I grew up loving Woody Allen and his films. Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall” and Barbara Hershey in “Hannah and Her Sisters” stood out as favorite female characters. Hershey’s character even reads an e.e. cummings poem, [somewhere I have never traveled]. I wanted to live those characters’ New York lives. Allen and his films inspired me to move to New York, which I did in my early 20s.
I remember a 1991 New York Times Magazine cover story about Allen and Mia Farrow. The cover pictured them on a street at night — the most interesting couple in the world, it seemed to me. Unmarried, they lived across Central Park from each other. She had all those kids. And they worked together on a new film every year or so. What a life.
When the news about Allen’s alleged abuse of his daughter, Dylan Farrow, came out, I didn’t want to believe it. I wasn’t alone. Dom Nero wrote about his feelings in Esquire. “It’s something about … men and how we are raised to view women,” he wrote. “It’s that unspoken agreement we have when all the women leave the table, when we’re a few drinks in, when we nod our heads around that word we use so much to describe them. Crazy.”
Allen’s son, the writer Ronan Farrow, wrote about his shame in keeping quiet. Even I didn’t want to see the truth, although Dylan’s story and Allen’s relationship with Mia Farrow’s then-20-year-old daughter Soon Yi Previn turned my stomach. In this new context, my favorite Allen films changed. Now that cummings poem from “Hannah and Her Sisters” — “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands” — sends a shiver down my spine.
Why do people keep quiet about sexual abuse? Because speaking up is a mess, especially when the abuser is a father — and powerful, as most fathers are to their children. Because speaking up tears families apart. Because so many people don’t believe the victim.
My mother’s story
My essay “Shell with Halo: A New Orleans Family Mystery in 13 Parts” is my mother’s story. It’s my wobbly voice joined with hers.
When I submitted the essay to journals, I described it as “meditative … with hybrid elements … intertwining a dark family secret and a mystery related to the rangia clams of Lake Pontchartrain.”
That’s a lot of ground to cover. The essay also grapples with themes of gender, abuse and trauma. All those elements made it a difficult piece to write — and a difficult piece to place. I’m happy to report that “Shell with Halo” has a home. It was published today in Flying Island, the online journal of the Indiana Writer’s Center.
I feel proud to be published in a journal focused on the work of Indiana writers. I’ve lived in Indy for 23 years now. Most of my struggles and growth as a writer have happened here. I studied poetry at Butler University, mostly under Chris Forhan, for seven years. I wrote my first draft of this essay in Chris’s community nonfiction class.
Early in its submission journey, “Shell with Halo” made a yearlong pit stop at The Georgia Review, where a thoughtful editor named Doug Carlson saw it through several revisions. Although it wasn’t chosen for publication in that journal, I’m grateful for Carlson’s support and careful reading.
I’ve stopped counting the number of times I’ve revised and submitted my essay. Flying Island picked it up just days after I reworked it as a mosaic piece, spurred by my husband Robert Rebein, who, along with a special group of Irvington writers, believed in it through all its incarnations. Nonfiction editor Beth Bates chose to publish it in April to recognize Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and she welcomed the option of including my mixed-media paintings, which are part of the story.
As I’ve said, “Shell with Halo” was a difficult story to tell, but I hope it’s not difficult to read. Pictures help. I’ve included a few family photos here. All of these characters are real. I don’t use names, but the people in my family have read my essay. They’re OK with sharing the secret.
Thank you for reading my mother’s story. Like Dylan Farrow, my mom “gets the shakes” every time she thinks about her childhood. But the sharing is worth it, she told me. Now that the story is out, she can move past it. She’s free.
Ronan Farrow writes that “silence isn’t just wrong. It’s dangerous. It sends a message to victims that it’s not worth the anguish of coming forward. It sends a message about who we are as a society, what we’ll overlook, who we’ll ignore, who matters and who doesn’t.”
Farrow also writes about the sea change in how people talk about sexual assault and abuse — and the need to “build a culture where women like my sister are no longer treated as if they are invisible.”
For a large part of her life, my mother was invisible — even within her own family. She’s out in the light now. It means so much to me to be part of that.