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Why Do Men Like Roman Polanski Get Away with Unspeakable Crimes?

roman polanski

It’s been known for 40 years that Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles, ever since he was charged with the crime. Since then, the Jewish director left the U.S. to avoid extradition and live in Europe–which is really quite disgusting (and infuriating!) when you think about it.

Like Woody Allen, Polanski is still largely revered as a genius filmmaker, and the charge doesn’t seem to have affected his career all that much— he’s regularly made films since 1977 (and has two forthcoming).

Recently, however, it seems like he and Samantha Geimer (the survivor of his crimes who wrote her own book several years ago) are trying to reopen the case so he can come back to the U.S. without facing prison time. Geimer, now in her 50s and known as Samantha Gailey, wrote a letter a few days ago, dated April 21, asking that the 2010 testimony of Roger Gunson, a now-retired district attorney, be unsealed. This is also what Polanski’s lawyer is asking for. Don’t be confused, however—both sides have different agendas.

Polanski’s lawyers hope will help him return to the U.S., while Geimer believes it will illustrate Polanski’s misconduct “perpetrated in the district attorney’s office,” according to Vanity Fair:

“Polanski’s lawyer, Harland Braun, contends that Gunson’s testimony could support his claim that the judge, Laurence J. Rittenband, had a plan in 1978 to limit Polanski’s sentence to a 90-day psychiatric evaluation when he originally pleaded guilty—to the lesser of the charges against him—in 1977. In Geimer’s letter, she said the sealing of this testimony was part of the D.A. office’s effort to ‘defame those who produce relevant evidence and facts with accusations of criminal activity, facts you ignore to serve yourselves.'”

Gailey (formerly Geimer)’s 2013 memoir of her experience, “The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski,” stressed that the media circus around the case compounded the violation she initially experienced.  In the mid-1990s, both Gailey and Polanski also reached an agreement where Gailey received a settlement of half a million dollars. Gailey has publicly stated that she has forgiven him, in a video posted to TMZ in February:

“[Polanski]’s apologized; I forgive him. I know that he’s sorry and he didn’t mean to hurt me. Much worse things happened to people; I’m aware of that. I kind of feel like bad things happen.”

She also mentioned in an interview with The Guardian that she and Polanski “email a little bit“ about “personal stuff.” Because of all the media, it’s hard for her not to feel some empathy for him, saying, “We’ve been tied together because of that. Empathetic is a better word than sympathetic. We’ve shared a lot of similar experiences.” Despite that empathy, however, Geimer does believe he should resolve his legal issues stemming from the case, as it would be “fair.”

I fully respect Geimer’s choice to forgive Polanski–I say this as a rape survivor myself. I do believe that we should respect the healing process of other survivors, including those who wish to forgive those who abuse us. And yet, I also find it frustrating, the way Polanski’s career has largely gone unscathed.

It’s crucial for us to understand that forgiving and forgetting are two different things–as Geimer herself implies, considering she believe Polanski should come back to conclude the case.

Why is it we portray men like Polanski (aka rapists) as broken geniuses? It’s as if they simply cannot help themselves, and because of that, we should feel bad for them, almost as much for them as the people whose lives they violated. And that’s the issue: rape can destroy a person’s life, if not their entire sense of being (as I’ve written about before). The questions swirl around the perpetrator, and the effect on the victim’s life goes largely unmentioned.

When reading articles about Polanski, it’s often as though his crime is a mere footnote. See IndieWire:

“The controversy about Polanski’s real-life crimes sometimes overshadow his films, but he remains a vital and important director in his sixth decade as a filmmaker.”

Or at The Guardian:

“Polanski is a visionary who cannot gain any distance from his visions; often, what we are enjoying in his films is his own fascinating pathology.”

And Vanity Fair:

“Thirty-five years after Roman Polanski served time in prison for unlawful sex with a minor—fleeing Hollywood for Europe only when Judge Laurence J. Rittenband threatened to re-incarcerate him—the notorious director’s punishment may have exceeded his crime. Dissecting one of the longest cases in California history, James Fox gets a rare interview with Polanski, who discusses his 2009 arrest in Switzerland, the public hatred he experienced, and his next movie, about another legal and political epic: the Dreyfus affair.”

Even Rafael Yglesias, a screenwriter, wrote an essay in Salon about why he worked with Polanski, despite being a sexual assault survivor–because he believes that working with someone who is a rapist doesn’t condone rape. I cannot personally agree, as working on a project with someone who was charged with a crime against a minor and then fled the country to avoid ramifications is giving the person a silver platter to keep racking in money, fame, and privilege. It’s aiding the person’s livelihood–and reputation. And why should they be awarded that benefit if they haven’t allowed real justice to take its course?

Yglesias said:

“I worked for a man who raped a 13-year-old girl. I knew he had raped her, everyone knew he had raped her, and I was eager to get the job. I did not hesitate even though I had been sexually molested when I was 8 years old. I did not pause although I was still struggling from ongoing complications 30 years after an adult seducer had permanently interfered with my sexual development.

Roman Polanski was, and is, one of a handful of directors who have made movies that deserve to be called great works of art.”

Of course, I’m not in any position to call Yglesias wrong as another fellow rape survivor–as this may be his way of coping with his own experiences. But I do think this general attitude of forgetting a rapist’s crimes because they happen to make great art is indicative of a larger problem. Survivors of assault should get justice–and not have to undergo trauma to do so. Men like Polanski should be rehabilitated, and yes forgiven, but that doesn’t mean they should be fêted or excused. It seems to me, society needs to learn the difference between forgiveness and enabling.

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