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Petty Pariahs: The Problems of a Soon-Yi Previn Profile

This week, Woody Allen’s wife came forward to defend her husband and share the story of her life. But that story is not so straightforward, and another chapter in this bizarre and tragic family saga unfolded.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sunday night, New York magazine published a profile of the long-silent Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted and estranged daughter of Mia Farrow and the current wife of Farrow’s ex, Woody Allen. To call Daphne Merkin’s piece a “profile,” though, feels generous — that word conjures a certain journalistic rigor and objectivity that is brazenly absent. Merkin discloses in the article that she has been friends with Allen for four decades (full disclosure: I used to work for New York), and it is unlikely that Soon-Yi and Allen would have given access to a journalist whom they did not know socially or see as sympathetic to their cause. That “cause” is to smear Mia Farrow and, by association, her children Dylan, who has said that Allen molested her when she was a child, and Ronan, who recently won a Pulitzer Prize for the reporting he has done in exposing high-profile sexual predators as a result of the #MeToo movement.

According to Dylan Farrow, the family was not interviewed for the story, and their only opportunity to comment came when they were phoned by the magazine’s fact checkers just before publication. Everyone around me on the subway this morning seemed to be devouring the article. Full of venom, trauma, and still-throbbing psychic wounds, it is an emotionally depleting and spiritually exhausting Monday-morning read.

The New York piece feels particularly unsettling in this moment, as other prestige publications have been giving onetime-#MeToo pariahs like Jian Ghomeshi and John Hockenberry (in the New York Review of Books and Harper’s, respectively) platforms to “tell their side of the story,” passing off self-indulgently one-sided personal essays as fodder for Serious Intellectual Debate. In the background of it all, a man who a woman said tried to sexually assault her is being considered for a seat on the highest court in the country, and would, if confirmed, have the power to imperil the already tenuous human rights of women in America. “I’m so fucking tired” is a text I have sent so often in the past few weeks that I’m surprised that sentence is not my phone’s suggested auto-fill whenever I so much as type the letter “I.”

In the New York story, Soon-Yi Previn is portrayed as someone sadly embittered by early-childhood trauma; she had already endured incredible hardship when she was adopted by Farrow at the age of 6. (Born in Seoul, South Korea, into extreme poverty, she ran away from home and was living on the street by age 5.) Allen, who is now 82, comes off like an embittered and, in Merkin’s own description, “oblivious” old man diminished by his highly publicized ordeal with the Farrows and befuddled by a world changing rapidly around him. The piece feels pulpy, slight, and journalistically flimsy, perhaps at its most infuriating calling into question Ronan Farrow’s paternity. It’s a cheap personal shot at a man whose work, by contrast, has a sense of rigor and purpose that Merkin’s piece sorely lacks. It’s petty.

We live in a society that too often takes its cues from celebrities who by definition live exceptional, unrelatable, and quite often troubled lives. The stories of Soon-Yi Previn, Woody Allen, and Mia Farrow are so melodramatic and bizarre that they should have no bearing on how the more ordinary majority of us live or think. Whether or not Woody Allen molested Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, while he was indeed having a sexual relationship with a different adopted daughter who is 35 years younger than him, should have nothing to do with whether we believe other survivors of molestation or sexual misconduct, whether we believe the women in our lives, whether we think “the #MeToo movement has gone too far.” And yet, one of the unfortunate aspects of our culture is that plenty of people will do just that. Art hits us on a gut level, and Allen’s films have informed how plenty of people, men and women alike, see the world around them.

I, too, was once a fan of Allen’s films, and I have not been able to bring myself to rewatch any of them in the #MeToo era. It’s not that he suddenly changed — his relationship with Soon-Yi and Dylan Farrow’s accounts have been public knowledge since 1992. Maybe it’s just that so many of the rest of us have, and with the help of allies like Ronan Farrow, the culture has given crisper lenses to more clearly see what was always there. “What I find most ethically troubling about Mr. Allen’s work at present is the extent to which I and so many of my colleagues have ignored or minimized its uglier aspects,” New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote earlier this year in an op-ed about revisiting the movies of his once and now former cinematic hero. “A sensibility that seemed sweet, skeptical and self-scrutinizing may have been cruel, cynical and self-justifying all along.”

He goes on, “The Woody Allen figure in a Woody Allen movie is almost always in transit from one woman to another, impelled by a dialectic of enchantment, disappointment and reawakened desire. The rejected women appear shrewish, needy, shallow or boring. Their replacements, at least temporarily, are earnest, sensuous, generous and, more often than not, younger and less worldly than their predecessors. For a very long time, this was taken not as a self-serving fantasy but as a token of honesty, or freedom from sentimental conceptions of domestic love.”

It is precisely this reason — not from any devious mass-cultural brainwashing by the Farrow family — that I can no longer watch a movie like Manhattan, in which Allen’s middle-aged autobiographical protagonist is dating a teenage girl. Art doesn’t necessarily change, but people, blessedly, do. As life tends to go, I am growing older, not younger, closer in age to those “shrewish” Woody Allen women than the ingenues, and I don’t find the story of the man who leaves his wife for a girl the age of his daughter to be particularly interesting, deep, or alternative to the mainstream.

A benefit of the #MeToo movement is that it has made space for new narratives, different voices, and a long overdue reimagining of how power is structured in our culture. We walk back that work and reassert the primacy of the lazy old stories at our own peril — to say nothing of our own collective cultural boredom.