment on Ronan's column, but had not heard back at the time of publication.)


Ronan writes about how the Los Angeles Times was originally set to publish Dylan’s letter but killed it at the last minute. “The editor called me, distraught, since I'd written for them in the past,” he recalls. “There were too many relationships at stake. It was too hot for them. He fought hard for it.”

Soon after the Times agreed to publish Dylan’s story online, it published a much longer piece about Allen. The fact that the paper gave Allen so much extra space galvanized Ronan to speak out on behalf of Dylan and provided an important lesson on the need to provide as much support as possible for loved ones who are victims—especially victims of powerful men like Allen, and Bill Cosby, to whom he says the media (himself included) have been far too forgiving.


“I had worked hard to distance myself from my painfully public family history and wanted my work to stand on its own….Initially, I begged my sister not to go public again and to avoid speaking to reporters about it. I'm ashamed of that, too,” Ronan admits in his piece. “With sexual assault, anything's easier than facing it in full, saying all of it, facing all of the consequences.”

Aside from providing ample support for victims, something else to take away from Ronan’s story is the importance of believing victims in the first place, whether or not their case has been proven in a court of law. “I believe my sister,” Ronan writes. “This was always true as a brother who trusted her, and, even at 5 years old, was troubled by our father's strange behavior around her: climbing into her bed in the middle of the night, forcing her to suck his thumb—behavior that had prompted him to enter into therapy focused on his inappropriate conduct with children prior to the allegations.”


Perhaps the most important lesson here, though, is for journalists, and our duty to question the powerful and provide a voice for the voiceless—something that has not happened in Allen’s case.

“Very often, women with allegations do not or cannot bring charges,” Ronan says. “Very often, those who do come forward pay dearly, facing off against a justice system and a culture designed to take them to pieces. A reporter's role isn't to carry water for those women. But it is our obligation to include the facts, and to take them seriously. Sometimes, we're the only ones who can play that role.”


It’s also the duty of women in power to draw the line and make it clear that they won’t work with a man accused of sexually abusing a child. Scarlett Johansson called Dylan’s accusations of Allen and his supporters “irresponsible” in the aftermath of her bombshell open letter. But after reading Ronan’s column, it’s not hard to realize that the only irresponsible people are the ones who have remained silent.

Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.

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