How to process a surprising reprieve?
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Recently a photograph was published that confounded a lot of people. A middle-aged blonde with glasses, bearing some resemblance to J. Smith Cameron (Gerri in Succession), grins as she drapes her left arm around the shoulder of a smiling old coot. The man is director Roman Polanski. The woman is Samantha Geimer, the girl he raped when she was 13.
That happened in LA in 1977 and Polanski was arrested soon after. In 1978 he spent over a month in jail before being released on probation. The judge who had accepted Polanski’s plea deal privately told lawyers that he would renege on the agreement and send the director back to prison.
Learning of the plan, Polanski fled to France where he had nationality having been born there in 1933, before growing up in Poland (France didn’t have an extradition treaty with the US).
He’s been a fugitive from US justice ever since.
His victim has forgiven her tormentor and says she felt more victimized by the press who swarmed her house after the story broke than by anything Polanski did to her. She believes the police case against him, still open, should be closed and he should be allowed back in the US.
This doesn’t fit with our narrative of how victims of sexual abuse are meant to act. I’d call it slightly European if the woman weren’t American and views on the continent hadn’t changed in the last few years (witness Polanski’s banning from the French Oscars, known as the Cesar Awards).
Just this past week E. Jean Carroll successfully sued Donald Trump in civil court for a sexual assault that happened three decades ago. There are differences between the cases, obviously; Polanski cited mitigating circumstances in his rape, but never slandered his victim or claimed it didn’t happen. He also served some time in prison — 42 days, which isn’t enough for many critics, but more than Trump has ever done (zero).
Geimer also criticized lawyer Gloria Allred, widely known for taking on high-profile sexual assault cases. “She just diminishes women to exploit their pain,” Geimer said. “Today, women’s pain is valued, and there’s a whole industry that exploits suffering.”
It “was never a big problem,” she says. “Everyone should know by now that Roman has served his sentence. Which was… long, if you want my opinion. From my side, nobody wanted him to go to jail, but he did and it was enough. He paid his debt to society. There, end of story.”
End of story? Beginning of new chapter! What are we going to do with this newly pardoned Polanski? Like that other problematic cinematic octogenarian Woody Allen (87), Polanski is still making movies. His new feature The Palace is due for release any day now, and Woody Allen’s 50th feature Coup de Chance (in French!) is coming out soon.
In her new book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, Claire Dederer says that while researching Polanski, she was “awed by his monstrousness. It was monumental, like the Grand Canyon.” But when she watched his movies, “their beauty was another kind of monument, impervious to my knowledge of his iniquities.”
Art is constantly forcing us to make ethical decisions as well as aesthetic ones. In an earlier piece I asked if we can still watch Woody Allen movies. (My fudged answer was yes, though I didn’t feel up to it. I’ve since decided I can, and have.) But Allen’s accuser, his daughter Dylan, hasn’t absolved him of her claimed sexual abuse. Polanski’s accuser has. What are we to do with this?
If Samantha Geimer can forgive Roman Polanski, why can’t you?
The simple answer is, we all have our own ethical standards, and just as I don’t have to follow various artistic boycotts (no Ted Hughes; he abandoned Sylvia Plath. No Picasso; he abandoned his mistresses. Etc.), no one else is forced to appreciate art created by people who offend them.
But there are reasons to resist this knee-jerk, reductive aggrievement.
In Todd Field’s film Tár, the celebrated conductor (self-described as “a U-haul lesbian”) takes to task a Juilliard student named Max who rejects Bach. “As a BIPOC pangender,” Max offers, “I have difficulty connecting with Bach — and wasn’t he a misogynist anyway?”
“If you want to dance the mask,” responds Tár, “you must service the composer. You’ve got to sublimate yourself. Your ego and yes your identity.”
This doesn’t convince Max, who storms out of the recital room. But she sold me. I believe that by rejecting art for political reasons, we needlessly diminish our own creative lives.
Samantha Geimer’s verdict is her own. But we shouldn’t need it to make our own decisions anyway. Polanski still raped a 13-year-old girl, whether she later forgave him or not.
But by the same token, if she chooses to still watch his films or not, you certainly can.
J.B. Miller is an American writer living in England, and is the author of My Life in Action Painting and The Satanic Nurses and Other Literary Parodies.