Dylan Farrow Is a “Lucky” Person, but First, She Was a Plaything

Melissa Toldy
Mar 2 · 11 min read
Photo by Bekah Russom on Unsplash

Woody Allen once asked me, “Would you like to be the star of this picture?” I was asleep at the time. We bumped into each other on a surreal Manhattan street, a scene conjured by imagination and recollection. Judging by Woody’s entourage, the film would be more Fellini than Bergman. Something absurd and playful.

The dream came after I moved to New York City in 2008, during which time I sported a pixie haircut. People — and I mean, random people on the street — called me “Mia,” as in Farrow. It was not because I looked so much like her. It was because Mia owns the pixie.

I was born in 1983, and I was too young to understand the controversy around Woody Allen in 1992. I was a kid when I watched TV footage of Woody and Soon-Yi holding hands. I didn’t know what I was looking at.

I had never heard of Dylan Farrow until 2014, when I read her open letter. “Today, I consider myself lucky,” she wrote.

In 2015, Irrational Man was playing at Angelika Film Center. I met a friend there, to watch the forgettable movie, and she pointed out a young woman onscreen, a pretty blond I had met briefly.

My friend is an actor, and she called her friend “lucky” — she nabbed a small part in a Woody Allen film. When the end credits rolled, I asked, “Do you think he molested his daughter?” My friend nodded.

When my friend nodded in the cinema, confirming yes, Woody Allen sexually assaulted a young girl, I wondered, Why did we just watch his movie? But I didn’t pursue the conversation further.

People (myself included) want to believe Woody Allen never harmed Dylan Farrow. By discrediting a seven-year-old girl, we can shield ourselves from feeling disgust and sadness. We can tell ourselves — this is a story, one among many. In 2018, A. O. Scott wrote “My Woody Allen Problem”:

“Mr. Allen’s films and writings are a part of the common artistic record, which is another way of saying that they inform the memories and experiences of a great many people. I don’t mean this as a defense, but an acknowledgment of betrayal and shame.”

Woody’s stories and Dylan’s story are entangled with Mia’s story and Soon-Yi’s story. A teenager meets a famous older man, and she falls in love with him.

As members of the public, we see a 21-year-old woman marrying her adoptive mother’s boyfriend. Soon-Yi was old enough to make her own choices, right? After all, Mia Farrow was 21 when she married Frank Sinatra.

An older man introduced me to Woody Allen’s films, in college, in the early aughts. The older man was only five years older than me, but he said our age difference made us incompatible. He was Gen X; I was a millennial. We were a generation apart!

The man thought he was too old for me, but he didn’t think his age gave him an unfair advantage. He thought — you’re not interesting enough yet. I was 21. Still, that didn’t stop him from sleeping with me.

We watched Annie Hall and Manhattan together, and I fell in love with Diane Keaton. My then-boyfriend wasn’t interested in the women in the films. He was in love with the city. His real hero was another neurotic: Timothy “Speed” Levitch in The Cruise.

We moved in together, and that was when I realized the Gen Xer had more in common with Woody Allen than he let on. He saw himself as an artist, and he saw me as an impediment to his artistic goals.

I might have been able to handle his “artistic” temperament, if it weren’t for the drinking and the drugs. If someone apologizes for saying and doing things they can’t remember saying and doing — it’s not enough.

I’m not sure if Dylan Farrow’s story turned me off from Woody Allen, or if it just so happens that he hasn’t made an intriguing movie since Blue Jasmine (2013). If the film was released today, would I be able to resist Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins?

Woody Allen’s success is built on women. Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow provided real-life fodder for the life-like women we saw on screen. I can’t think of a great female actor who has not worked with Woody Allen.

Here’s a short list: Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Gena Rowlands, Dianne Wiest, Anjelica Huston, Charlotte Rampling. The full list is impressive.

I never wanted to be an actor, at least not consciously. My dreams implied otherwise. Still, I never answered Woody Allen’s question. Would I want to be the star in his picture?

Even though I enjoyed watching Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, I didn’t want to be them. I was more interested in being the director. I wanted to be Woody Allen, and on some level, the women in his films fulfilled that role. They spoke his lines. They acted out his fantasies.

It was always the women who made Woody Allen’s films unforgettable, for me. But always always always, lurking amid the cold intellectuals and the pragmatic prostitutes, there were older men, seducing younger women.

People point to Manhattan as an obvious example, but the relationship dynamic shows up in several Woody Allen films. Tom Shone wrote for The Guardian:

“In each case, the man, assuming a position of intellectual superiority, establishes himself as the woman’s tutor-lover, only to lose her once she grows confident enough to leave him.”

Before Dylan Farrow was able to grow into an autonomous person, she had the unlucky role of being Woody Allen’s latest fixation. No doubt, Allen didn’t plan to become obsessed with her. Just like he didn’t plan to marry his girlfriend’s daughter. Still, it happened. He acted on his desires.

I don’t think men plan on being stupid or harmful, but they continue to be stupid and harmful. I don’t expect Woody Allen will ever take responsibility for the pain he inflicted on Dylan Farrow. From his perspective, the transgression was “not a moral dilemma.”

Mark Harris reviewed Woody Allen’s autobiography, Apropos of Nothing, published in 2020, looking for clues about the filmmaker’s craft, only to find very little reflection and even less insight. The pages were filled with comments on how attractive women were and how Woody kept finding himself with the “crazy” ones.

The first time someone told me I looked like Mia Farrow, the comment didn’t come from a man. His wife made the remark. I was in my early 20s, and they were in their 40s. We ran into each other at a restaurant, and my hair was growing out, after I had shaved it all off.

I looked waifish. I was working for myself, selling vintage clothes, and I was scraping by. I rarely went out to eat, but I went out that night for a friend’s birthday celebration.

I knew the older man because we shared an interest in vintage clothes, and we frequented the same stores in Austin, where I lived at the time. A mutual acquaintance of ours described him as a “ne’re-do-well.” From what I understood, his wife was wealthy, and he pursued hobbies, rather than a career.

The older man was interesting, as older men can sometimes be, especially when you are younger and less experienced. It took me a while to warm up to him, as it takes me a while to warm up to most strangers. I am a cautious person, and even in my early 20s, I didn’t trust people easily.

After a year of regularly seeing this older man in public, I let my guard down. I enjoyed talking to him, and I learned from him, too. He was knowledgeable about vintage, and he helped me hone my eye for quality pieces.

Looking back, I’m still grateful for the older man’s help and generosity. But I can’t forget this one time he did something stupid. Most likely, he meant no harm by it. Most likely, he wasn’t thinking about how I would feel about it. He was just in the moment, acting out his desires.

“My wife thinks you look like Mia Farrow,” he told me. “Do you know who that is?” he asked. I nodded.

One day, we were chatting, as we often did, and the older man smacked me on the butt with a piece of clothing. Like how boys in locker rooms use towels to whip each other. Not only did the older man smack me on the butt, he added, “You’re naughty.”

This interaction came completely out of the blue. From what I gathered, the older man was simply in a weird mood that day. I didn’t say or do anything “naughty,” from what I can recall. I was just standing there, shopping for vintage clothes.

I doubt this older man even remembers the incident. He probably didn’t think much of it, back then, or now.

When I moved to New York City, I was like a target for older men. They would approach me at parks, on the subway, walking down the street. Sometimes, I would give them a chance. I met some interesting people, and I enjoyed our conversations. But at some point in every relationship, it was clear what these older men really wanted: to fuck me.

People tell me I look like Mia Farrow, but I’m not Mia Farrow. In fact, I’m disgusted by Mia and Woody. In the new HBO documentary series Allen v. Farrow, Mia describes her decision to adopt Dylan Farrow. Woody said he wanted nothing to do with it, but “it wouldn’t ruin the relationship.”

“Nothing to do with it,” and yet, Woody suggested Mia find a “little blond girl,” because, you know, she might be more lovable that way.

I hope, if my partner ever suggested something like that to me, I would say, “Go fuck yourself.”

It pisses me off that Mia stayed with Woody, after she suspected his relationship with Dylan was unhealthy. And then, my God, Mia let Woody adopt Dylan! How infuriating.

I’m not like Mia Farrow, but she does remind me of my mother. A well-intentioned woman who struggles to see volition in her choices. Like Mia, my mother was of the generation who suffered from polio, the same generation still convinced that women should be home, raising kids.

My father cheated on my mother, repeatedly, but most memorably with an 18-year-old Chinese woman. A young, impressionable person who eventually married my father, largely due to cultural norms in China. He was past 50, and he tried to reverse his vasectomy. They wanted children together, but as far as I know, they failed to reproduce.

I hoped my father wouldn’t have more children, after seeing his affect on me and my five siblings. He was not a good father. He saw himself as a creative genius — in business — and our lives completely revolved around his desires.

My father, in a bad mood, spanked me — when I had done nothing wrong. One day, I walked inside our house, from the backyard, and because my father was a workaholic, he didn’t realize the door slammed, naturally, on its own. I was seven years old when my father made me strip naked, so he could hit me with a wooden spoon.

To this day, I can’t understand why I needed to be naked. I had been swimming in our backyard pool. Surely a thin swimsuit didn’t protect me from a painful spanking.

It didn’t matter. It wasn’t about me. It was about him — satisfying his needs.

Except, it did matter. To me. When I picture the incident, I’m out of my body, watching a little naked girl, cornered in the bathroom. My father stood behind me. What could he have been thinking?

Probably nothing.

On Siskel and Ebert’s “Worst Movies” List for 1992, Siskel said:

I don’t want to be accused of kicking a man while he’s down, but watching Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog early in the year was one of the most aggravating experiences I had in 1992.

The story was “pointlessly dreary,” Siskel added. Ebert’s main complaint was that the style didn’t improve on the classics of German Expressionism, such as Nosferatu.

In Shadows and Fog, a man pays a woman $700 to sleep with her. Mia Farrow plays the woman, and she’s never done anything like this before. She defends her actions to another character, played by Woody Allen:

Farrow: Just one person. Does that make me a whore?

Allen: Only by the dictionary definition.

In another scene, John Cusack, the john who paid for sex, unwittingly describes the encounter to the woman’s boyfriend, played by John Malkovich, in a bar:

Cusack: She didn’t have that used, jaded quality. So irresistible, sweet and innocent. Under the sheets, tigress.

Malkovich: You mean a good actress.

Farrow and Malkovich reconnect at the end, and they find a baby, alone in the street. The child’s mother has been strangled to death. At first, Malkovich doesn’t want the baby, but Farrow insists. Soon, Malkovich is in love with the little girl. He holds her close to his chest. Farrow repeatedly asks to hold her, but the baby’s new father won’t let her go.

Woody Allen cast himself as the clueless protagonist, a man who doesn’t understand his role. He’s supposed to help everyone in the town catch a strangler on the loose.

At one point, Allen is a suspect. But we see the real strangler, a tall man who doesn’t speak. He slowly walks up to his prey and kills them.

With the help of a drunk magician, Allen catches the strangler, briefly, but then he disappears. Farrow praises Allen’s efforts, even though the strangler is still out there:

Farrow: All I know is, you certainly saved my life. You were very brave.

Woody: I can be brave. It’s just that, I can’t think about it first. If I ever think about what’s going to happen to me, then I lose control of my muscles.

When Soon-Yi characterized Woody, after they had been married for decades, I wonder if she recognized the implications of this statement:

I wasn’t the one who went after Woody — where would I get the nerve? He pursued me. That’s why the relationship has worked: I felt valued. It’s quite flattering for me. He’s usually a meek person, and he took a big leap.

A meek person, huh? Someone gentle, modest, unassuming. Someone you would never suspect has ill intentions. Someone who had sex with teenagers. Gentle sex! Modest sex! Unassuming sex!

Whether you believe Dylan Farrow’s story about being sexually assaulted in her home, you should have no trouble seeing Woody Allen as an abusive person. Just because he’s too much of a “nebbish” to recognize the power dynamic, it doesn’t mean he’s innocent. In 1996, Peter Bart wrote in Variety:

We are repeatedly presented with the image of an inept, guilt-ridden nebbish of a human being stumbling through life, yet all the while exercising fierce control over a mind-bendingly efficient PR machine.

I wish Dylan Farrow’s story was different. I wish she was a famous director, showing us a better version of relationships. One where people transcend the typical power dynamic. But Dylan got caught in the middle of her parents’ missteps.

There’s the man, the artist, pursuing his desires. And then there’s the woman, the muse, serving him. A kid is just a plaything, a prop, in the drama of love.

For my obligatory note of hope: Dylan Farrow wrote a YA novel, described as “a powerful fantasy where one girl is determined to remake the world.”

EPISODIC

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