Dylan Farrow Is Not Lolita: An Open Letter to Joyce Carol Oates


Trigger Warning: This article discusses the sexual abuse accusations Dylan Farrow made against her father as well as paedophilia in the context of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Please approach with caution if you’re triggered by such things.

I’m not a fan of the phrase “You missed the point”.

It reminds me of a certain kind of smugness, one entrenched in privilege and narcissism that doesn’t at all fit with how I was taught to understand critical thinking, particularly in relation to literature. A writer may have a specific message or moral in mind when they create a story but once said story is out in the open and available to consumers, it becomes entirely open to interpretation. Authorial intent does not equal the default mode of storytelling. If you read Dracula and see it as a metaphor for syphilis or watch The Shining and declare it to be proof that Kubrick faked the moon landings, go for it. We need more discussions like this in our culture.

Having said that, there is one area where I will very loudly say that people missed the point, and that is those who claim that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is in any way pro-paedophilia or that the eponymous 12 year old somehow led on the protagonist Humbert Humbert.

Those people – they missed the point.

Joyce Carole Oates missed the point today on Twitter, and she had the audacity to drag Dylan Farrow into the mess. For those of you who don’t know, Dylan Farrow is the adopted daughter of actress Mia Farrow and famed film-maker Woody Allen. After Allen left his partner for her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, the then 7 year old Dylan came forward with accusations that her father sexually abused her. While these accusations never made it to trial (the judge believed it would be too traumatic for a child, and rightly so), they’ve been common knowledge for 20 years and have never hurt Allen’s career. Dylan Farrow reminded the world and film industry of what it had tried to forget in a letter to the New York Times, where she explicitly described what had happened to her. What followed was a typhoon of victim blaming, woman-shaming, an attempt to smear Mia Farrow as some kind of modern day Medea, and continued cries that we should be able to separate the artist from the man. Allen has since been allowed to publish a response in the same newspaper, which Farrow dissected point by point. The details of the original custody agreement, where Allen was denied custody of his kids, can be found on Vanity Fair.

Let me get this out of the way: I believe Dylan Farrow. I always will believe her, no matter how many articles are written that try to tear her and her family down. I believe her and will defend her as she is subjected to the most vile of attacks and faux concern trolling from everyone, from Victoria Coren to her own brother; from Stephen King’s accusations of “palpable bitchery” to the now infamous Daily Beast article I’m not even going to link to.

I believe her.

Amidst Joyce Carol Oates’s nonsensical Twitter rant, which veered from pretentious to confused and threw out the term “lynch mob”, she made this claim:

“Though Woody Allen has been much denounced, very likely many of his denouncers greatly admire Nabokov’s “Lolita.” No contradiction?” (Source.)

Oh boy, where do I begin?

I love Lolita. I think it’s a work of genius, an example of the sheer power of words and Nabokov’s skill with prose. I was rather obsessed with it as a teenager and studied it when I was 17. I’ve grown a lot as a reader and a critical thinker, but even as a teenager I knew that book didn’t romanticise Humbert’s reactions. No amount of beautiful words could disguise the fact that Humbert was a paedophile trying to rewrite the past in relation to a 12 year old girl.

To this day I have to deal with people who think Lolita led on a paedophile or was somehow asking for it. A 12 year old was asking for it. I wish I could be more surprised by this attitude, but I’ve seen the way our world treats girls and sadly it’s now expected.

Humbert may be a fictional character but he’s all too representative of how predators act. He’s smart, well presented, a real charmer with enough of a respectable air around him. People implicitly trust him and want to be around him. Dolores’s mother has no issue with leaving her daughter with this man because he has charmed everyone around him into believing he’s trustworthy. This is how predators work. They’re not big ugly monsters hiding under your child’s bed: they’re members of your family, the one you have drinks with in the pub, the teacher you always liked and let you borrow their books, and the award winning creative minds who inspired generations. Even the reader is often charmed by Humbert because he wants you to forget what he did. He wants you to make a child as implicit in his actions as he is. Look at what she was wearing; of course she was asking for it. Playboy claimed Lolita was one of the sexiest novels ever written. If that doesn’t set warning signals off in your head, nothing will.

The only connection between Lolita and Woody Allen is that both are another reminder that our society will never put young girls first. We’ll still idolise the old white men who control our narratives because to do otherwise is tantamount to “palpable bitchery” and a “lynch mob”. People will still buy R Kelly’s music, they’ll think of Jimmy Page without ever mentioning Lori Maddox, they’ll claim Rihanna was as responsible for the domestic abuse she received as Chris Brown was for doing it. Woody Allen will be allowed to continue his career with the kind of deifying that we seldom see for women in the public eye.

It’s easier for Oates and Allen’s defenders to deflect Farrow’s words than deal with the self-obsessed privileged guilt that comes with admitting someone you loved did terrible life ruining things. It’s easier to claim Humbert Humbert is an anti-hero who couldn’t fight off the seduction of a 12 year old than fully acknowledge the monstrous actions committed against young girls in our society: These young girls that continue to be simultaneously fetishized and shamed, especially in our modern pop culture. It’s easier to continue the status quo than challenge it.

I believe Dylan Farrow. And if Dolores Haze had come forward with her accusations, I would have believed her too.


  1. This has been a horrible week for me – as much as I want to stick my head in the sand and avoid every bit of coverage of this, I haven’t been able to and I feel a little (or a lot, depending on the time of day) scraped raw as this comes too close to some of my own experiences.

    Thank you.

  2. I feel much the same way about this. The shaming against Dylan not only breaks my heart, but makes me rage in general over the attacks and blame that victims get, but I commend her for speaking out the way she has, and her firm response to WA’s statement was gold.

    What also saddens me is the apparent misrepresentation of facts in WA camp (especially considering the court rulings) and the shadiness entailed with his statements.

    Thank you for this post.

  3. I basically just came back from rattling off your post to my entire family. I loved what you said in the line: We’ll still idolise the old white men who control our narratives because to do otherwise is tantamount to “palpable bitchery” and a “lynch mob”.

    I love that Ms Farrow spoke up, not only for her b/c from the reactions and deflections she’s getting, even the most sheltered can actually see the condition of our society, no matter how much they try to deny Farrow’s claims; and it reflects exactly what happens in the unheard cases in what? almost every fucking country.


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