Roman Polanski raped a young girl. Not much nuance there.

Cover of "The Girl" by Samantha Geimer. Features a picture of Geimer, a white woman with reddish hair wearing a necklace and white blouse, with the words "Samantha Geimer, The Girl: A life in the shadow of Roman Polanski"Roman Polanski and the sin of simplification (in today’s Observer)

Victoria Coren Mitchell tries to make a case that the situation of Roman Polanski, the subject of a book published by the woman he raped as a young girl in 1977, was ‘nuanced’ and that we don’t like nuance in such situations; we insist that rapists must be monsters: “people are heroes or villains, victims or victimisers; sometimes neither, but never both”; while Polanski had suffered two separate serious traumas and his “work is filled with beauty and humanity”. Furthermore his victim, Samantha Geimer, has corresponded with him by email and doesn’t want to be seen as (just) a victim. Neither of these change the fact that he’s a convicted rapist. (More: The Goldfish, The F Word.)

First, the trauma excuse:

Then you read about the life of Roman Polanski. How shameful and how pointless to punish him with violence, even in the imagination.

Aged six, he saw his father taken to a concentration camp. His mother died at Auschwitz when she was four months pregnant. At 35, with God knows what ineradicable scars, Polanski married Sharon Tate and they started a family immediately. Tate was eight months pregnant when a gang broke into their home, stabbed her to death and smeared “pig” on the front door in her blood.

If we want to talk about concentration camps, we should remember that we are still prosecuting people who were guards at Nazi concentration camps today. The men involved are much older, some of them sick and eldery, and their crimes much longer ago than Polanski’s. They include torture and rape. Most people who were in concentration camps did not go on to rape young girls; Polanski wasn’t, and did. His actions make him more like a concentration camp guard than most of their victims.

Second, Geimer’s ambivalence about insisting that Polanski return to face justice: Polanski has been convicted. It would not take any further input from Geimer to make him serve his sentence; she would not have to relive the experience in court again, for example.

Third, the praise of his films: that’s just irrelevant. We don’t just prosecute people who commit serious crimes if they are otherwise nobodies; greatness is not an excuse to hurt other people. The same excuse has been made of others who have made some great intellectual or artistic contribution — here is an example, about a scientist who imported young boys from Pacific islands and was convicted of molesting some of them, and was defended by other scientists and the “latent homosexuality” excuse (i.e. that young boys of a certain age enjoy sexual contact with other males) was used in his defence. If he had been a “good teacher” or a “good doctor” who had molested children in his care or patients, we would not rush to defend him, even if he had done important work or was good to his other students or patients. Such people are dangerous (more so than a film director because of their position of responsibility and power, but a film director who is a rapist is still a rapist).

I suspect that Polanski’s actions were less to do with the traumas of losing his parents and then his wife and more to do with the fact that he was a rich and famous man who thought he could get away with something like this, perhaps because he chose a girl he suspected would not be taken seriously, in part because of her family background (such as her mother’s and stepfather’s drug habits). He gambled, and lost. And there is really no ‘grey area’ here: he plied a 13-year-old girl with sedatives and then had sex with her. This is not “things going too far”, it’s straight-down-the-middle child abuse and rape. Enjoy his films if you must, but if he gets picked up and taken to an American prison some time and his next one gets delayed or is never finished, it’s nobody’s fault but his.

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