Emotional Health

‘Doubt’ and the Difficulty of Confirming Childhood Sexual Abuse

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years.



5705068755_9300c7e81a_bImage from Flickr via

Among the unforgettable performances Philip Seymour Hoffman left as his legacy after his death on February 2 is that of a popular priest at a Bronx parochial school. In the film, set in 1964, Hoffman’s character is suspected by the school’s principal  (played by Meryl Streep in another jaw-dropping performance) of molesting several of his students.  The two leads, as well as supporting actors Viola Davis and Amy Adams, all received Oscar nominations.

I decided to watch Doubt again after Hoffman died, mourning him and wanting to revisit his work. This remarkable film coincidentally sheds light on another topic in the news this month: the controversy between Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen. Dylan—who had been adopted by Allen and his then-partner, Mia Farrow—has accused the actor and director, in an open letter to The New York Times, of sexually abusing her when she was 7, in 1992. While many people are distressed that this private family matter is being fought in the media, the issue raised about the difficulty of substantiating child abuse allegations is very important.

Allen subsequently posted his own letter to The Times, vehemently denying the accusations, as he had done at the time. We will never know exactly what went on, and, as is the case in many instances of child abuse, the statements and memories of a fragile victim are the only direct evidence available. (See Maureen Orth’s “10 Undeniable Facts About the Woody Allen Sex-abuse Allegation” for an outline of what is known.)

Of course, children’s memories are often unreliable, and it is clearly possible to plant “false memories” that result in charges against innocent people (psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has an impressive body of work on this subject). Lives can be destroyed by such allegations, and even when there is little possibility of criminal prosecution, as in the Allen/Farrow case, the accused can be seriously damaged by them.

Problems with memory more often work the other way: Victims forget (or “repress”) sexual abuse and, even while exhibiting symptoms, cannot recover the memory. One woman I know was sexually molested almost nightly by her father until she left home at 17. She repressed the memory entirely until her two sisters, who were witnesses, reminded her of it when she saw them again 20 years later.

The story line in Doubt involves a priest (Hoffman) who Streep’s character, Sister Aloysius, suspects is an abuser, though not one boy has named him. The film’s title refers to her experience of mistrust, the ambiguity of the situation, as well as the way her faith is shaken when her fears are not taken seriously. One of the reasons sexual abuse is so infrequently prosecuted is that as adults we often fight the idea that “nice” people—educators and others who care for our children—may be guilty of such violations. We literally can’t stomach it or imagine the possibility—and so we don’t. As Sister Aloysius says about the vigorous denials from the priest she suspects, “Isn’t it easier just to believe him?”  Children who are abused are often subject to further traumatization when their reports are not believed or acted upon

Doubts about stepfathers, like priests, are not always without foundation. A San Francisco study found that 17 percent (one out of six) women with stepfathers as one of the principal figures in their childhoods were sexually abused by them.

In contrast, the rate for biological fathers was 2 percent, and the seriousness of the abuse was worse in the stepfather group as well.

One problem with Allen’s denial is that he has demonstrated, rather spectacularly, a willingness to cross the parent-child boundary. His affair with (and subsequent marriage to) Soon-Yi Previn, another of Mia Farrow’s adopted daughters, who lived in Mia’s household, was at the least a violation of conventional sexual taboos. His letter demonstrates an astonishing lack of insight on his part. He even writes as part of his defense that he was “blissfully” in love with Soon-Yi (Dylan’s older sister) at the time, so why would he choose that moment to “embark on a career as a child molester?” He does not seem to understand that his affair with Soon-Yi itself introduced into the family a culture of sexual violation that potentially disturbed all the children, apart from and in addition to what he may have or not have done to Dylan.

What is rarely talked about in all this is the child we know with certainty was a victim: Soon-Yi. Though at 20 she was over the legal age of consent, girls of that age can still be very immature. Furthermore, a parental figure has such authority that no child can be expected to have “free will” when dealing with his or her seductive behavior. For someone in Allen’s position to have a liaison with a young girl in his partner’s household was a gross violation of the transference feelings that authority figures inspire: Children want love and approval, and Soon-Yi, an orphan who was rescued from the streets of South Korea, would likely have been as needy as anyone in this regard.

She was victimized in another way, as well. Mia Farrow was arguably the only consistent, loving adult in Soon-Yi’s life, and when he seduced her, Allen created a rift that has never been repaired. She has been estranged from her family all these years. Though we don’t know her feelings about this, we can imagine them well enough.

Imagination, fantasy, doubt: Freud himself began to suspect that his patients’ frequent reports of sexual abuse were false or exaggerated, after his early years as a psychoanalyst had convinced him that such incidents were the cause of most of the neuroses he was treating. What he determined instead was that, regardless of the facts, a child’s imagining of such events can be very powerful, and that an atmosphere which leads to overstimulation of children’s fantasies can be very damaging in its own right. Though some historians of psychoanalysis now believe Freud’s original findings were true—that many patients were in fact abused—the finding that an overstimulating or inappropriate family atmosphere can itself create serious pathology is indisputable.

In all cases, allegations and even suspicions of abuse should be taken seriously. Since the first presentation of Doubt on the stage in 2004, scandals in the Catholic Church (not to mention at Penn State) have demonstrated that accusations often have foundation and that many victims of abuse fail to report it until much later, if ever. And this much is certainly true: Woody Allen violated sexual boundaries when he seduced Soon-Yi, and his actions harmed the household’s other children, especially Dylan, to whom he was particularly close (she was his legally adopted daughter). Though we may never know for sure if he acted exactly as Dylan has written, we do know that there was damage. No doubt about that.


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  • Roz Warren February 20, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    Sharing this one on Facebook. Best and most insightful analysis of the Allen/Farrow thing I’ve read so far.