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What Rafael Yglesias' Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow Essay Tells Us About His Great 'Fearless'

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire February 13, 2014 at 2:20PM

In an essay, the author and screenwriter describes being molested as a child. What does that have to do with a movie about plane-crash survivors?
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Jeff Bridges in 'Fearless'
Jeff Bridges in 'Fearless'

Earlier this week, Rafael Yglesias wrote a tremendous essay for Slate about the connection between his own life and the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow controversy. I can't pretend to do the whole thing justice, but there are a few passages worth highlighting in the specific context of this site.

Yglesias opens with a brutal statement of truth about his collaboration with Roman Polanski on Death and the Maiden, which he adapted from Ariel Dorfman's play, and follows it with a truth of his own:

I worked for a man who raped a 13-year-old girl. I knew he had raped her, everyone knew he had raped her, and I was eager to get the job. I did not hesitate even though I had been sexually molested when I was 8 years old. I did not pause although I was still struggling from ongoing complications 30 years after an adult seducer had permanently interfered with my sexual development.

The first two sentences must be confronted by anyone who wants to reckon with Roman Polanski's work, let alone work alongside him. The two that follow are harder to absorb. Although a cursory search reveals that the subject of child sexual abuse has worked its way into a number of Yglesias' novels, it's different when he's writing about his own experience, especially in graphic detail.

Only those who have experienced it can readily understand how a man in a position of authority whom a child wants to please -- I hope everyone can agree than an adopted father qualifies -- could progress over a period of time from a child’s desire for hugs to snuggling in bed, to rubbing her nipples, buttocks, genitalia without the demarcation being as clear to a 7-year-old as it would be to a psychiatrist, a police investigator, or a movie critic. 

That final clause is a subtle but unmistakeable swipe at some of the pat judgements that have been rendered by cultural commentators in the last few weeks, both by those who believe Allen is innocent and those who believe he is guilty. Yglesias has his own idea what happened, and he shares it, but he follows it with "Who cares what I think? No one. And that is the way it should be," displaying a degree of humility that the often furious debate has been sorely lacking.


It feels almost exploitative to drag Yglesias' personal trauma into a discussion of his work, but he leaves no doubt the one has influenced the other. In the case of Death and the Maiden, he says he insisted on two alterations to Dorfman's play: One, that the woman who has been tortured and raped in a state prison specifically describe what happened to her; in the Slate essay, Yglesias does the same for his own experience, and suggests Dylan Farrow should as well. Two, that the movie remove any ambiguity as to whether the man she forces to confess to raping her was in fact guilty of the crime. 

You can read Polanski's response to the latter demand -- "Of course. Not telling the audience whether or not he is guilty is bullshit" -- as a stunning irony or a confession of sorts, but there's no question that Yglesias' changes made Death and the Maiden a more humane and ethical work. Yglesias does not sugar-coat his decision to work with a man he knew had raped a teenage girl: He writes, "It was an opportunity that was too rewarding to my artistic aspirations as a writer, and a righteous refusal too vague in its benefits to society, for me to choose otherwise." But the framing of individual benefit versus society good leads to another: Does society benefit from the existence of Death and the Maiden? And is there, now, a special power in understanding it as a film made by a man who raped a child, and adapted by a child who was raped?

Yglesias' essay implicitly argues against such tidy equivalencies, but I'm also drawn towards the subject of Fearless, which he adapted from his own novel for director Peter Weir. It's a haunting film about the survivors of a plane crash, especially Jeff Bridges' architect, who is convinced that in its aftermath he has permanently conquered his fear of death. Those who are crippled by trauma, and the fear of its recurrence, long for the liberation of its absence, but the upshot of Fearless is that a life wholly without fear is as empty as one dominated by it is unhappy. The illusion of invulnerability very near costs Bridges' character both his family and his life; his near-death trauma is not something that can be transcended but must be lived with. And that strikes me as a powerful, if previously invisible, analogue for sexual abuse, which as Yglesias says in his Slate essay "permanently associated my first experience of sexual pleasure with my having no say in the matter." At the end of Fearless, Bridges' character comes to accept that things happen, bad and good, over which he has no control. But if he cannot control them, he has a say in the extent to which they define him.


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