Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at shannonplumb.com and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.
Someone once told me that little girls are prey in this patriarchal world.
The recent HBO documentary series Allen v. Farrow inspired me to write the story of a little girl I knew.
Vanessa carried a sock with her. She found it when she was about three. It had no name, so we referred to it as “Sock.” She sought out her sock for comfort and security. Because she brought it everywhere, the sock got really dirty. Her mother, Samantha, couldn’t wash the sock when Vanessa was looking. If she did, Vanessa would have a tantrum. Samantha waited until Vanessa went to sleep, then snuck the sock into the laundry.
Vanessa was afraid to go to the bathroom. For days on end, she wouldn’t use the toilet. She’d hold it until she had an accident. She became dangerously constipated. She didn’t want to sleep alone. When Vanessa was seven, she started complaining that her privates hurt. Her mother brought her to the pediatrician where they discovered a sore on Vanessa’s vagina. It was herpes, a type of herpes that could only be transmitted orally. The doctor discreetly suggested that Samantha talk to her daughter. She should ask her if she’d ever been touched down there. Samantha was shocked. It couldn’t be possible.
Samantha and I are first cousins. We grew up together riding bikes, killing it in kickball, playing store and house together. She was the youngest, trying to be as tough as the older kids. She’d bite your head if she disagreed with you. She always agreed to play the shopper at our pretend store, while we monopolized the cash register. I used to pay her whatever change I had to tickle my feet. She and I were always friends.
We became mothers within four years of each other. She was four steps ahead of me in parenting. When I started looking for childcare in the city, Samantha had already secured hers back home. She was bringing Vanessa to her in-laws while she maintained a job and took a college course in law. I thought then of the benefits of living close to family, to have someone you know and trust watching over your little one. If mothers couldn’t protect their child 24 hours a day, then we hoped we had family who could help. After all, our family brought us up. So we should trust them.
My husband and I didn’t have family in the city. Our choices for childcare were all strangers. I didn’t trust strangers. Samantha was surrounded by willing and loving family. When her in-laws offered their help, she jumped on it. They had other grandchildren, but they lived far away. This was their chance to be real grandparents. The grandfather even left his job to care for Samantha. They were a sweet couple. I met them a few times. They looked like gnomes. Friendly, white-haired gnomes. The grandfather worked as a teacher’s aide at the elementary school. The grandmother was the lunch lady at the same school. From the ages of three to seven, Samantha left her daughter to be cared for by people she’d known for 17 years. I always thought Samantha was so lucky to have family around for help.
When I went home to visit, Vanessa was always in the bathroom. Her mother was worried sick trying to figure out why her daughter was always constipated. Vanessa would sometimes cry from the toilet. Sometimes scream. At the kitchen table, we would talk about her diet. She ate beige food, nothing green. We used to say to Samantha, “You need to feed that kid vegetables.” It wasn’t about vegetables.
Reality, as obvious as it is, is not always clear. Every sign had an explanation. One time, when Vanessa was playing outside, her mother called for her to get inside. In a playful way, I ran toward her and picked her up to bring her to her mother. She started kicking and screaming. It was a reaction I didn’t expect. It was a reaction to something bigger than just me trying to carry her inside. Or was it just a child refusing to listen?
Another time, I watched her play princess with my husband. She was about five or six at the time. I remember thinking how strange and mature her flirtations with him were. She seemed to already have an insight into her sexuality. But she could be acting out the mannerisms of an older girl cousin, or maybe she’d seen this behavior on TV.
Samantha said Vanessa would cry when she had to drop her at the grandparents’ house. But don’t a lot of children cry when they say goodbye to their mom?
In Allen v. Farrow, Dylan Farrow started to push her father, Woody Allen, away. She didn’t want him hovering. She sensed a smothering. Dylan was reacting to him in a different way than before. She was withdrawing from him. She hid or locked herself in bathrooms when he walked into the house. We could have explained this away too.
When Samantha and Vanessa left the pediatrician’s office that day, Samantha had the conversation with her daughter in the car. Has anybody touched you? Little Vanessa told her, “Grandpa. He touched me in the bathroom.” Samantha thought maybe she was talking about when her grandfather wiped her. I think she might have paused here, the reality becoming more visible. Vanessa then added that Grandpa touched her when Grandma went to the store or the gym. He would bring her into the bedroom too. Samantha had to stop the anger and tears that were building at the back of her throat. She didn’t want her daughter to see how upset she was, she didn’t want her reaction to shut her daughter down.
In Allen v. Farrow, a babysitter reports to Mia Farrow that she saw something happen between Woody and his seven-year-old daughter that upset her. She said she saw Dylan sitting on the couch while Woody, on his knees, faced her with his head buried in her lap. Mia asked Dylan, “Did Daddy have his face in your lap yesterday?” She said, “Yes.” Mia wanted to report this to their therapist. But the therapist was away for the summer, so Mia recorded Dylan telling what happened. Then Dylan revealed more. She was led to the attic. While she lay on her stomach staring at toy trains, she describes a sexual assault by her father, Woody Allen.
Referring to the video of her seven-year-old self, Dylan Farrow says, “That little girl is in a lot of pain. This kind of abuse warps something inside of you, because it doesn’t happen by a stranger who snatches you off the street and throws you in a van. It happens by someone you love, someone you trust – someone who buckles your seatbelt … takes your hand when you walk down the street … reads you bedtime stories.”
When I ask Vanessa what she remembers about her grandfather, she says, “I don’t remember anything about him being my grandfather. I only remember the things he would do to me as my abuser and that’s what I remember him as.”
Samantha felt such betrayal. She says she trusted her father-in-law. “That’s my child. To hear this little innocent girl… If you can’t depend on your family, who can you trust? That was her grandfather.”
Once a “secret” like this is out, the child is visited by Child Protective Services. The police interrogate the child. The child also has to go to the hospital, where they are examined by rape and trauma specialists.
In Samantha’s case, they found the herpes, but also found a hymen tear. Both could be explained away in court.
The grandparents would say the child was making it up. Samantha’s husband didn’t believe her at first. They were going through a custody battle at the time. The husband thought Samantha had fabricated this story, then coached the child. By doing this, she could get full custody. In Allen v. Farrow, Woody Allen accuses Mia Farrow of being a woman scorned and suggesting that little Dylan had been coached in a plot to get revenge on him.
It’s common for people not to believe the mother.
Once Samantha’s husband listened to the authorities, he no longer had doubts. They told him children don’t usually make this stuff up. They told him the hymen tear was not a bike accident. Husband and wife put aside their differences so they could support their child. So they could put an end to the abuse.
Children are small in size. They can be picked up and moved around like potted plants. They are just forming memories that they may or may not be able to play back some day. They have a limited language. They aren’t versed in the rules of society. But from what I’ve seen, children do react. They respond to how they feel. They get grumpy when they are hungry. They fuss and cry when they have gas. They yell out when they are scared. They have tantrums when they are frustrated. The cues are sometimes subtle, but they try to tell us when something is wrong.
The only hope for children who are victims of sexual abuse is that someone notices the signs. That someone listens when they talk. That someone believes them.
Just like Dylan Farrow, Vanessa’s story never changed.
When I first took my infant son outside, he was three weeks old. Mentally, I was transforming into a mother. Little did I know, I was also transforming physically. With his nine-pound body in a sling around my shoulders, I noticed the city was extremely loud. My hearing, smell and sight were suddenly hypersensitive. Sirens and alarms pierced my ears, jolted my heart. I was on triple alert, on “Critical” for threat. I had superpowers. My instincts were switched on. I not only had an intense need to feed this new human, but I felt compelled to protect him for as long as I lived. When something traumatic happens to our children, we feel like we didn’t honor our duty as a mother. Both Samantha and Mia Farrow felt tremendous guilt for not seeing the abuse. But how could they?
If a thief takes something from you, it’s obvious it was stolen. You can’t see it anymore. But when a man steals a child’s innocence, the child is still there. How do you know something’s missing? How do you prove that innocence was stolen, when everything looks to be in its place?
Samantha believed her daughter Vanessa. This belief helps the healing. A therapist told Samantha, “If you believe her, her growth won’t be so hindered.”
Samantha went to family court with her husband. The grandfather admitted in court that he touched Vanessa, but it was never specific enough to take the case further. The only consequence to his actions was that he couldn’t see Vanessa again.
Samantha wondered how he could be OK with Vanessa having to suffer through this. Vanessa couldn’t sleep at night, but he went to bed fine. Vanessa says of her grandfather, “I have to deal with the consequences of what happened. He didn’t have to.”
Vanessa deserved some type of closure.
Vanessa saw a therapist until she was about nine years old. She was asked to write or draw in a journal during her time in therapy. Samantha told me she saw a couple pages. “Fuck grandpa. Hope he dies.” Another page said: “Why?”
Growing up fast, Vanessa tells me that the years after her abuse were really difficult. “I always felt ashamed and embarrassed or afraid that others would see me different and thought it was my fault for most of my life. But as the years went on, I came to realize that I shouldn’t be ashamed of something that I had no control over. At that young of an age, you don’t know any better.”
Predators are always around. I’m amazed that some of us escape with barely a scratch. Was it luck that the person entrusted with our care respected the boundaries of affection? How many women around us have gone through this but never shared their story? How many little boys and girls are growing up right now feeling alone, strange, isolated, embarrassed and ashamed? How many haven’t told their story? Vanessa tells me as a little girl she felt like the only one in the world this had happened to. She said no one talks about it. She wishes more people did. She hopes there will be more recognition on the topic of sexual abuse.
Vanessa says she’s not uncomfortable discussing it anymore. “I don’t cry when I talk about it now.”
Vanessa and Samantha didn’t get resolution from the law. There were statements confirming sexual abuse from police and social services, there were Vanessa’s own words that spoke of a traumatic experience, there was physical evidence from a pediatrician and trauma specialists, the grandfather even admitted in court that he touched his granddaughter, yet he still walked away free. He went on to enjoy his retirement, with occasional visits from two new grandsons. While victims of sexual abuse begin adolescence, leave home, start their own families, while they suffer nightmares and depression, while they get triggered and freeze up, the abusers live on. Vanessa’s abuser, her grandfather, died in 2014. Samantha tells me he was honored with a military funeral. He was honored as a war hero. The way people are supposed to be honored when they rescue and protect other human beings.
I am fortunate to be able to utilize Talkhouse as a platform to give volume to the voice of one child who never got to speak. We can amplify the voices of children who experience sexual abuse. We do this in order to raise awareness, to stop the abuse, to end a cycle that, when left alone, only begins again. Our children deserve safety, security and a healthy state of mind. They require advocacy. They can’t do it alone. The legal system has them on mute. Little voices need to be heard far and wide. We can be their messengers.
Vanessa’s grandfather also sexually abused his own daughter. She was an adult when Vanessa was abused. She lived far away. Her story was exactly the same as Vanessa’s. She offered to testify for Samantha, but as the statute of limitations had passed, her testimony wasn’t admissible in court. She never shared her story when she was a little girl. If she had, would this have happened to Vanessa?
We have to see clearly and listen carefully. We have to believe.
Names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals involved.