The Art of Differentiation-Woody Allen, Philip S. Hoffman, Roman Polanski, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Richard Wagner and Ty Cobb

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The Art of Differentiation-Woody Allen, Philip S. Hoffman, Roman Polanski, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Richard Wagner and Ty Cobb

By Philip W. Cook 

“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

Stephen Fry is the grandson of British Jewish immigrants, who made a documentary for the BBC on his life-long passion for Wagner, the composer whose music is most closely associated with Nazism. Fry had relatives who died at Auschwitz. “Imagine a great beautiful silk tapestry of infinite colour and complexity that has been stained indelibly. It’s still a beautiful tapestry of miraculous workmanship, but that stain is real, and I’m afraid Hitler and Nazism have stained Wagner. For some people that stain ruins the whole work; for others, it’s just something you have to face up to.”

By nearly all accounts from fellow players and those who knew him baseball’s Ty Cobb was a mean, nasty individual, but sports aficionado’s still count him as one of the greatest players in history.

Liberals point to Watergate and the crudeness of oval office diatribes, but tend to ignore the fact that Richard Nixon was a key advocate for the environment.  Acting against Republican business interests, his administration championed the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts and created the Environmental Protection Agency. Conservatives may point to President Bill Clinton’s sexual harassment of an intern and tend to ignore his championing of welfare reform against the wishes of many members of his own party and his record of being the only president in modern times that actually reduced the size of the federal workforce.

Movie director Roman Polanski who directed the Jack Nicholson classic film Chinatown was arrested in 1977, for the statutory rape of 13-year-old girl and plead guilty. To avoid sentencing he fled the U.S. and has never returned.  In 2002, Polanski won the best director Oscar for The Pianist.

This brings us to the more recent news involving Woody Allen and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Hoffman was one of the best actors of his generation, his performances in films such as Capote and Charlie Wilson’s War were remarkable accomplishments for an actor who did not fit the more typical Hollywood ‘pretty boy’ image.  He was also a heroin junkie whose overdose death would not likely make the local news, let alone generate national news or comment, were it not for his fame and talent. If there is anything to be gained from this sad news is that it may bring more attention to the costs of substance abuse within personal lives and put a greater spotlight on public and philanthropic efforts to combat it.

Woody Allen’s case is more complicated and deserves special attention. Not just because of who the acclaimed film director and screenwriter is, but of what we must consider in such cases. As most know, Dylan Farrow penned an open letter revealing details of the sexual abuse she claims happened 20 years ago at the hands of her adopted father. One of her brothers has different view. Moses Farrow told People Magazine, “Of course Woody did not molest my sister.” In fact, he claims that Allen’s then wife Mia Farrow was abusive:  “My mother drummed it into me to hate my father for tearing apart the family and sexually molesting my sister. And I hated him for her for years. I see now that this was a vengeful way to pay him back for falling in love with Soon-Yi.”

Washington state residents might be more particularly mindful about the veracity of such charges given the Wenatchee witch hunt of 1994 and 1995 In which forty-three adults were arrested on 29,726 charges of child sex abuse, involving 60 children; Child Protective Services removed some fifty children from accused parents and relocated them in foster homes.  Eventually, all those who were convicted were either freed by higher courts had their convictions overturned or pled guilty on lesser, usually unrelated, charges in exchange for the prosecution dropping the charges of sexual abuse. Five served their full sentences before their cases were overturned.

In the same state, in February of 2013, former Vancouver police officer Ray Spencer was awarded nine million dollars by a Tacoma jury for wrongful prosecution. Spencer spent a decade in prison after being sentenced to two life prison terms plus 14 years. Investigators found that prosecutors had withheld medical exams showing that there was no physical evidence of abuse, even though the child’s mother contended they had been repeatedly raped.

In this case, it is worth noting that  Spencer’s natural children eventually testified in they were never molested or raped by their father, to this day, his step-son has refused to recant and contends that he was molested.

“Believing the victim” is sometimes the best policy, sometimes it is not. My own analysis of cleared and exonerated cases (those falsely convicted and ultimately released) in my book When Women Sexually Abuse Men(Cook/Hodo, Praeger 2103) finds that 21% of the total were in cases of child or adult rape or sexual abuse cases.

The Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect analyzed data from 7,672 child maltreatment investigations. Among the 798 cases of alleged sexual abuse, only 38 percent were substantiated.  Most professionals believe that the proportion of false allegations of child sexual abuse is highest in divorce and custody disputes. Writing in the journal “Forensics” the authors report that out of five hundred divorce and custody cases, “For three-fourths there was no determination of abuse by the legal system. That is, charges were dropped or never filed or the person was acquitted in criminal court, or there was no finding of abuse in family court. Dwyer (1986) reports similar statistics. She states that 77% of the divorce-linked allegations of sex abuse cases coming to the Human Sexuality Program at the University of Minnesota have turned out to be hoax cases. This was based upon the opinion reached by the agency staff that the allegations were not accurate.”

Samuel R. Gross in a research paper for the University Of Michigan School Of Law found that the false rape conviction rate in which physical evidence was examined by the Virginia Department of Forensic Science from 1973 through 1987 found an innocent rate of least 3.2 to five percent, and “almost certainly quite a few more.” A major study in a Midwestern city over the course of nine years reported in the “Archives of Sexual Behavior” found 41 percent of all rape claims were false. Gross also reports that an analysis of police records at two large state universities found 50 percent of the rapes reported to campus police were determined to be false.  As reported in “Forensic Science” by researcher Charles McDowell an Air Force study evaluated 556 rape allegations, and concluded that 60 percent were false. Somewhat unusually, the Air Force study attempted to determine the reasons behind why such accusations were made. From most frequent to least frequent they were: Spite or Revenge; To compensate for feelings of guilt or shame; Thought she might be pregnant; To conceal an affair; To test husband’s love; Mental/emotional disorder; To avoid personal responsibility; Failure to pay, or extortion; Thought she might have caught VD.

Speaking of all types of wrongful convictions or accusations, Gross adds: “If as few as 1/10 of 1% of jetliners crashed on takeoff, we would shut down every airline in the country. That is not a risk we are prepared to take – and we believe we know how to address that sort of problem. Are 10,000 to perhaps 50,000 wrongfully imprisoned citizens too many? Can we do better? How? There are no obvious answers. The good news is that the great majority of convicted criminal defendants in America are guilty. The bad news is that a substantial number are not.”

A remembrance of details by a child of sexual assault is not by itself prima fasciae evidence that the assault did in fact occur.  It may or may not be true.  An adult later giving what appear to be details of a child sexual assault seems compelling and may in fact be true, but it may also be false. Tried in the media or via the internet when a police investigation resulted in no charges as in the Woody Allen case, should give us some cause for doubt. This is particular true when the evidence suggests that in a bitter custody and divorce cases such charges are more likely to be made.

With the Woody Allen case particularly in mind but relating to all of the people mentioned here, I applaud the ability of those who make a conscious choice to separate art from the personal life of the artist-whoever they may be. For those who cannot do so, I respect that as well. Is there some repugnance associated with say enjoying “Chinatown” as a great movie or “Annie Hall” or if I were an opera fan attending a concert of music by Wagner-yes. Would I choose to never again watch a Woody Allen movie or one by Polanski? Or even a movie made by a junkie like Hoffman?  No. There is an art to differentiation. I believe we should celebrate it. We should also keep our skepticism level high while at the same time when there is independent (the key there being independent) credible evidence of abuse whatever its form it should be dealt with in an evidentiary fashion and prosecution may be warranted under the legal system, even though that system also has its flaws.

We can feel repugnance for the private lives of artists, politicians, and sports players and there have always been plenty of examples to point to throughout history. Whether or not their work can still be appreciated despite this, is a judgment that each individual must make for themselves. As for the lasting worth of their creations that must await the ultimate judgment of history itself.

Philip W. Cook is a former radio and television journalist who has written several books and contributed to a number of anthology books and peer-reviewed journals. His website is