Villain or Victim? What Falls Away: A Memoir by Mia Farrow

Villain or Victim?
What Falls Away: A Memoir by Mia Farrow
Review by: Nell Beram
The Women's Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Oct., 1997), p. 25
Published by: Old City Publishing, Inc.
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by Nell Beram
What Fulls Away: A Memoir, by Mia Farrow.New York: Doubleday, 1997, 370 pp.,
$25.00 hardcover.
Mooreand disputed:the episodes featurein the book's
Bruce Willis, or any other celebrity
couple not known for each mate's distinct interest in grappling with moral
conundrums.Then the essence of the Mia
Farrow-WoodyAllen fallout of the summerof 1992 wouldn'thave been such an ax
to the cranium. The double whammy, in
case you were in seclusion: news broke
that filmmakerWoody Allen, actress Mia
Farrow'sthen partnerof twelve years, and
her twenty-year-old adopted daughter,
Soon-Yi Previn,were having an affair;and
that, accordingto Farrow,her seven-yearold adopted daughter,Dylan, had named
Allen her sexual abuser,moving Farrowto
end her relationship with Allen. He contended that Farrow contrived or at least
prompted the allegations-an act of
vengeance by a woman scorned.
Who is this woman who waited to no
avail for more than a decade-during
which she and Allen maintainedseparate
New York residences and she appearedin
thirteen of his films-for the seemingly
nebbishy (and arguably masterful) comedic filmmaker to agree to marry her?
Most movie buffs know that Farrowhad a
Hollywood childhood and Catholic
upbringing,became famous in the sixties
for her starringrole in TV's Peyton Place,
became even more famous for marrying
Frank Sinatra (he was thirty years her
senior) and, after their divorce in 1968,
went on a much-publicizedretreatto India,
where, to her surprise,she had to sharethe
Maharishi's divine attentions with the
Beatles. But it was while married to
English composer Andr? Previn that she
began her most unconventionalenterprise:
today she's the mother of fourteen
children,ten of whom are adopted,nine of
whom aren't white, most of whom were
plucked from abominable circumstances
and several of whom are disabled.
Me, I have long respected her distinctive version of celebrity, but it seems
Farrow's reputation hasn't weathered
1992's hoopla well, even within more
sisterhood-centered enclaves. "1 think
she's a doormat,"a co-workercommented
when I told herI was readingFarrow'snew
collaborator-free memoir, What Falls
Away;a friend who, like my coworkerand
myself, has feminist leanings told me she
thinks Farrow is "a kook," although (unlike myself here) she admires her as an
Is either spin on Farrowcorrect? What
Falls Away, her firstpublic ruminationson
the scandalsof 1992, offers nothingto corroborate the popular "kook" hypothesis.
(Even BarbaraWalterstrottedit out during
Farrow's promotionalspoton 20/20 earlier
this year.) If critics suspect that Farrowis
compulsively adopting children to satisfy her own selfish needs (to feel loved, to
have a purpose in life), then why aren't
they also questioning the motives of
George Foreman, Mel Gibson and Anthony Quinn, to name a few celebrities
with atypically large biological broods?
Ah, but that "doormat"hypothesis: it
does seem an easier sell. Why, 1 was compelled to ask again and again as 1 read, did
Farrowput up for so long with Allen? That
in separatefits of rage he pushed Dylan's
face into a plate of hot spaghetti, and
twisted and threatened to break young
Satchel Farrow's leg, seems to be un-
appendix,which consists of the entireNew
York State SupremeCourtdecision on the
infamouscustody battlefor Dylan, Satchel
and Moses Farrow instigated by Allen.
(Farrowsees Allen's initiationof the suit
as his strategyfor counteringhis image as
j,4 ~ ~ ~ ~
wholly self-absorbed;she won easily on
these very grounds.) Farrow tells us his
volatile behavior alternated not with
fatherlywarmthbut with a general apathy
towards her children (including Satchel,
his biological child) for the duration of
their relationship-which, astonishingly,
she did not dissolve completely even after
she came across nude photographs of
Soon-Yi in Allen's apartment.
Then there's Allen's infatuation with Mia Farrowwith Lark, Sascha,Daisy,Fletcher,Matthewand Soon-Yi.From What Falls
Dylan, inspiring, apparently, the girl's Away.
overt anxiety in his company and in anseem as hell-bent on believing his inI explain it to my children,when
ticipationof it-cries of "Hideme!" at the
nocence of child abuse as many blacks are
even to me it is incomprehensible
soundof the doorbell.("TwiceI made him
on believing O.J. Simpson's innocence of
and unforgivable?...What was misstake his thumbout of her mouth,"Farrow
murder,despite the profiles of our hetoes
ing in me thatcompelled me to hold
writes.) In one typical passage, she says
thathave emerged.
it all in place?... Wasn't it my own
she "pulled Dylan out of the bed where
It's not lost on me that no one writes an
appallingdenial of the facts thatper[Allen] had been wrappedaroundher like
autobiographyto solicit a reader'sdisdain,
mitted him to inflict his damageon
a python in Jockey underpants."
but as I read her story (scandal-mongers
those I love most? I could protest
"Spoilsport," was Allen's retort, and
beware: Allen only surfaces halfway
that I didn't know...whathe was
"Whatsport?Just what sport am I spoilthrough)I came to like Farrowfor reasons
capable of.... I could arguethatthe
ing?" the extent, as usual, of Farrow's
I doubt she intended. She has literally
world I had occupied with him for a
fainted from boredom while accompanyquarterof my life was so utterly
ing friends on shopping expeditions; she
removed from any otherthatit was
hoped Soon-Yi wasn't serious aboutwantimpossible for me to envision a life
too difficultto reconcilethis verdict
ing to become a model because"thevalues
for myself beyond it.... I could tell
with the impressionone gets of Farin that world are all screwed-up";and she
my childrenall this, but no explanarow before Allen came along. Consider
keeps us abreastbothof whatshe is reading
tion seems adequate.In the end all I
that she didn't renege on her commitment
(Plato,the BhagavadGita, Dr. Spock) and
can do is accept my shareof responto complete her work in Rosemary'sBaby,
the statusof the cardboardbox containing
sibility, and hope they can find it in
the career-makingfilm she sensed it would
her beloved encyclopedias as she traipses
heartsto forgive me.
be, to placate Sinatra-hardly a lightfrom house to house, page after page. In
weight adversary-who was miffed beshort,her values will be recognizableand
cause the project was running overtime.
And what of the man she loved? Surely her priorities familiar to ordinaryfolk(He dispatched a lawyer to the set with it's a red flag to us all when someone who heresy in a celebritymemoir.
divorce papers.) Shortly after her split turns fourteen kids of diverse parentage
And Farrow has the writerly chops to
from Previn, Farrow adopted Moses, a and skin color into a family is perceivedas compete with other memoirists on the
child with special needs, a move thatmight more of a loon than is someone who gluttedscene these days. I was particularly
suggest more than a modicum of self-suf- famously logs no responsibilityfor ripping impressedby a braveparagraphthat, with
ficiency and independence.And "on prin- this family apart.Thatthe heartwantswhat a nod to legendary shrink-addictAllen's
ciple," she "neither sought nor received it wants has been Allen's defense for lack of accountability,challengesthe prac,any alimony" from the wealthy Previn; seducing Soon-Yi. If he truly pursued tice of psychoanalysisfor its absence of a
Farrowdoesn't elaborate,but one assumes Soon-Yi (with whom he's still romantical- moralframework.Therearesome abstractsexual equality is the implicit principle. It ly linked) because he was unableto control noun-ladenpassages, a smatteringof senseems it's only when Allen is on handthat libidinous impulses thathis well-honedin- tences italicized for effect, but they're
she becomes said doormat. Yet her tellect conceivably told him to check, then amply offset by deft touches of comic uncapitulationisn't withoutlimits: at the ex- is it such a leap to imagine that he might derstatement and by quiet, spare and
pense of her relationship,as Farrowwould have been unableto stuntan attractionto a evocative sketches, most resonantly of
tell it, she believed her daughterDylan.
seven-year-old girl like Dylan? What ex- Farrow'skids.
What somewhat mitigates my fury at actly are Allen's boundaries? This is
Farrow never became the Carmelite
her until-then naivet? and self-deception Farrow'squestion as well.
nun she had longed to be, nor, by the end
is the fact that she sounds every bit as
of WhatFalls Away, did she become the
irate with herseif as 1 am with her. Far- IS
IT POSSIBLE that we still don't believe
"out" feminist I'd longed for. Although
row admits to feeling lingering guilt for
some men are capable of egregious she laments her political and social unenhaving encouraged her kids to hope that
sexual crueltyto kids, thatwe still have lightenmentuntil her first exposure to the
Allen would one day respond to them a built-in blame-the-motherimpulse, or writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., she
with affection; to hitting Soon-Yi in both? My gay male friend who majoredin later tried to make up for it with action:
anger after learning of the affair; to women's studies and my consciousness- she protestedthe Vietnam War alongside
having, against better judgment, signed raised mom, among others, hearing that I Vanessa Redgrave, and she used her
papers attesting that Allen was a fit was readingher book, warnedme thatFar- professional clout to assist in getting a
father in order to facilitate his ultimately row has an ax to grind;why didn't they say bill passed in Congress in 1977 that alsuccessful adoptions of Moses and Dylan the same aboutAllen five years ago, when lowed American families the option to
in December 1991. (We're also privy, I was watching his version of the story on adopt more than two children from overvia the appendix, to the fact that the 60 Minutes,or last winterwhen I was read- seas. Nowadays her demeanor, perhaps a
judge concluded that Farrowisn't a fault- ing John Lahr's piece on him in The New last vestige of a Catholic girlhood, is
less parent.) Given this self-chastise- Yorker? Could it be that Allen, whose demure if occasionally giddy-you've
ment, it can't be said that What Falls films' popularityhasn't suffered critically undoubtedlycaught her act by now-but
Away is a campaignfor the author'ssaint- or commercially since the scandals, has don't be fooled by this middle-aged
or victimhood:
inoculated himself against lasting public woman with the laugh and face of a kid:
through his moralizing, endlessly in her modest way, Mia Farrow is-if
Why did 1 stay with Woody Allen
quasi-autobiographical sensi- names must be called-a humanist first,
when so much was wrong?How can
tive-guy film incarnations?White liberals doormat second.
The Women'sReviewof Books/ Vol. XV, No.1/ October1997
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