Louise O'Neill: 'Why as a culture is it so much easier for us to blame women?'

"I’ve been thinking about parental alienation a lot recently because of two high-profile cases: the Mia Farrow and Woody Allen case, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s divorce."
Louise O'Neill: 'Why as a culture is it so much easier for us to blame women?'

Louise O'Neill: "let's keep children at the core of our family justice system." Picture: Miki Barlok

I first heard of the term ‘parental alienation’ while speaking to a number of domestic abuse survivors, primarily based in west Cork. Most had been accused of parental alienation by their estranged partners and it’s an accusation that is still taken very seriously within our court systems. 

Parental Alienation is described as a child’s experience of being manipulated or coached by one parent to turn against their other parent. An article by Patricia Fersch in Forbes Magazine explained the term was first coined in 1985 by child psychiatrist, Richard A. Gardner, and lists eight symptoms of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), from the “relentless denigration of the targeted parent”, “hostility toward and refusal of contact with the… targeted parent”, and “the child’s insistence that he or she is expressing his or her own opinions in denigrating the targeted parent.” 

However, every woman I spoke to said they wanted their children to have a relationship with their father and I believed them. It seemed far more likely that the children in question, who had often been a first-hand witness to violence in their homes, were afraid of the abusive parent and would rather not be alone with them.

I’ve been thinking about PAS a lot recently because of two high-profile cases. One being the Mia Farrow and Woody Allen case, the other, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s divorce. Jolie filed for divorce in 2016, requesting sole custody of their six children. There were stories at the time about an altercation on the family’s private plane, and multiple outlets saying Pitt was reportedly under investigation for child abuse by the FBI and the Los Angeles Department of Child and Family Services. 

Last month, a judge awarded Pitt joint custody of their minor children. Jolie is now claiming the judge “failed to adequately consider” a portion of California code addressing custody and domestic violence. The reaction to much of this has been very telling. 

Jolie, who for many is still the ‘wild child’ who wore a vial of her lover’s blood around her neck, the woman who ‘stole’ Brad from everyone’s favourite Friend, Jennifer Aniston, has been regarded with suspicion. Is she simply trying to destroy Hollywood’s Prom King with ‘lies’ about abuse? The parallels with Mia Farrow are hard to ignore. 

American actress Mia Farrow: "painted as a 'scorned woman'" by ex-husband Woody Allen.
American actress Mia Farrow: "painted as a 'scorned woman'" by ex-husband Woody Allen.

While watching the recent HBO documentary, Allen V Farrow, I was shocked to see that Allen attempted to win custody of their youngest children by claiming they were suffering from Parental Alienation Syndrome at the hands of their mother, and that Mia had brainwashed their daughter, Dylan, into making an accusation of sexual abuse. 

A podcast by the documentary makers pointed out that while Farrow is far from perfect (there have been allegations of physical and mental abuse from two of her children, Moses and Soon-Yi), she had already experienced two unpleasant divorces – Frank Sinatra had brusquely served her divorce papers on the set of Rosemary’s Baby, Andre Previn left her for a friend of theirs – and she still maintained cordial relationships with both. 

In the case of Previn, (the father of six of her children) he remained an integral part of their family following their break-up. Mia didn’t have a history of lashing out at ex-husbands, so why was it so easy for Allen to paint a picture of her as a scorned woman? 

Why, for so many years, was the prevailing opinion that Farrow, in her devastation that her partner would embark on a sexual relationship with her 21-year-old daughter, coached a seven-year-old child to claim she was abused? 

I suppose the real question is, why as a culture is it so much easier for us to blame women?

The truth is, parental alienation has been discredited by many critics. It’s been dismissed by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychiatric Association, all of whom have said that the ‘syndrome’ lacks sufficient clinical evidence. And yet, it is still being used as a legitimate complaint in many family law situations. 

Research conducted by Dr Adrienne Barnett for the Brunel University London examined all private law judgement in England and Wales from 2000 to 2019 in which parental alienation was raised and concluded that a PA claim often dominated family law cases to the exclusion of all else. “Playing the Parental Alienation card is proving more powerful than any other in silencing the voices of women and children resisting contact with abusive men. PA is not an equal counterpart to domestic abuse, it is a means of obscuring domestic abuse,” Dr Barnett said.  

A recent article by Rachel Watson on thecourtsaid.org, a global campaign for Survivor Family Justice, pointed out that while of course, some mothers are abusive and do attempt to turn their child against the father post-separation, in the majority of cases, parental alienation is being used to conceal the real abuse that is taking place. 

Victims are then forced to send their children “kicking and screaming into unsafe contact” with abusive parents. I think it’s important that we are aware of this and when it comes to parental alienation, we listen to charities, and survivors of domestic abuse. 

Let’s listen to the children involved and keep their best interests and welfare at the core of our family justice system.

Louise Says:

Read: Voyeur by Francesca Reese. A young woman takes a job as an assistant to a formerly famous writer. A gripping debut.

Check out: Limerick Sings festival is running online until June 13 and includes free workshops and concerts.

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