Sunday, February 09, 2014

It's not always true, even if we remember it

Charles Waterstreet

When Dylan Farrow again accused her adoptive father Woody Allen of having sexually assaulted her when she was seven, she unleashed a horde of elephants that hitherto had been standing silently in that very room. Angry elephants don't care who they squash or what damage flows from their rampages.

Unlike sensitive seven-year-old girls who are bystanders in red-hot domestic disputes and divorces, elephants have long memories. A child's memory of events, even if neo contemporaneous, can tend to be very unreliable and the sad fact is that they are commonly poor historians of what happens.

This tendency is enhanced if one parent exerts pressure for leverage in custody and domestic family legal proceedings. Children tend to be people pleasers, whether to a marauding father figure or to an angry and hostile mother upset by discovering a sexual relationship between her older partner and her adopted teenage daughter.

What Dylan did deliberately and defiantly was call on Allen's creative collaborators to take a public position on her allegations by asking, "What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett? Louis CK? Alec Baldwin? … Emma Stone? Scarlett Johansson … Diane Keaton?" Blanchett has been singing Allen's praises since winning her Golden Globe.

It is fortunate that the votes for the Academy Awards have already been cast. If Blanchett wins the Oscar, her speech will be very different from her earlier ones of unreserved praise for Allen.

Her co-star, Baldwin, has felt the sting of angry ex-wives' whiplash through their child. He left an angry message on his daughter's phone, which was leaked to the media.

The ripples of Dylan's allegations are devastating personal and public tsunamis, if they are true.

Nothing in life is what it seems. In my criminal law practice, I have participated in hundreds of cases not dissimilar to, but not as notorious as, the allegations made by Dylan. My colleagues in family law deal with these allegation almost daily. The forensic difficulty for defence counsellors in some cases is that the children - now women - actually believe what they allege, even if it can be shown to have been impossible.

"I have the support of my amazing brothers and sisters," Dylan wrote. That statement was dismantled when her adopted brother, Moses Farrow, said last week, "Woody did not molest my sister." Dylan replied: "My brother is dead to me." Suddenly he is unamazing.

The ranks of many families are at war with each other when these allegations are made. In my experience in criminal law, cliches do not apply to human behaviour or memory. Where there is smoke, there is not necessarily fire.

The detail and depth of allegations do not point to their accuracy. Often they point to the opposite direction. Memory is a very unreliable instrument.

The experiments of American psychologist Dr Elizabeth Loftus prove conclusively that people can make up false memories of experiences in graphic detail and come to believe them, even though manufactured in controlled conditions by researchers.

Subjects were shown childhood photos of hot-air balloons that had been photoshopped to include them. When initially asked about these events, most found a memory of an event that had not happened. When asked at weekly intervals thereafter, most students gave more and more details, "in the clouds", "passing over fields" and told of reactions of others in the basket.

The students' imaginations had filled in details and descriptions that were false but precise, engineered in the brain by mechanisms that create false images.

Something in our circuitry demands answers, even if they are false. The demand for completion does not bring with it the comfort of real truth.

Allegations such as these are loaded pistols in the hands of the disenchanted and bewildered. They not only shoot themselves, but other innocent family members who did nothing but their best.

Children can and do lie. People do lie, even if they are doing their very best to tell the truth. In the courtroom, truth is as slippery and as shocking as an electric eel.

Original report here




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