Journalist • Commentator • Editor
By Jessica Seigel
Some sophisticated Manhattanites can't help but note that the scandal over Woody Allen's private life has come at a most inopportune time: August, when most shrinks are out of town on vacation.
Really, is this just a coincidence? Is anything ever?
The Freudian thought is natural when it comes to Allen, the Hollywood figure most closely associated with psychoanalytic themes. Those concerns have played out repeatedly in films ranging from "Annie Hall" (1977) to the trilogy "New York Stories" (1989), which included Allen's contribution,
"Almost all of my work isautobiographical-exaggerated but true," he once said. Indeed, scenes of a neurotic, obsessing anti-hero splayed on a couch, agonizing over sex, love and death in an analyst's office, have been a continuing motif and plot device.
In stark contrast to Hollywood movies that tend to depict psychiatrists as wacko villains ("Dressed to Kill" and "Silence of the Lambs," among the many), Allen has portrayed psychoanalysis in a positive light. According to rumors, he has been in therapy for 30 years-an unusually long period even by psychoanalytic standards.
It thus seemed fitting to ask the men and women behind the couch to interpret the latest turn in Allen's life. His movies, steeped in the world of classical Freudian complexes, have long made them laugh in appreciation. Some have even seen him as a spokesman of sorts.
But now psychoanalysts find his current situation-his affair with the adopted daughter of his longtime companion Mia Farrow, and allegations of child sexual abuse-anything but funny.
"The beginning and end of this story is that it's just a tragedy. A family tragedy," said Stephen Sonnenberg, a Washington, D.C., psychoanalyst and chairman of the committee on public information for the American Psychoanalytic Association. "You don't have to be a psychoanalyst to know that it's poor judgment, thoughtless and potentially extremely damaging to everyone involved."
"Now it's not the misery of an unrealized kvetch's fantasy. He's actualized it. When his passion diminishes and the enormity of the calamitous act becomes clear, he's going to feel terrible," Sonnenberg said. "It's common sense. It's just really bad."
Sonnenberg and others in the profession are casting a sober view on Allen's real-life Freudian complexes, calling his current romance the psychological equivalent of incest. Most declined to have their names used because they consider anonymity crucial to their practices.
Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Farrow and ex-husband Andre Previn, was 9 years old when Allen became Farrow's lover in 1980. Despite the fact that Allen and Farrow have lived on opposite sides of Central Park, he and her daughter most probably had established a quasi child-stepparent relationship.
The taboo against incest is universal, though the actual strictures vary from culture to culture. "It is the foremost rule of society," said one psychoanalyst, who practices on Manhattan's West Side. "It is thought that incest pits the generations against each other and would tear society apart." Whether psychological incest or not, Allen's relationship with Farrow's daughter will most likely have profoundly destructive effects on Soon-Yi, said experts. Unconfirmed reports have suggested that she has been banished from her mother's home.
"This young woman's development will be constricted and inhibited,"
Sonnenberg said. "She'll feel so miserable and guilty and scarred from the experience that she'll need major psychic surgery."
Allen's apparent unwillingness in his public statements to understand the implications of his affair with Soon-Yi was perhaps foreshadowed in his 1979 movie "Manhattan," where he plays a 42-year-old man who has an affair with a beautiful 17-year-old girl played by Mariel Hemingway.
"He in a sense told us he was going to do this," Sonnenberg said.
"Let's remember, as a movie maker, every time he made a movie he acted without consequence. Then he forgot the difference (between reality and fantasy)."
The opening dialogue in "Manhattan" alludes to the way that Allen has used his own personal neuroses as the engine of his art, which many critics have pegged as the source of his genius. "The essence of art is to provide a kind of working through situation," the character Yale declares. "You can get in touch with feelings you didn't know you had."
Back to childhood
But getting in touch with feelings doesn't in itself lead to changing them. "Sometimes you don't work it through. You just keep working at it,"
quipped one New York analyst, joking about Allen's apparent lack of psychological progress.
Freudian theory holds that individuals typically repeat the behavioral patterns formed in the early years of life unless they "work through" their problems in analysis.
In "Manhattan," the romance with the teenager is portrayed matter-of-factly in a sort of moral and psychological vacuum. There`s no hint of the impact on the young girl or that others might consider it perverted. The girl`s parents never appear nor are their feelings about the affair known.
Mild criticism of the film`s central relationship comes from Allen`s character and his ex-wife (played by Meryl Streep), who calls him a "self-obsessed narcissist" threatened by mature women. The film implies that Allen, the director, is aware of the psychoanalytic interpretation that men become involved with much younger women or girls because of their sexual insecurities.
Even in scenes with his teenaged lover, Allen`s character, Isaac Davis, feels the need to denigrate her insipient displays of mature understanding.
"You can`t be in love with me. You don`t know what love means. You`re a kid," Allen`s character tells the girl.
"You don`t take me seriously because I`m 17," Tracy later tells him.
"Yeah, exactly because you`re 17. It`s ridiculous. You`re 17 now. When you`re 36, I`ll be . . ."
"63," Tracy says.
The real-life age gap between Allen, who is now 56, and Soon-Yi, 21, is even greater than that in the 1979 movie.
"I don`t want to psychoanalyze Woody Allen . . ." said another New York psychoanalyst who proceeded to do just that based on the plot of another film, "Oedipus Wrecks," one of three segments comprising "New York Stories."
Allen plays a character named Sheldon whose outrageously embarrassing, overbearing mother disappears after she enters a magician`s box on a stage as part of a magic show. The mother then appears as a giant talking head hovering over Manhattan.
From the sky, where everyone can see and hear her, she berates Sheldon about his plans to marry a shiksa and spews out a stream of embarrassing revelations to all of Manhattan, such as that he wet his bed as a child.
"It`s really hilarious," the 58-year-old psychoanalyst said, chuckling at the memory. "You recognize that he`s telling you about his terror of an omnipotent castrating female, which is his mother."
Relationship with mother
Such feelings are often part of the psychological profile of a man who only feels sexually comfortable with women who pose no threat, psychoanalysts say.
In the opening lines of "Oedipus Wrecks," Sheldon says to his kindly therapist: "I`m 50 years old. I`m a partner in a big law firm. I`m very successful and I still haven`t resolved my relationship with my mother. . . . My mother always humiliates me, even when I was a kid."
His therapist replies: "You still react to her like a small boy. You really have to have some sense of humor about it."
After the mother disappears, Sheldon says: "I feel like a new man. My sex life has never been better."
Many Jewish women have long been insulted by such stereotypes of the insecure Jewish man haunted by an overbearing mother whom he holds responsible for twisting his sexual drive. This cultural motif was expressed neatly by author Philip Roth in "Portnoy`s Complaint."
"So many people were distracted by Allen`s nice guy persona that they failed to look beneath it," said Judy Kuriansky, a clinical psychologist and author of the book "How to Love A Nice Guy."
"He`s clearly been the absolute spokesperson in America for the male Jewish neurotic person. It`s time to look at him as the typical Jewish guy who rejects Jewish women. This coming to light (Allen`s affair) shows he has taken it to its extreme."
Regarding Farrow`s allegations that Allen sexually abused their 7-year-old adopted daughter, the psychoanalysts declined to even speculate.
"In my own experience in these kinds of acrimonious complicated matrimonial disputes, the parents get extremely irrational," said Henry Weinstein, a prominent New York psychiatrist, who was tracked down while on vacation.
"Their view of themselves as good people and good parents is being called into question."
Self-criticism, however gentle and in good fun, has been a mainstay of Allen`s movies, perhaps heading off more serious questioning of his themes, which have been called the problems of "Everyman."
A quick survey of reviews of "Manhattan" found not a single questioning of the film`s key relationship, the older man and the teenage girl.
When Allen`s next film, "Husbands and Wives," is released next month, greater attention will surely be accorded the central romance. It`s between a college professor (Allen) and an undergraduate student.
August 21, 1992