OCTOBER 27, 2020
HUSH, DYLAN FARROW’S debut YA novel, is set in the fictional land of Montane, which is ruled over by a powerful band of magicians. The majority-male Bards purport to protect the people of Montane, although this service comes at a price. The Bards have outlawed reading and writing, claiming that language can lead to disease and death, and that only they are capable of safely harnessing its power. Shae, the novel’s protagonist, is in possession of a dangerous truth: her mother was murdered, and she believes that the Bards were somehow involved.
Unfortunately for Shae, Montane is a veritable obstacle course for would-be truth tellers. The mechanisms the Bards use to silence Shae are familiar ones — our own systems of suppression run through a magical filter. The Bards are able to alter the fabric of reality, to make prisons look like castles and decimated towns like bucolic villages. As Shae watches the world around her flicker and morph, she comes to believe the Bards when they tell her that she is going mad. Now convinced that she is incapable of separating truth from fiction, Shae no longer trusts herself to speak out about the violence she has witnessed.
Strip Montane of its fantastical facade, and Shae’s odyssey is disturbingly quotidian. She’s a young woman who has experienced something disturbing, but inconvenient to the authorities, and so is ignored, doubted, spoken down to, manipulated, and ultimately told that she must be imagining things — that she is actually to blame. Through fantasy world-building, Farrow gives internal struggles shape and slippery phenomena substance. Gaslighting in Montane is a quite literal force, as the Bards manipulate the lived realities of their victims. Their boys’ club actually is an all-powerful magical regime, and the real-world pressure for survivors to stay silent is made tangible through a brutally enforced ban on speech.
If anyone knows the tolls that speaking out can take, it’s Dylan Farrow, who is perhaps best known for the allegation she has spent almost three decades telling and retelling. In 1992, the then-seven-year-old Farrow accused director Woody Allen, her adoptive father, of sexual abuse. In a January 2018 interview, Farrow described the alleged assault in detail, saying, “I was taken to a small attic crawl space in my mother’s country house in Connecticut by my father. He instructed me to lay down on my stomach and play with my brother’s toy train that was set up. […] [H]e touched my labia and my vulva with his finger.” Allen has consistently denied Farrow’s allegations.
Billed as a “feminist fantasy,” Hush’s central themes of truth-telling, suppressed speech, and male propaganda all suggest a “#MeToo novel.” A wide range of recent books have been marketed as #MeToo literature, a catchall category that has been interrogated, critiqued, and praised by a number of critics. In a 2019 Guardian piece, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett asks, “Are we witnessing so much pain being reduced to a marketing category, or is #MeToo a useful prism through which to view the work of these writers?” Around the same time, The New York Times’s Parul Sehgal appeared to embrace the trend, surveying a number of “#MeToo novels” and applauding their ability to “deliver us from numbing sameness.” Sehgal argues that novels, unencumbered by the formalism of journalistic investigations, are perhaps a more fitting medium for complicated stories about sex, violence, gender, and power. “It does not feel reductive to read fiction through this prism,” she argues. “These books […] are remarkably various, and they trouble debates that traffic in certainties. They come laden with confusion, doubt, subtlety — is it excessively earnest to call it truth?”
Farrow all but hashtags Hush herself, inviting readers to draw connections between the work and her own allegations, which have been so publicly investigated, denied, and doubted. In a note from the author included in the volume, Farrow writes that,
[G]rowing up, the world of books was a refuge for me as my family was assaulted by a powerful individual dedicated to ruining our lives and our credibility. Using the overwhelming power of a verbal campaign that was supported only by obfuscating legal documentation, an entire generation was led to believe in a false narrative.
With or without Farrow’s permission, readers would be hard-pressed not to see the author’s own story running just beneath the surface of Hush’s narrative. These threads most noticeably converge around the novel’s central betrayal. When Shae first attempts to confront the Bards, she catches the eye of their leader, Cathal. He sees potential in Shae and treats her kindly — housing her, feeding her, and even teaching her how to write and read. But as Shae digs deeper, she comes to realize that Cathal was actually the architect of much of her suffering. Her “madness” was his doing, a campaign to keep her quiet and confused. Shae struggles to understand how “the same person who encouraged me, had faith in me, helped me,” could be this “monster.” She confronts Cathal, shouting, “You said I was like a daughter to you!”
With this obvious mirroring, Farrow’s allegorical conjuring clicks into place. Cathal is not just a powerful father figure — he’s an artist, a wielder of words who uses language to soothe and lure, only later to wound and gaslight. It’s hardly hyperbole to say that Woody Allen, much like the magical Bards, has shaped the world around us, creating works that pervade our collective consciousness. Like all influential art, his films come to us like flashbacks, still shots and snippets of his dialogue familiar as memory. Contemplating his own “Woody Allen Problem,” New York Times film critic A. O. Scott writes:
I could, I suppose, declare that I won’t watch any more of his movies. But I can hardly unwatch the ones I’ve seen, which is all of them, at least half more than once. And even if I could, by some feat of cinephilic sophistry, separate those movies from Mr. Allen’s life, I can’t possibly separate them from mine.
For decades, Dylan Farrow’s allegations were a mere footnote; actors still lined up to work with Allen, and some raced to assert his innocence. In a 2014 open letter to The New York Times, Farrow describes the trauma of living in “a world that celebrates her tormenter,” writing, “All but a precious few (my heroes) turned a blind eye. Most found it easier to accept the ambiguity, to say, ‘who can say what happened,’ to pretend that nothing was wrong.”
With Shae, Farrow creates an avatar who is facing down her own “false narrative”: a manipulated reality that is being parroted by almost everyone around her, including the most powerful and influential citizens of Montane. There are many reasons why Farrow might choose to reimagine her own story as fiction, to dust this familiar plot in magic. As an activist who has previously spoken out in interviews and articles, essays and op-eds, Farrow’s turn toward fiction suggests that she, like Sehgal, might see the genre’s potential for more expansive and unbridled truth-telling. It’s quite possible that Farrow felt censored or boxed in by journalistic investigations, which necessarily edited for clarity, and with an eye toward reducing legal risk. Writing on the limitations of #MeToo reporting for Vice, Sadie Graham posits that, “The legal and ethical standards in journalism and the limits of fact-checking have put a gag order on our vocabulary. There are ‘allegations.’ There are ‘claims.’ There are ‘accusers.’” She concludes:
What we have is a cycle that only barely and occasionally serves victims of abuse, who are overwhelmingly women. Survivors announce their experiences of abuse en masse; a spare few are selected […] to have their claims investigated and found credible; and finally, once the exposé breaks, the news machine churns out headline after headline after headline, losing a little nuance, context, or intent with each one like some hellish game of telephone.
Even when publications have featured Farrow’s own words at length, as in her 2014 open letter, they have been printed with disclaimers. It would be irresponsible not to ask the accused party for comment, or to highlight, as the Times did in this case, Allen’s consistent denials of any wrongdoing. That being said, this journalistic practice leads to a twisted co-authorship in which the testimonies of survivors are inextricably bound to the denials of their alleged abusers. With Hush, Farrow is assuming sole authorship of her story. The resulting novel is undeniably hers. While its plot is set into motion by an act of violence, Farrow is more preoccupied with the subsequent campaign of obfuscation.
As Farrow knows all too well, speaking out, participating in investigations and exposés, is just the beginning. If your story is dangerous or inconvenient, the backlash will be inevitable, whether it’s a lawsuit or a whisper campaign, gaslighting on a micro or macro scale. Maybe, if the person you’ve accused is famous enough, their alleged crimes horrific enough — in other words, if you’re lucky — they will be the subject of a fair and thorough investigation. Will that make everything — the public scrutiny, the character attacks, the Twitter trolls, the notoriety, the retraumatization, the knowledge that your name will always be tied to theirs — worth it?
Hush closes with more questions than answers. Shae, along with the few friends and allies who believe her, resolve to venture beyond the borders of Montane. Their quest is to find Gondal, a mythical “safe haven” that the Bards have long insisted is just a made-up fantasyland. Once again, Shae is chasing the truth, chipping away at the false reality that the Bards use to consolidate power and manipulate their subjects. This open ending appears to set the stage for a multi-part saga. The survivor searching for personal resolution has discovered injustice on a widespread, systemic scale — and with it, a larger fight than she could ever have imagined.
What happens after we say “Me Too”? For Shae, and for Farrow, it’s a never-ending battle against a powerful, indefatigable opponent. It’s repeating your story, over and over again, until the world has changed just enough to hear it. It’s to be continued.