Have we Lost the Plot with Polanski?

Posted February 19, 2020
By Ummni Khan

Roman Polanksi’s back in the news again, this time because of the 12 César Academy nominations he received for his latest film, An Officer and a Spy. Outrage ensued, as it always does, whenever the fugitive director receives any recognition for his work.  In response to the criticism, the entire César Academy Board resigned last week. 

While some may view this as a #metoo victory, I wonder if we have allowed punitive impulses to misplace our priorities.

A central tenet of the survivor-centred approach in anti-sexual violence activism is that we should listen to survivors. We should respect their wishes. But in the case of Samantha Geimer, this commitment has been abandoned by many advocates and celebrity feminists. 

Who is Samantha Geimer? 

The fact that most people will not know the answer to this question is telling. 

In 1977, Roman Polanski plied 13-year-old Geimer (then Gailey) with drugs and then sexually assaulted her.  As her 2013 memoir The Girl: Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski indicates, she is known by most people as “The Girl” that Polanski raped.  In other words, her identity and her relevance have been subsumed into a victim position, which is indelibly entangled with the famed director. 

The problem with victimhood, as Geimer explains in her brilliant, challenging and inspiring book, is that if you fail to conform to its stereotypes, people will dismiss you as either a liar, or a victim of false-consciousness.  Geimer has been discredited in both of these ways.  Not surprisingly, rape-deniers play down the violence and blame Geimer (or her mother) for the incident.  But at the other end of the political spectrum, many feminists -- who should have Geimer’s back – have dismissed, distorted or ignored her perspective. 

Why would a movement that claims to be survivor-centred do such a thing?

To understand the problematic response to Geimer, it is helpful to review the background facts, as outlined by her memoir. Right after the sexual assault, Geimer’s family contacted the police and reported the incident. Unfortunately, this ultimately led to what Geimer has called a “life sentence” of harassment, exploitation and misrepresentation by the media, the legal system, a narcissistic judge, and unfortunately, those ostensibly sympathetic towards her. 

After the assault, hundreds of articles were written about the case. Many of them smeared Geimer and her mother with misogynist lies and rape mythology, suggesting for example, that she had entrapped the tragic Hollywood figure with her youth, that she had supplied him with drugs, or that her mother had pimped her out for a chance at fame. When Geimer’s identity was disclosed, journalists hounded her, camped outside of her home, stalked her at school, and attempted to elicit comments from anyone who knew her. To this day, whenever Polanski winds up in the news in relation to the assault, Geimer’s privacy is invaded. Journalists pester her colleagues, friends and even her own children for any juicy tidbits about “The Girl” at the centre of Polanski’s ongoing case.

With regard to the legal proceedings, Geimer’s memoir describes the prurient and invasive grand jury trial, where she was interrogated about the assault.  Among other things, she was forced to relive each moment, disclose intimate details of her life, and have her semen-stained “panties” (the word lawyers used instead of “underwear”) displayed for all of the jurors.  The experience was so awful that Geimer wrote, “If I had to choose between reliving the rape or the grand jury testimony, I would choose the rape.”  

After Polanski was indicted on six criminal charges, his lawyer started a motion to have Geimer psychiatrically evaluated, on the theory that she had fantasized the rape, and that the semen found on her clothing was from another male.  As for the district attorney, he seemed to care more about winning a high-profile case than what might be in the best interests of justice or the victim. In response, Geimer’s family hired their own lawyer to protect their young teen who was experiencing the proceedings as if she were the guilty party. All three then appeared before the presiding Judge Rittenband, who unfortunately seems to have prioritized his public image over all else. Indeed, after Rittenband pulled strings to get assigned to the case, there is evidence that he instructed lawyers on questions he wanted them to ask, and consulted with journalists as the proceedings were ongoing, to ensure his decisions would be represented in a positive light. 

In the end, the prosecution, Geimer’s family and the defence agreed to a lesser plea of unlawful sex with a minor.  The sentence was 90 days of psychiatric custody, which the judge had initially agreed would suffice.  From Geimer’s perspective, the guilty plea and Polanski’s time in custody sufficed as punishment.  She wanted to put the ordeal behind her and move on with her life. 

Despite the unanimous support for the plea deal, Rittenband decided to sentence Polanski to an indeterminate sentence. Apparently, the media-hungry judge was concerned he might appear too lenient in the press. Potentially facing a fifty-year prison term, Polanski fled the United States in 1978, before he could receive his final sentence from the capricious judge. 

Since this time, Polanski has been on the run, and Geimer has been continually harassed by the media, psycho-analyzed by pundits, and held up by well-intentioned feminists as the quintessential victim denied justice.  The problem with the latter narrative is that it erases Geimer’s perspective. As she has stated over and over in interviews and in her memoir, she was satisfied with the punishment Polanksi received, and forgave him for the assault.  Indeed, Geimer has consistently maintained that invasive reporters and legal actors have caused her more suffering than Polanski.  In 2017, Geimer went so far as to file legal proceedings to have Polanski’s case resolved.  In her words, “I would implore you to finally bring this to a close as an act of mercy to myself and my family.” But as it had done forty years prior, the law did not respect Geimer’s wishes.  Instead, it dismissed her request, in favour of continuing to use her (the “victim”) for its own punitive agenda.   

While we may not expect much from the law, as it claims to be defending the “public interest” and not the victim’s, one might expect more from survivor advocates. The problem is that Geimer’s viewpoint does not align with the mainstream feminist movement.  She fails to be a “good survivor” because she rejects the post-assault “trauma” diagnosis, she wants the case closed, she believes that Polanksi’s art should be evaluated separately from his misconduct, and she insists that as bad as the assault was, it paled in comparison to the media and legal fallout. She has even offered a compassionate interpretation of Polanski’s psyche based on his past trauma, which includes losing his mother to the Auschwitz concentration camp, barely surviving the Nazi holocaust himself, and having his pregnant wife murdered by members of the Manson cult.    

Unfortunately, this nuanced perspective is unintelligible to the Polanski detractors.  

It must be acknowledged that in recent years, others have come forward alleging that Polanski sexually assaulted them in the past.  Of course these women should receive support and affirmation. However, to the extent that ongoing feminist calls to “cancel” Polanski and his work continue to focus heavily on the Geimer case and its aftermath, they run contrary to survivor-centred advocacy.  They ignore the facts that Geimer and her family were satisfied with the plea and sentence negotiated and agreed in 1977, and that Geimer has maintained ever since that she wants the matter closed, so that she and her family can move on with their lives.  Instead, popular media and feminist discourse keep Gaimer frozen in time as “The Girl” that Polanski raped, in pursuit of their own agendas – whether seeking additional readership and advertising revenue, or additional punishment and condemnation for Polanski.

I grant that vilifying the perpetrator and demanding his public smearing is easier than grappling with the forces that continue to harm Geimer: a salacious press, an audience hungry for titillating details, and a legal system that continues to place a perverse notion of formal “justice” over the substantive needs of the victim. But using Geimer to justify punitive desires unwittingly contributes to Geimer’s life-long harassment and invasion of privacy, disregards her perspectives and embodied knowledge, and ultimately fetishizes her rape for the cause. 

When a movement to support sexual assault survivors treats a “survivor” as collateral damage, as I fear has happened here, it has clearly lost the plot.  If we truly want to get back to survivor-centred ethics in this case, we need to centre Geimer’s perspectives and wishes. In this regard, I highly recommend reading her book and checking out her blog.