Don’t Throw Rosemary’s Baby Out with the Bathwater

Posted May 26, 2021
By Ummni Khan

Roman Polanski does not deserve to be vilified or cancelled, despite his conviction of sexual assault of a 13-year-old in 1978, and more recent allegations by women who state that he sexually abused them when they were minors. 

Before I get into broader arguments around transformative justice, I’d like to share a note about my personal worldview that may help explain why I side with Polanski apologists instead of the detractors (although I contend that I am siding with Samantha Geimer, the woman Polanski was convicted of assaulting, who has advocated for an end to Polanski’s legal persecution, and says his art should be judged separately from his acts). 

I believe my uneasiness with the concept of “just desserts” stems from intimate experiences with people who’ve engaged in harmful behaviour, but who also themselves suffered terribly because of traumatic events, mental health issues and/or systemic oppression. I don’t want to get into the details - it’s not relevant, and I reject the notion that such disclosures would give me authority.  The point is that while I bore the brunt of some bad behaviour, I also had the benefit of learning both about the perpetrators’ suffering, and all the good deeds they did, in spite of their experiences.  My sense of justice says that their virtues are not cancelled by the harm they caused.  I further believe that their harmful behaviour must be contextualized by their victimization. 

I accept that others with different experiences may have a contrasting perspective on what perpetrators of violence and misconduct deserve.  But I want to acknowledge that my personal experiences inform my outlook on cancel culture and on people like Polanski, who occupy the dual role of victimizer and victimized. 

As a victimizer, Polanski has been convicted and accused of sexually assaulting minors. As a victim, he was a child in Nazi-occupied Poland, experienced the terror of the Jewish ghetto, and witnessed his parents’ deportation to concentration camps, where his pregnant mother perished. During the occupation, he survived on his own, homeless, hungry and hiding, sheltering on occasion with families.  And, of course, there’s the collective trauma of the Nazi genocide. After surviving this atrocity and becoming a filmmaker, in 1969, Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult.

Polanski detractors often state that these ordeals do not “excuse” his behaviour.  As Hadley Freeman’s Guardian article crassly puts it, “... one can have enormous sympathy for those losses, and also feel that offering up dead women [Polanski’s mother and wife] as mitigating factors for raping a girl doesn’t really wash.” 

This “doesn’t wash” claim operates within a neoliberal paradigm that is premised on individualism, responsibilization, and the reification of criminality.  From this perspective, no matter what atrocities were done, trauma is no excuse for harmful behaviour.  It is the responsibility of the traumatized to recognize their compromised mental state, get therapy, or use will-power to become productive citizens who exercise healthy boundaries.  Those who want to see Polanski punished call for a range of measures, including further imprisonment, shaming, withdrawal of all previous honours, and an excommunication from the film industry. 

I want to challenge this approach from a prison abolitionist perspective. This movement - championed by such trailblazers as Angela DavisRuth Wilson GilmoreMariame Kaba and adrienne maree brown (along with many more) - rejects jails and criminalization as a means to achieve authentic justice.  In addition to recognizing the prison industrial complex as a deadly institution, it reminds us that we all have internalized carceral logic and harbour vindictive impulses. 

This is where transformative justice can step in. This radical approach means working to transform ourselves, as we work to transform institutions, ideologies and structures that continue to harm all of us. Instead of punishment, the emphasis is on context, interdependence, accountability and healing.  Instead of the dichotomy of victim and perpetrator, there is a recognition that people are complex and can simultaneously occupy many different identities in relation to harm.  For me, transformative justice requires applying a trauma-informed approach to all the parties involved.  

While the transformative justice movement is gaining ground, so too is “carceral feminism”.  This term, originally conceived by Elizabeth Bernstein, identifies the prevailing belief that in order to rectify historical wrongs (including legal tolerance for sexual assault, normalization of male violence and misogynist victim-blaming), there should be more arrests, more convictions, harsher sentences and individual shaming for perpetrators of gender-based violence.  

We see the influence of carceral feminist ideology in the case of Polanski.  It is reflected in commentary (such as Freeman’s Guardian article mentioned above) expressing outrage he served only a few months in jail. It deploys inflammatory language and criminal justice branding, referring to Polanski as a “sex offender,” “child rapist” and “predator” to create a totalizing identity. Such articles further sneer at any attempt to contextualize Polanski’s violence within his brutal life history, as if doing so amounts to an insult to his victims.  This false equation is one of the key defects of the carceral mentality.  Indeed, with regard to Polanski and Geimer, the continual harping for more Polanski punishment disregards Geimer’s stated wishes.

What’s more, Freeman’s Guardian article mentioned above seeks to shame not just Polanski, but all the actors who have worked with him.  In this way, Polanksi is rendered what anthropologist Mary Douglas calls, “a polluting person.” All of his work is corrupted by his bad acts, and any person associated with him becomes contaminated with his crimes.  Indeed, Freeman takes the position that a willingness to work with Polanski is evidence the person trivializes sexual assault. Another Guardian article by Barbara Ellen treats compassion for Polanski like sympathy for the devil, claiming it emboldens other “predatory” figures like Weinstein. (I guess Ellen does not care that Geimer herself has publicly expressed sympathy for Polanski’s fugitive status, and wants the case closed for both their sakes). 

The construction of Polanski as both a predator and a morally infectious agent aligns with the criminal justice system, which judges wrongdoing in a vacuum, strips the criminalized of their civil rights and dignity, creates a monolithic criminal identity and places people in cages. But as Mariame Kaba observes, “The fact that sexual violence is so incredibly pervasive should tell us that it’s not a story of individual monsters.”  From this starting point, a transformative justice approach would reject demonization and recognize a perpetrator’s humanity alongside the harm. Instead of punishment (a desire for him to suffer for what he’s done), it would call for accountability and consequences (a desire to transform the harm). 

I anticipate a number of objections to my transformative justice advocacy in this case.  

First, not all carceral feminist responses are demanding Polanski’s literal incarceration (although many are). Instead, they argue that he and his work should be cancelled -- a type of non-criminal consequence that is attempting to change social mores. While there are obvious differences between cancellation and incarceration, cancel culture is often deeply punitive. It’s not focused on accountability, healing or getting at the roots of violence, rather it’s a shaming ritual and a banishment of individual bad actors. 

Second, Polanski detractors might argue that accountability is not possible, since he has not genuinely apologized or acknowledged his harmful behaviour, particularly in response to the latter allegations. But who would be willing to recognize they’ve committed sexual harm in a social climate where doing so effectively means admitting one is a monster and risking incarceration? As far as I’m aware, there has been no process offered to Polanski and his victims outside of either the criminal justice system or cancel culture that would allow for genuine accountability, reparations, and healing. 

Taking all the above into account, I believe “cancelling” Polanski’s art is a serious misfire. Consequences for misconduct should be directly linked to the harm that was caused. Advocating that Polanski’s work be boycotted, that anyone who works with him should be ashamed, and that all his honours be withdrawn simply negates his good deeds, instead of reckoning with his misdeeds.  

Polanski’s films have been an immense gift to the world. To pick just a few, his 1968 film, Rosemary’s Baby, addresses marital and medical control of women’s bodies, domestic violence and (satanic) trafficking. Director Jordan Peele counts the film as a major influence on his critically acclaimed horror, Get Outfinding analogies between patriarchy and white supremacy, and the overlapping themes of corporeal appropriation, and insights derived from marginalized positions. The award-winning film, The Pianist, based on Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir of surviving the Nazi-occupied Warsaw ghetto, is clearly informed by Polanski’s own childhood experiences in the Kraków ghetto. I’ve been reading critics’ reviews, which are overwhelmingly laudatory, but what really struck me were the audience comments, which reflect my own gut-wrenching reaction. It’s hard to articulate its impact, but it’s such an important film because - as art - it conveys the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that historical texts never could.  

Neither Polanski’s tragic experiences nor his extraordinary filmmaking absolve him of the harms he has committed. But in confronting violence, we should not resort to the violence of carceral thinking, where justice means advocating for more prison, applying stigmatizing labels, treating positive contributions as pollutants, and disregarding the context from which violence emerges.  We need to remember that compassion is not a scarce resource. Instead of carceral ideology that equates punitiveness with gender justice, we can strategize radical alternatives that recognize all parties’ humanity in our quest for social transformation.