Reading some of the books from this list 20-plus years after their publication sometimes makes for some jarring perspective shifts. Mia Farrow’s book What Falls Away: A Memoir (it’s actually an autobiography, but never mind that now) made me
deeply uncomfortable. Written in 1997, the book is disquieting not just for its depiction of Woody Allen as a controlling, violent megalomaniac, but for my own reaction to Farrow’s passivity in confronting him. In the post-#metoo era, I found myself all too ready to judge her for tolerating things that, until VERY recently, women have been expected to tolerate for years.
Mia Farrow has a reputation as a kind of float-y, New Age-y kook, and there are some elements of that here. But more than anything else, I was left with an impression of a woman with deep insecurities and extreme lack of confidence, who by her own telling saw many reasons for concern in the way her partner of 12 years interacted with her children, yet couldn’t bring herself to end it…and I’m sorry to say that I didn’t always understand or sympathize with this, with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight.
After describing her advantaged and happy Hollywood childhood, Farrow dives into the meat of the book: the relationships she’s known for, starting with Frank Sinatra.
In 1964, a man sent by a 48-year-old Sinatra approached a girl at a club in Vegas and asked how old she was. 19-year-old Mia Farrow was apparently not too young, and she was summoned to his table. She went. Today, this approach would set off all kinds of red flags. But in the early ‘60s for a privileged but insecure child of Hollywood, it was merely the beginning of a long history of relationships with the opposite sex hallmarked by an imbalance of power.
As followers of pop culture know, Farrow ended up marrying Sinatra. After a brief and tumultuous marriage, she spent time in
India with the Beatles studying the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, married and divorced conductor Andre Previn, had a 12-year relationship with director Woody Allen that ended in scandal, and is the mother of fourteen children, ten of them adopted.
In all three of the most significant romantic relationships in her life, Farrow consistently chose men who dominated her, made decisions for her, and tried to control her and her children. Fun stories about Old Hollywood aside, I would have enjoyed her story more if it had a go at digging into the “why” of these choices. As a child of the 1950s, the Hollywood she knew as a child was still the Hollywood of all-knowing, all-powerful, male directors and studio heads…maybe this is part of why she grew up thinking that men must always be right? More introspection about this pattern in her life, and why it took her so long to finally see “what falls away” and break the cycle of negative relationship dynamics, would make this book more sympathetic.
But it was written just a few years after her gut-wrenching break-up with Woody Allen, and its primary focus is on processing the end of that extremely intense relationship.
As played out in the tabloids, it was ended by the discovery that the 57-year-old Allen was having an affair with Farrow’s 22-
year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Shortly thereafter, Farrow accused Allen of sexually abusing Farrow’s 7-year-old daughter Dylan; Farrow had adopted Dylan as an infant, and later Allen became her legal father as well.
Was Dylan a victim of sexual abuse, as both Farrow and her daughter maintain to the present day? Or did Farrow make up the abuse story, as Allen claims, as revenge for a horrific betrayal of trust? It’s an ugly, ugly story, and no one but Farrow and Allen themselves can really know how it all went down.
Sexual abuse or no, Allen’s actions are all kinds of disturbing. Farrow tells of times Allen shoved their child’s face into a plate of hot spaghetti; grabbed their toddler son’s leg and twisted it painfully, threatening to kill him; routinely slept wrapped around their young daughter while wearing nothing but underwear, with his thumb in the child’s mouth. Farrow admits to not calling Allen on these and other questionable behaviors, so sure was she that he was necessarily smarter than her and right about everything.
Farrow had behaved similarly with Sinatra and Previn. She tells of being a brand-new mom of twins, living on a remote estate in England waiting for Previn to come home between gigs, when he made her dismiss her long-time assistant and friend because “it’s unhealthy for me to be so dependent on her–he says I don’t know how to do anything.” Farrow felt overwhelmed but didn’t protest…or if she did, it doesn’t make it into the story. Farrow presents as “victimized” throughout most of the book; if she took any agency or advocated for herself in any way, she isn’t telling us.
Farrow’s deep insecurity and utter dependence on the men in her life make her hard to relate to. If this book were written by a more skilled writer, or maybe just by someone who wasn’t so fresh from a devastating upheaval of her personal life, it might delve more into the bigger questions of “why.” As it is, it reads more as the work of someone with an ax to grind…someone who might have something to gain from being a victim.
And that’s where it brought out a side of me I didn’t like too much. It was too easy to victim-blame Mia Farrow; with the hindsight #metoo has brought us, her passivity was completely unrelatable to me. On one hand it’s a positive sign of how far we’ve come, that accepting psychological and emotional abuse feels completely untenable…but it’s also a saddening reminder of the millions of women who paved the way to get here.
Katy Epler is a writer, an historian, and a pop-culture enthusiast who is making her way through decades worth of Entertainment Weekly’s Best Books of the Year lists, and then representing them to us in a modern light. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org