Forgiving My Mother, Forgiving Myself.

I had an epiphany. After 37 years, I learned something new and surprising about myself and about my mother.  It came from reading the experience of another woman, a woman that experienced something very different than me.  I thought I had sorted myself out.  Then, I was asked to comment on the “can you separate the art from the artist” debate in regard to Woody Allen’s honor at the Golden Globes.  My opinion on that was already clear, however the similarities of the awards, the outrage, and oddly Mia Farrow’s support of Roman Polanski after he was charged with my rape, drew me into the conversation.

I didn’t know much about what Woody Allen had been accused of.  I set out to learn what I could in order to comment conscientiously on the “should he be honored” conversation.  I had never heard of Dylan Farrow until tweets about her abuse went viral during the Golden Globe Awards

After reading the varying accounts of “we said, they said”, I got to Dylan’s open letter.  I take in information on these high profile cases with the attitude that you can’t believe anything you read or hear.  I learned that from personal experience, if you weren’t involved in it, you will likely never know the real story. Her letter it seemed, would be the most important if not the only thing worth reading.  

I felt relief that she was intentionally putting herself out in the public eye, and she wanted her story told, that it was important to her not because she had been forced to respond to unwanted attention.  I put aside the media chatter and read Dylan’s letter.  She certainly had a lot to say, and clearly wanted to say it and be heard.  Her pain and bitterness is palpable even after 20 years.  Her anger not just at Woody Allen but those who work on or view his films was also emotionally expressed.  I admit my first feeling was, “I’m glad that’s not me”.  I’m not proud of that feeling, but it’s the truth, I felt a little lucky.  The irony of “what if it was your daughter?” was not lost on me. I wondered what Dylan would think of Mia’s letter to the probation department after my rape, espousing Roman’s outstanding character and “his importance to all people”.  Mostly, I felt saddened that she is still in so much pain. 

That’s when it hit me.  My next impulse was to call to my mother.  I needed to finally thank her for calling the police that night.  I’ve always been aware that I have never fully understood why she had to do it.  I now realize I had never really forgiven her, which made my apologies for my awfulness to her seem very shallow.  For someone who thought they had it all figured out, or perhaps decided to leave some things “un-figured”, it was an incredible shock.  Also, I needed to thank her for never creating an environment where I felt abused and damaged, for letting me insist I was fine, separating and internalizing her own anger, from me and my emotional well-being.  I took that for granted, having a strong supportive family is something I should have appreciated more. 

She accepted my apology with a little laugh.  I was grateful to realize that she didn’t need it.  She knew she did the right thing and didn’t require my approval or understanding.  She was always okay with taking the fallout that came with that call.  Her only comment was she wished she would have called my Dad, a criminal defense attorney, first.  He may have helped us negotiate the next 24 hours a little better.  But, hindsight is 20/20, and I don’t think I would have liked her notifying my father anymore more than I appreciated the call to the police. 

So here I am, almost 37 years to the very day she made that call.  I was angry about it for years.  I punished her however I could, with no sympathy or consideration for the pain she was in.  After all, she called the police, she started this whole mess.  If she was suffering, well I was too, so tough shit Mom.  I felt, believed and insisted that I was fine.  I thought it was just sex, he didn’t hurt me.  I was stupid, I should have told her about the topless photos to begin with and none of this would have happened.  Can’t we just forget about it!  The wisdom of a teenager I suppose.  In my mind she must have called the police out of anger or damaged pride.  If I was okay, why call the police?  In every single thing I went through there was this under current of emotion, this is happening to me because of you mom.  None of it will make me “un-molested”, what’s the point?

Even at age 14 it didn’t take long for me to realize two things.  The way it was being handled by the court was completely out of her control, I just needed someone to be mad at.  Also, I accepted she had to call the police.  But it was a rational, intellectual understanding, I never really “felt” why she had to do it.  I thought I got it, that I’d forgiven her, I felt bad about being such an awful little bitch.  But even recently while I was writing my book The Girl – A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski, I was still asking her the question, “If you could go back and do it over would you still call the police?”  The lack of hesitation and certainty in her reply, “Yes, of course!” was almost disturbing.  I wanted to say, “You do remember how awful that all was, don’t you?”  I asked her if she was sure, and she just looked at me.  She was sure. 

I think about all she sacrificed.  She wasn’t some “wanna be starlet”, she was a working actress.   It was her full time job, how she paid the mortgage.  Her lifelong dream of being a movie star was destroyed in a matter of hours.  She could only hope her name wasn’t released, because then she would lose her job as the “Ourismann Chevrolet Girl” her steady source of income.  But she never blinked.  So even if I still didn’t really get it, I just deferred to trusting her judgment and believing that even if I didn’t understand it, she did, and that was enough.

That all changed for me when I read Dylan Farrow’s open letter.  The pain she expresses that Woody Allen was never charged, even guilt, feeling responsible for this though she was only 7 years old at the time.  I was spared that.  I don’t know why charges were never pursued when Dylan became an adult or why Mia Farrow and the District Attorney “declined” to press charges, “fragile child” statement taken fully taken into account.  I remember begging for a plea deal to keep me off the stand in what Judge Rittenband and others hoped would be the “Hollywood Trial of the Century”.  I understand that fear, and I know it is deep and it is terrifying. But, if someone molests a 7 year old, how could you let them walk away?  The District Attorney’s Office certainly never offered us a choice.  Roger Gunson, as a human being, was incapable of letting Roman Polanski walk away from what he had done.

Thanks to my mother, I never had to deal with any of those doubts and emotional repercussions.  The “supposed burden” of the consequences of that phone call and the events that were set in motion, I was still carrying and they suddenly evaporated into thin air. My mother called the police, March 10, 1977, within minutes of my admitting to her that Roman had sex with me.  She never even asked a second question, just “Did he do it?”  That was all she needed to know.  She didn’t call the police for herself and she didn’t do it because she was angry or vengeful.  She did it for me.  To show me that I had value and that I should not let myself be abused or mistreated and she certainly would not.  By example, she was showing me my worth, teaching me to be strong and stand up against what is wrong.  That we as a family, would not tolerate this.  And even more importantly something else, that I was not required to be damaged by his actions, I was allowed to be okay.  I didn’t have to behave like a victim, but he would face the consequences.  That seemed like a contradiction at the time, now I realize it was a gift.

I’ve often been asked how things may have been different if the police weren’t involved.  I think I would have been okay.  I never felt damaged by Roman, it was a scary experience but I didn’t feel changed or bad about myself.  I’ve imagined this unreal future…  what if I ended up with a really crappy life and he went on to have the great successes we all assume he would have?  I don’t feel that I would be bitter or angry towards him for anything else unfortunate that may have happened in my life. Thankfully, my mother was strong enough to call the police and Roman was man enough to admit what he had done.  I will never know for sure what may have happened otherwise, I see no reason to dwell on it.  I imagine I’d be having drinks with my friends, watching the Oscars where Roman would be receiving accolades and I’d be saying “You know that old prick had sex with me with when I was 13!”  This would be followed by “no way!” and “full way!” and another round of cocktails.  That may seem cavalier, but indulge me in my right to recover and make fun of myself.  I think everyone knows I am tired of being asked to remain injured so someone else can make a point, and I certainly mean no disrespect to those who may still be struggling, maybe just offer a little hope.

I’ve had years to work out what happened, why everyone did the things they did.  Forgiveness came easily for me.  For the most part everyone was just doing their job.  The police officers, Detective Vanatter, Roger Gunson, the Grand Jury, my attorney Lawrence Silver, even Roman’s attorney, Doug Dalton.  So now I have the missing piece, why mom called the police, I feel just a little bit lighter, after 37 years it is incredible.

I look back now knowing that my mother was protecting me from the potential of ending up with all that regret and bitterness.  I realize she never once told me I was damaged.  She accepted it when I said I was okay, she took me at my word, but she called the police anyway.  Now that contradiction makes so much sense.  I am so grateful that her anger towards him didn’t manifest in her need for me to be damaged by him.  The proceedings were difficult and I was emotionally devastated during that year, but she took the blame for it.  She never apologized for any of it, somehow she knew that she was standing up for me and whatever the consequences, it was the right thing.

I am so happy that I have finally looked at it a different way and see it for what it was, that I’ve had the chance to thank her and apologize for being so awful to her.  She didn’t really need that from me, she wasn’t waiting for it.  I see now, I needed it.  She may have felt guilty about a lot of things, but never for making that call.  My talk of forgiveness and accepting things you can’t change, it’s all true.  But, even after 37 years, you can change yourself, you can change your mind, change the way you see something and it feels good.  So, thanks Mom, I’m sorry it took me so long to get it and I’m grateful that you were always strong enough not to need me too.

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Can anything positive come from the public Farrow vs. Allen fight

With all the accusations, heated debate, and ugliness incited by the tweets and articles in the Dylan Farrow vs. Woody Allen battle, I think the only question that really matters is: Can this help anyone else? We should operate on the premise that it must.

First, we should evaluate ourselves in the things we may have contributed with our tweets, blog posts, op eds, and casual conversations. If we said nothing that helps the broad range of victims of sexual molestation, we have done a disservice to them. Simply insulting this family or anyone who may disagree with you, does not count as making a positive difference.

I have been trying to find a glimmer of hope that this has all been worth something. The first person it should have helped is the victim at the center of it. I hope that her public statements in Vanity Fair and in the New York Times have brought her some comfort. Being able to speak your truth in the face of the very real fact that some will never believe you can be an empowering thing. Most victims do not have the benefit of major publications printing their words, nor the consequences of using such high profile platforms to be heard.  Let’s not forget those who are suffering right now, perhaps trapped in months or years of abuse with no escape, those who have no voice.

Dylan says in her open letter that she hopes she can help other victims come forward and heal.  On the face of it, my first reaction was that this painful public battle, in which there can be no winners only a very long list of losers, will not encourage anyone to speak out about their abuse.  Let’s not let that happen. 

We can instead address the real issues here, the facts we all must live with in order to have a civilized society. First, sexual abuse can be a very difficult thing for victims to admit and talk about. We should always err on the side of believing a victim because often these things can be very difficult to prove. Second, in America we are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. This is not a trivial matter or a concept to disregard whenever we are all just “sure” someone is guilty. The fact that a guilty man may go free to protect the innocent from being persecuted is a value we as a society have given great importance.  We need to support and protect victims, but that imperative must coexist with our rule of law and the burden of proof. We see now that this can be a difficult balance.

We all have varied experiences and feelings. I did not want to prosecute Roman Polanski for raping me—it was very painful for me and I deeply resented my mother and everyone involved, feeling that they were doing me more harm than Roman had. My mother was not willing to let it go and demanded that at the very least he admit what he had done, regardless of what we may have had to endure. We suffered greatly to achieve that end. However we, like most victims, were not given a choice. Upon finding evidence that I may have been telling the truth, Roman was arrested and the District Attorney’s office set about prosecuting him to the fullest extent of the law. A plea bargain sparing me from testifying in open court was a very difficult outcome to achieve.

So what can we learn from these public battles? How can this help now? There is no undoing what happened 20 years ago, 35 years ago, or even one day ago. We can only try to prevent sexual assault in the future and help those who have already been victimized to recover. I think we can start with these ideas.

 

If you are a victim who comes forward and resolution through the court provides a conviction, it will not undo what happened to you. You will still have to heal. If you come forward and there is insufficient evidence for a conviction, that is a reality you will have to face, and you can find a way to begin recovering in spite of that. If you are given the choice not to prosecute and spare yourself the trauma of a trial, highly publicized or not, you can make your choice, go forward with your life and begin to heal. If you never come forward to the authorities, tell no one or only someone close to you, you can begin to recover and overcome what has happened to you. Under any of these circumstances, there will always be those who doubt you and nothing will erase what has happened to you. That does not have to stop you from healing.

The most important thing is to try to begin recovering from within. I don’t think you can heal from outside events happening.  Waiting for the actions of others— be it the courts, your family, the opinions of those you care about, or the words of strangers—places you in a situation that you cannot control. And despite what was done to you, you do still have control.

We place too many “musts” on victims.  You must come forward, you must display your damage, you must behave in a certain way, you must prove what you say is true. You must not be silent or you are responsible for the actions of a predator in the future. Only rapists cause rape, not the way you dress or behave, and certainly not how you choose to recover from being assaulted. It is time we allow ourselves “cans” instead of “musts.”  We can heal and recover under any circumstances. We can accept whatever has happened to us and however we have handled it. We can own our own truths and disregard the skepticism or disbelief of others. We can recover even if there is no punishment for the abuser.  We can come forward or we can heal privately. The only thing we can’t do is change what has already happened. 

Bitterness and retribution, regret and anger are things that poison you, they do not heal you. We are surrounded by people who may have suffered less or have suffered in ways we cannot imagine. Accept yourself, accept what has happened and how you have handled it. Give no one the authority to judge you and do not judge others in how they have chosen to recover. The last and perhaps most difficult thing, refrain from jumping to conclusions about the guilt of a person who is accused, but not charged with or convicted of a crime. I think we all have a lot of work to do.