Who Is Soon-Yi Previn—and Why Should We Listen to What She's Saying?

The wife of director Woody Allen and adopted daughter of Mia Farrow has been surrounded by controversy for most of her adult life. Now, she’s finally speaking up

Katherine Singh
by
Director Woody Allen wears a beige suit and stands beside his wife Soon-Yi Previn, wearing a black and gold dress at an event
(Photo: Getty)

There’s a reason your Twitter-feed is *probably* blowing up right now, and it has something to do with Woody Allen. In a week already chock-full of #MeToo takes we didn’t need (looking at you Jian Ghomeshi), New York magazine entered the fray, publishing a lengthy profile on Allen’s wife of 20 years, Soon-Yi Previn. The profile, “Introducing Soon-Yi Previn,” went live late on Sunday, September 16 and can we just say, it covered a lot. Like, the 47-year-old’s controversial relationship with the now 82-year-old Allen (which started when she was 21 and Allen was 57—and dating her adopted mother, actress Mia Farrow), Farrow’s allegedly abusive behaviour and the decades-long sexual abuse allegations levelled against Allen by Previn’s step-sister, Dylan Farrow. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. The profile, which was framed as a reclamation of voice for the long-silent Previn, quickly drew backlash on social media, with Twitter users criticizing the slew of attacks against Mia Farrow and saying that survivors of sexual assault deserve better.

There’s plenty to unpack in this one, so here’s everything you need to know about Soon-Yi Previn, the scandal that put her on the map, and yes, even why we need to listen to her, now more than ever.

Who is Soon-Yi Previn?

It’s not surprising that you might not know the woman at the heart of New York‘s controversial profile; for much of the past 20 years, she’s been a silent example in the many discussions about Woody Allen’s problematic behaviour. Born in Korea, reportedly in 1970, Previn was adopted by actor Mia Farrow and her then-husband André Previn when she was six. Previn first came to the public’s attention in 1992, when her relationship with Allen made the news—Farrow discovered nude Polaroids of a then-21-year-old Previn in Allen’s home in January of that year. As if that wasn’t problematic enough, Allen had known Previn since she was 10 years old; many people questioned the paternal dynamics of their relationship and even claimed Allen had groomed her from a young age.

Previn made a statement to Newsweek about their relationship in 1992, saying, “I’m not a retarded little underage flower who was raped, molested and spoiled by some evil stepfather—not by a long shot.” That same year, in Time, Allen agreed. “There’s no downside to [the relationship],” he said. “The only thing unusual is that she’s Mia’s daughter. But she’s an adopted daughter and a grown woman. I could have met her at a party or something.” (By 2015, he seemingly came around to the term “paternal,” telling NPR, “I’m 35 years older, and somehow, through no fault of mine or hers, the dynamic worked. I was paternal. She responded to someone paternal. I liked her youth and energy. She deferred to me, and I was happy to give her an enormous amount of decision-making just as a gift and let her take charge of so many things. She flourished. It was just a good-luck thing.”)

The couple married in 1997 and now have two adopted daughters.

Previn claims Mia Farrow was physically and emotionally abusive

The article, written by Daphne Merkin, covers a lot of ground, but one of the most shocking claims is that Farrow physically and emotionally abused Previn and her adopted siblings. Previn claims that there was favouritism among the siblings based on race, and said she and her sisters were treated like “domestics” who were expected to cook, clean and even iron their mother’s sheets.  “There was a hierarchy—she didn’t try to hide it, and Fletcher [a biological son of Farrow and Previn] was the star, the golden child,” she told the magazine. “Mia always valued intelligence and also looks, blonde hair and blue eyes.” Previn also says that a learning disability and difficulty learning English made her the target of Farrow’s rage, recounting incidents of physical and verbal violence, and describing times when Farrow “‘arbitrarily show[ed] her power’ [by] slapping Soon-Yi across the face and spanking her with a hairbrush or calling her ‘stupid’ and ‘moronic.'” Previn told Merkin, “It’s hard for someone to imagine, but I really can’t come up with a pleasant memory.”

In a May 2018 blog post, Moses Farrow—the adopted son of Allen and Mia Farrow—made similar claims, calling life under his mother’s roof “impossible.” The New York story acknowledges that, “a family spokesperson for Farrow has refuted all accounts of physical abuse and neglect, while five of Farrow’s children with Previn—as well as Isaiah, Quincy and Ronan Farrow—said in a statement: ‘None of us ever witnessed anything other than compassionate treatment in our home.'”

Previn says she was drawn to Allen for his kindness—not revenge

Previn emphasized that her controversial relationship with Allen was not meant to be malicious. Instead, she says the pair was drawn together after attending New York Knicks basketball games—at the suggestion of Farrow—and didn’t become sexually intimate until Previn was a freshman in college. According to Previn, it was the director’s kindness, so opposite to her mother’s behaviour, that drew her to him. “Mia was never kind to me, never civil. And here was a chance for someone showing me affection and being nice to me, so of course I was thrilled and ran for it,” she said. “I wasn’t the one who went after Woody—where would I get the nerve? He pursued me. That’s why the relationship has worked: I felt valued. It’s quite flattering for me. He’s usually a meek person, and he took a big leap.” Allen, who was intermittently present during the interviews, chimed in as well, noting that their relationship turned him into a “pariah”—despite the fact that he has gone on to have a lucrative career in Hollywood, including 24 Oscar nominations and four wins. “People think that I was Soon-Yi’s father, that I raped and married my underaged, retarded daughter,” he said.

And according to Previn, the sexual abuse allegations against Allen are false

Finally, Previn touches on the accusation of sexual abuse against Allen by his step-daughter Dylan Farrow. In August 1992, Farrow alleged that Allen sexually assaulted her in a second-floor closet in her mother’s home. She was seven years old. Since then, Farrow has stood by her accusation, with vocal support from her mother, as well her brother, New Yorker reporter Ronan Farrow. In 2014, Farrow re-addressed these allegations in an open letter for the New York Times, criticizing Hollywood and the actors who have, and continue to, work with Allen. Most recently, she called out supporters of the #TimesUp initiative who have worked with her father, telling Buzzfeed,” I fully support women taking a stand… that said, the people who join this movement without taking any kind of personal accountability for the ways in which their words and decisions have helped to perpetuate the culture they are fighting against[,] that’s hard for me to reconcile.”

Allen has denied all allegations and has never been charged. Previn, for her part, denies these allegations in her profile, instead chalking them up to a smear campaign orchestrated by Mia Farrow: “What’s happened to Woody is so upsetting, so unjust. [Mia] has taken advantage of the #MeToo movement and paraded Dylan as a victim. And a whole new generation is hearing about it when they shouldn’t.” (It’s important to note that, while the #MeToo movement was founded in 2006, it didn’t enter the public vernacular until 2017, 25 years after Dylan Farrow’s original 1992 allegations, and three years after Farrow reiterated them in 2014).

In a statement released on Twitter shortly after the profile was published, Farrow decried inconsistencies in the article and fired back at Previn’s claim that she was coerced into making an accusation. “Thanks to my mother I grew up in a wonderful home, filled with love, that she created,” she wrote. “I have a message for the media and  allies of Woody Allen: no one is ‘parading me around as a victim’—I continue to be an adult woman making a credible allegation unchanged for two decades, backed up by evidence.”

There are some serious journalistic issues with the profile

Content aside, there are some seriously problematic things going on with the reporting in this piece. Early on, Merkin discloses that she’s a longtime friend and admirer of Allen’s—and it shows. A few paragraphs into the piece, she writes: “I myself have been friends with Allen for over four decades and have always been somewhat mystified by him, in part because of the almost Aspergian aloneness of the man and in part because of the genuine diffidence—the lack of a discernible ego—that lies just beneath both a lifetime’s worth of ambitious productivity and his nebbishy film persona.”

It’s eloquent, it’s poetic and it’s also—according to journalist Yashar Ali—journalistically unsound. In a 10-tweet thread, Ali points out Merkin’s history of writing controversial #MeToo content, emphasizing that it is very likely that her relationship with Allen is what got her the interview—Previn probably wouldn’t talk to anyone else. “Generally, I don’t think a friendship should preclude a reporter/writer from writing or profiling someone,” he tweeted, “but in the case of a sensitive issue like an abuse allegation, it is, without question, a conflict of interest.” If that’s not clear enough, Seattle Times reporter Paige Cornwall notes that Merkin’s website bio claims that her first fan letter was from… Woody Allen. Which just seems straight up wrong.

Even more alarming? The fact that Allen continues to make appearances throughout the profile, even interrupting Previn during the interview. (Merkin writes that these interruptions “often prompt Soon-Yi to protest, ‘You’re interrupting me.’) How truthful can we really expect Previn to be, when the main topic of discussion is continuously looming over her shoulder? Merkin seems to be trying to paint their relationship as close—she also writes about them holding hands, or being solicitous of one another—but her inclusion of Allen’s presence actually reiterates and reinforces the dominant narrative of him as controlling and Previn as muzzled, brainwashed… and trapped.

It’s complicated, but we need to listen to what she’s saying

But the most unsettling part of New York‘s profile is that Previn just doesn’t fit the narrative we’ve long believed. Despite public opinion about her life and marriage, she says she does not see herself as a victim. That’s uncomfortable because, regardless of her own feelings of affection and autonomy in her relationship, we know that she doesn’t have to feel victimized for Allen’s actions to have been predatory. And just because *she* doesn’t feel victimized by Allen, it doesn’t mean that Dylan Farrow wasn’t victimized at all (in fact, a 33-page court decision found that Allen’s behaviour towards Dylan Farrow was “grossly inappropriate.”) This is especially hard to contend with when we factor in the necessity of believing women who report or share their experiences, even when we don’t see them in the same light. But to listen to women, and to listen to Previn, doesn’t mean we are obligated to blindly believe. We need to afford Previn the dignity of listening to what she says, but we also need to give her comments the critical thinking they deserve, keeping in mind the larger context, her relationship with Allen and the ways in which that may have influenced the way she sees her relationship—and the allegations against her husband.

And not only that, but Previn’s allegations of abuse against Farrow doesn’t mean Dylan Farrow’s sexual assault allegations against her step-father are untrue—one does not discount the other.

As Vulture write E. Alex Jung tweeted: “it’s entirely possible to live in a world where multiple stories are true.”

Even if we don’t like either one.

Related:

Why Rose McGowan’s Statement Isn’t What We Need to Hear
The Weinstein Effect: An Ever-Expanding List of Accusations
Harvey Weinstein Faces New Sexual Assault Charges—What Does This Mean? Everything You Need to Know

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