August 13, 2010

On Roman Polanski


ROMAN POLANSKI is a free man. The Swiss government refused to extradite him to the US. Does a crime committed by an Oscar winning director cease to be a crime? Should Roman Polanski be treated any differently because he is the director of The Pianist? Does the fact that he raped and sodomized a thirteen-year-old girl more than thirty-three years ago diminish the magnitude of the crime or its impact on the victim? The girl, little more than a child at the time met Polanski during a Vogue photo shoot in Los Angeles, California. He drugged as well as plied her with alcohol before he assaulted her in a hot tub in 1977. The charges against him were very serious including assault on a child under the age of 14 with under Californian law at that time, statutory rape. According to some newspaper sources his victim Samantha Gailey’s lawyer made a plea bargain with him so that she could preserve the anonymity of her client. He pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor (a much lesser charge than his original offences) and spent a mere forty-two days in prison before he fled first to London (his home at that time) and then to France, his adoptive home.

Since then he has had an outstanding warrant against him in the US. However, there wasn’t an international manhunt for Polanski and his crime faded from public memory until a year ago when the US reissued a warrant and placed him under house arrest when he visited Switzerland to collect a lifetime achievement award. The actions by the American government may have had more to do with Swiss unwillingness to release information related to some of those at the helm of the Wall Street meltdown, than with their innate sense of justice.

Since his house arrest, the rich and the famous have rallied to his defence. His supporters include directors such as Martin Scorcese and Woody Allen and also French philosopher and intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy as well as many public figures in his adoptive country France. This I find less surprising. After all many of these are men with very flexible morals in their private lives.

What I find surprising are editorials such as this one by a female commentator in the ultra respected British newspaper Guardian. Agnes Poirier characterized attempts to arrest Polanski as ‘prurient hounding’. According to her

Finally, what was also most disturbing in the whole affair was the prurient voyeurism of Polanski’s detractors, indulging in the very details of his alleged crimes. Reactions to the case disturbingly revealed rampant moral McCarthyism. Anyone defending the film-maker was immediately accused of making an apology for rape. The end of the affair should hopefully bring back sense to those who had lost it for nine months.

Poirier does have a small point, in that in the retelling of the details of the crime we become unwitting (or sometimes deliberate) voyeurs and end up inflicting symbolic violence on the victim. In this instance however the crime deserves to be revisited, not least because Polanski’s actions are indefensible.

Perhaps attempts to re-arrest him are not true to the letter of the law as far as legal technicalities are concerned; after all he spent 42 days in prison as part of his plea bargain. But does the punishment fit the crime? A mere 42 days for this level of sexual violence on a defenceless child? If Polanski had been an ordinary citizen and not a talented director with many tragedies of his own (he is a Holocaust survivor and his eight months pregnant wife Sharon Tate was stabbed to death by a psychopath in 1969), he wouldn’t be the darling of the European media. He is talented, good-looking and tragic and that makes him interesting and allows commentators like Poirier to be dismissive of his detractors.

According to a documentary Wanted and Desired made in 2008 with Polanski as the primary subject, his victim does not want to see him in prison. That may well be the case and legally there may not be any recourse. But isn’t the job of commentators and journalists who have the ability to sway public opinion to be blind to personalities when crimes of this nature are concerned? When did talent and private tragedy, not to mention wealth and fame become reasons to not mete out punishments, especially for crimes as serious as this one? Why does the European media allow itself to become seduced by the cult and enigma of Polanski and not for one moment think of the drugged, traumatised and torn body of a thirteen year old Samantha whose trust in adults was probably destroyed for the rest of her life? I cannot help but see in my mind’s eye the Lolitalizing of young female children is what allows the likes of Poirier to defend the likes of Polanski. As a feminist and a woman I am utterly disappointed and disillusioned that Polanski walks free today.

13 comments to On Roman Polanski

  • My feelings on this are conflicted not because Polanski is talented or because he had tragedy in his life before but because the girl he raped (now a woman) has publicly said that she does not want to see this case go forward. She made a private deal for compensation with him and wants to get on with her life. Regarding “trust in adults was probably destroyed for the rest of her life”, she now has a husband and a family and that’s one of the reasons she doesn’t want this to be rehashed at this stage in her life, when she has moved on.

    So for me the question is – if the victim asks that a case against a perpertrator of violence be dropped, should the courts respect that (especially if they are pursuing a case after such a long time)? Clearly this might send a message out to wealthy and influencial criminals that as long as they can strike a bargain with the victims, they can get away. So maybe it’s in the interest of larger society that Polanski serve his time. But what of the victim – who now feels that she is being victimised for a second time? Is that justice?

  • Sreeparna

    @ The Bride: She did not make a ‘private deal’; her attorney acting on her behalf (since she was a child at that time) agreed to press lesser charges to preserve her anonymity. Sadly she is not anonymous, and has not been for a while. The fact that she has a husband and a child does not mean that at the time her trust in adults was not destroyed! While we need to respect the victim’s wishes and this is the only point I agree with among the points you have made, I think it is the job of commentators to reflect. If the (European) commentators were not seduced by the beauty, tragedy and talent of Polanksi, they might be more predisposed to experience the level of outrage they experience when other crimes against women and children are committed such as child marriage and domestic violence.

  • debi

    I completely agree with you, I too am disappointed, as a woman and feminist and human being, that Polanski walks free. That man is disgusting. I think the whole “Holocaust survivor” thing has probably had a big effect on making him unimpeachable. After all, Mel Gibson has now lost any hope of a career after publicity of his violence against his girlfriend, and I think the only thing separating a celebrity like Gibson from someone like Polanski is that Polanski has the claim to “victimhood” to hide behind that Gibson doesn’t (thank god). It’s sad that he is still free and I wish more people were outraged by this fact.

  • Sreeparna, the deal I am refering to is not the plea bargain made in the original criminal trial (and while negotiated by her lawyer, I cannot deny its validity simply because she was 13 – after all she had a family with her – because then you are questioning the validity of plea bargains made by lawyers on behalf of any minors… but anyway the judged reneged on that agreement, which is another strange thing) but a settlement that Samantha Gailey reached with Polanksi 15 years after the crime took place when she was 25 years old. ( More recently, she herself has filed for dismissal of the case ( In addition to citing the distress the reopening the case would cause her and her family “over some irrelevant legal nicety”, she says: “I have survived, indeed prevailed, against whatever harm Mr. Polanski may have caused me as a child.” There is an interesting line of thought within feminism that says that while rape is indeed a form of violence, we should not continue to see it as the worst and most horrific thing that could happen to a woman. Victims of rape, even child victims, do get over the trauma they have suffered. Samantha Gailey seems to be one of these women who is trying to step out of victimhood… why keep interpellating her as a victim when she herself wants to move beyond it.
    Let’s be clear that I am not supporting those who say the case should be dismissed because Mr. Polanski is talented. Mr. Polanski admitted to raping a minor and I have no sympathy for him.
    I am simply saying this case is more complicated because the victim is asking for its dismissal. Justice has been delayed for so long that it pursuing the case could end up revictimising the original victim. For me the question is – are the wishes of the victim to be considered in the pursuit of justice, or does the victim become irrelevant after a point because there is a larger point to be demonstrated to society from the state’s point of view? Again, I’m only asking a question… I don’t have the answer.

  • Its really very great post.thanks for sharing the information.i like it very much.

  • N

    I agree with the Bride. There is a very thin line that all feminists, especially the ones who work with survivors of violence, have to recognise between advocating the rights of the survivor and the wishes of the survivor. Sometimes, the two are not always the same. While the issue at hand seems to be that Polanski got away (and who amongst us is really surprised!) because of his celebrity status, I pause to wonder why he is of such interest (even for us!) after 33 years even as scores of sex offenders, rapists, domestic abusers are not prosecuted (and continue to abuse) because of lack of time and resources on the state’s part. If he is an exemplar of the justice that slips away for a survivor – then yes, we must examine it. But we must also examine the difficult questions that the Bride has raised – What of the agency of the survivor? What of her wish not to define her life by an act of violence? What is our responsibility ultimately towards – the survivor or our ‘advocacy’? And we must pause to wonder why, sometimes, the two are not the same.

  • Debi debi

    I’m not sure why no one has seemed to brought up the rights of other women who could be victimized by the perpetrator if he is not brought to justice for an offense. Especially powerful, famous offenders who can get away with things like this, are likely to be repeat offenders. What about the welfare of all the women who would come into the presence of the sex offender in his life of freedom? Is their safety not more important than a victim’s wishes on how to define her life? I personally think it is. More important than honoring a victim’s wishes is bringing a criminal to justice to prevent any further victimization of women.

  • Fair point, Debi debi. I still have conflicted feelings but at least this is a more useful way of looking at it.

  • usha rao

    HI. Just read all the comments. And here are mine which are perhaps of a general nature. In our world, glamour, ‘talent’ and fame are all important. I think we are forgiving of beastly behaviour if the person is a celebrity. Somehow such eccentricities and excesses are excused in one ‘so artistically inclined.’ And the pursuit of pleasure is sanctioned and sacred, to add to all of this… even if it means that there is a minor girl involved. SO why the uproar, they seem to be saying, is so uncool to be talking about abuse..
    In our own contexts in India, do we not look the other way if we know for a fact that an ‘artistic’ person also happens to treat the women in his life badly? Doesn’t the string of gravestones add to his sex appeal?
    I think this not even an antifeminist stance- it is simply not humane and doesn’t understand that there is a person at the other end who needs to have some amount of say in what she wants to or doesn’t want to be part of. The frightening thing is that it happens all the time..and often women who are in relationships with such men are silent.

  • Sreeparna

    Debi Debi: Thanks for bringing up the issue of recidivism – it is especially high among sex offenders. And letting one get away with a sex crime is definitely tantamount to putting other victims at risk.

    @ N and The Bride: Your points are well taken. As a feminist it is my view that sometimes the rights of the individual may need to be eclipsed for the rights of a group. In this case I certainly think that the individual’s right is less important and the state needs to prove itself as an enlightened enforcer of women’s rights.

  • […] FEW MONTHS AGO, I was outraged by the French reaction to the Roman Polanski case. I am similarly outraged with the French reaction to Dominique Strauss-Kahn or DSK. Dominique […]

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