Suffice it to say that this past weekend, just one month before the anniversary of the twin bombshell exposes on Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent deluge of #MeToo-related headlines, was a weird, cynical time for New York Magazine to run a “profile” of Soon-Yi Previn, the wife (and former sort of step-daughter) of Woody Allen.
There are about 500 things wrong with this “profile,” which was written by Daphne Merkin, a journalist and friend of the couple, but in order to even begin to separate the tendrils of the mistakes made here, one needs a basic working knowledge of the characters involved. Some of us know more than others, because we’re older, and we’ve been hearing about this on and off for more than two decades. Others need context. Here we go.
Woody Allen is an iconic director who has written and starred in some extremely wonderful films; he is known for being a quintessential New Yorker in that he is both neurotic and Jewish. Allen was in a long-term relationship with the actor Mia Farrow, who starred in the classic film Rosemary’s Baby, directed by another problematic man. Before she was with Allen, Farrow was married to the German musician André Previn and, before him, Frank Sinatra. All told, Farrow has 14 children: three biological and four adopted ones with Previn, including Soon-Yi, who is now Allen’s wife. Soon-Yi was adopted from a Korean orphanage by Farrow and Previn in 1977 when she was approximately seven years old. Her exact birthdate is not known. While she was in a relationship with Allen, Farrow adopted another child, Dylan, on her own (Allen said he didn’t want to do childcare initially but quickly considered himself Dylan’s father; he legally adopted her December of 1991). Later, Farrow and Allen had a biological son, Ronan, who has become, somewhat confusingly and seemingly unrelatedly, a very important journalist in the #metoo movement, one known for getting the goods on many bad men.
In January of 1992, when Allen and Farrow had been together for 12 years, Farrow found nude photos of Soon-Yi, who was 21 at the time, in Allen’s house (Farrow and Allen famously lived separately across Central Park from each other during their relationship). When confronted by Farrow, Allen, then 57, said that he had sex with Soon-Yi for the first time two weeks before. In August of 1992, Allen released a statement that he was “in love” with Soon-Yi. Allen and Farrow’s relationship ended.
In August of 1992, Dylan Farrow, who was at the time seven years old, said that Allen had sexually abused her. Though he was never charged with a crime, Allen lost custody, permanently, of his children. Allen claimed Dylan had been “coached” by Farrow; Dylan has stuck to her story: she was, she says, sexually abused by her father.
Last fall, the Los Angeles Times published an essay by Dylan in which she asked a simple question: why had Allen, in the wake of all the #MeToo revelations, been given a pass? Why had his career not suffered? Why had actors continued to work with him? It seemed that after this, Allen finally began to suffer, insofar as a few actors like Greta Gerwig and Mira Sorvino said they wouldn’t work with him again.
“I’m not a retarded little underage flower who was raped, molested, and spoiled by some evil stepfather — not by a long shot.”
Soon-Yi, for her part, hasn’t given an interview, so far as anyone can remember, since her Q&A with Newsweek magazine in 1992, after the public learned about her relationship with the man who she said was definitely not her father. In it, she said: “I’m not a retarded little underage flower who was raped, molested, and spoiled by some evil stepfather — not by a long shot.” Merkin’s article, despite being the first formal interview with Soon-Yi, does not do much to shed new light on her. Instead, the profile functions as a way to attack Mia Farrow, to question Ronan’s parentage (via a long-rumored affair that Farrow had with Sinatra during her relationship with Allen), and to again deny that Allen abused Dylan. It exists to repeat the same shit Allen has been parroting forever: Farrow is an insane liar who treated her adopted children like shit, and he never touched Dylan. And maybe Ronan isn’t his either, so can he get back that child support?
But all of this is just the tip of a really fucked-up iceberg. Let’s say, just for a second, that maybe Woody Allen is right: Mia Farrow is actually crazy and that Dylan is actually a liar. We still would not be reckoning with the fact Allen married a girl 35 years younger than him, whom he’d met when she was 8 years old. And she was the daughter of his then partner. We are not grappling with the fact that in 1997, just a few years after his relationship with her mother imploded, Allen married his former stepdaughter. Even though Allen has always claimed that he had very little contact with Soon-Yi until 1990, the facts are just about as stark as they get. The New York profile (which includes a photo of Woody and Mia and the kids including yes, Soon-Yi, in 1986, when she was 15 years old so yes, they definitely knew each other) doesn’t really tell us very much about Soon-Yi Previn as a person, but it does reveal some things about her “enduring” relationship with Allen:
Both of them are vague on how and when their friendship turned sexual — “It was 25 years ago,” she says — beyond the fact that it was a gradual process.
Hmm… okay. They are “vague,” for good reason, sure. But the relationship doesn’t sound like it started “two weeks” before Farrow found the photos, described this way:
Early on, Soon-Yi says, she and Allen had a conversation about how their relationship might affect Farrow and the family if it were discovered — they had planned to keep it secret. But neither imagined that what Allen called their “fling” would last. “I’d meet someone in college, and that would be done,” Soon-Yi says. “It only became a relationship really when we were thrown together because of the molestation charge.”
But the molestation charge came in August of 1992, seven months after Mia’s discovery of Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi, so none of this makes very much sense at all.
Perhaps the most major flaw of the piece is its weak attempt to let Soon-Yi “speak.” Like so: “While she says it was clear that things were over between Woody and Mia, it was still ‘a huge betrayal on both our parts, a terrible thing to do, a terrible shock to inflict on her.’”
A huge betrayal, she says, “on both our parts.” And to whom it was “clear” that things were “over,” is also… murky. Certainly, their relationship seemed to be quite strong around that time, at least publicly.
We could take this statement at face value — the reflection of a 47-year-old woman who has made some mistakes — but it takes on a much darker cast when we think about Soon-Yi’s original position within the structure of the Farrow-Allen-Previn family. Soon-Yi felt, she said, that Farrow didn’t love her; she felt orphaned even though she’d been adopted into a wealthy home. If we take her feelings as such, that she did feel unloved, and if we now look at the timeline as being just as murky as it clearly is, how is it not argued — no less accepted — that Soon-Yi is as much a victim of Woody Allen as any other child in his orbit might have been?
Articles like Merkin’s demand that the reader give far too much credit to Allen, in spite of the fact that his daughter accused him of sexually abusing her, and yes, in spite of the fact that he married his partner’s own daughter. Even if I wanted to throw out the accusations to which Dylan has consistently stuck all this time, I’d still find it hard to do so, because the very fact of who Woody Allen’s wife is serves as proof that something is very wrong with him, and saying “the heart wants what it wants” over and over changes nothing. That Soon-Yi and Allen have now been together for 25 years and that she is now, undeniably, an adult, proves nothing. Soon-Yi was, by way of being an orphaned child of uncertain origins, inherently vulnerable in the chaos of Allen and Farrow’s broken-down relationship. Allen, if he is not a pedophile, is a man who knew an easy target when he saw one. That Soon-Yi stands by Allen’s side today, making jokes about his attraction to Mia Farrow, ribbing him in his old age for being a “major loser” in his dealings with her mother, changes nothing.
But in order to really read anything in this situation as “normal,” one must accept the dictation of technicalities long-handed out by Allen, and repeated in the New York article: “People think that I was Soon-Yi’s father, that I raped and married my underaged, retarded daughter.” Soon-Yi herself has held this line: “Woody wasn’t interested in meeting us children,” she told Merkin. In order for this relationship to work publicly on any level, Allen mustn’t be seen as a father figure to Soon-Yi in any way, despite the fact that her mother was in a seemingly monogamous, long-term relationship with the man for 12 years of Soon-Yi’s young life. And Soon-Yi's brothers and sisters, especially the Farrow-aligned Ronan and Dylan, must no longer be seen as her siblings. Suddenly, we are expected to nod our heads in agreement as "adoptive" is tossed around in the way of "not really her mother."
And there are more technical facts we must accept: despite their 35-year age difference, there was no rape or incest. “We didn’t think of him as a father,” Soon-Yi told Merkin, “and he didn’t even have clothing at our house, not even a toothbrush.” She continued, in regards to her mother’s relationship with Allen: “Mia never married Woody, nor did they ever live together. He was my mother’s boyfriend, plain and simple.” In order for this enduring, 25-year-old relationship to be in any way validated, we must pave over the things we see with our eyes — that a man in a position of power if not the role of father — took advantage of that position in some manner, and cheated on the woman who was his partner with the woman’s daughter, who was 35 years younger than him. Not wife. Not married. Not rape. Not incest. Technically, she was an adult.
“She was an orphan on the streets, living out of trash cans and starving as a 6-year-old. And she was picked up and put in an orphanage. And so I’ve been able to really make her life better.”
But elsewhere, Allen seems to want to take credit for “fatherly” contributions in Soon-Yi’s life. Take what he told The Hollywood Reporter about Soon Yi in 2016: “She was an orphan on the streets, living out of trash cans and starving as a 6-year-old. And she was picked up and put in an orphanage. And so I’ve been able to really make her life better. I provided her with enormous opportunities, and she has sparked to them. She’s educated herself and has tons of friends and children and got a college degree and went to graduate school, and she has traveled all over with me now. She’s very sophisticated and has been to all the great capitals of Europe. She has just become a different person. So the contributions I’ve made to her life have given me more pleasure than all my films.”
In fact, of course, Soon-Yi wasn’t pulled out of an orphanage by Woody Allen. She didn’t get her “new life” in America or begin her education under the tutelage of Woody Allen: Remember, Woody wasn’t her father, he wasn’t interested in children. He didn’t even have a toothbrush at her mother’s house. It was, of course, Farrow who made all of these things possible.
And, whether she was in some manner a shitty mother or not, what is lost in all of this is the shock and pain Farrow must have felt when she gazed upon the nude images of her daughter in her husband’s home. This is not an everyday cheating-spouse experience. This is a tragic and terrible situation of horrific circumstances. It recasts the light of what allegedly happened with Dylan shortly afterwards not as some kind of vendetta waged by Farrow, as Allen would have us see it, but as situation in which a person whom you were close to — whom you thought you knew — turns out to be a monster.
Soon-Yi Previn probably does not want my sympathy, although she has it, despite being enlisted, as women have long been, in rehabilitating the reputations of bad men. There are countless wives before her who have done the same, because they are loyal, in love, stupid, or simply bad themselves. This is not surprising. But Soon-Yi gets a larger share of my sympathy than other women doing the dirty work of dirty men because she was taken advantage of, whether she knows or can own up to it. That Merkin should take up the project of trying to rehabilitate Allen is perhaps not surprising. That she and Soon-Yi should take his self-fashioned image to heart is somewhat predictable: he has told us for as long as we’ve known him who and what he is, a bumbling, nebbishy, neurotic man who is now, to boot, in need of Soon-Yi’s steady arm when he falters because he does not have much life left to live. But it’s hard to equate that image of Allen with his favorite statement, one of cold, hard, calculating selfishness: “the heart wants what it wants.”
I don’t believe that Woody Allen is the man who he tells us he is. He’s not a bumbling idiot for whom nothing really works out, it’s just easier for him to gain sympathy if we see him that way. I think he knows what he wants. And in the life of Soon-Yi Previn, I have all the evidence I need to prove how far he will go to get it.