Ghosts of the Past: the Polanski Case


I was interested to note yesterday that film director Roman Polanski has been arrested in Switzerland. Most reports seem to concur that he has been detained over a thirty-one year old outstanding arrest warrant, connected to the 1978 scandal in which Polanski pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful sexual intercourse (read: rape) with a 13 year old girl – after which he fled to Europe to escape justice, and eventually became a French citizen.

There has been an awful lot of distinctly male hand-wringing over Polanski’s arrest, with the French culture minister Frederic Mitterrand commenting that he “strongly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already experienced so many of them”. In a way, Mitterrand does have a point, but only sort of – Polanski’s life has not been a bed of roses by any stretch of the imagination, but no amount of childhood ordeals excuse his later behaviour in any way, shape or form. There is NEVER any excuse for rape, not even this kind of hellish childhood…

Born in Paris of secular Jewish parents in 1933, the Polanski family moved back to their native Poland in 1936. They were living in the city of Krakow when the Nazis invaded three years later, and were forced into the Krakow Ghetto soon after. Polanski’s father survived the camps, but his mother died in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942. Polanksi himself only just survived the war in hiding with Polish Catholic families (which may explain why he was so drawn to the idea of making a film of The Pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir of life in hiding in the Warsaw Ghetto), before moving back to France and subsequently the US.

Polanski began to make a name for himself in Hollywood, alongside his second wife, the actress Sharon Tate; a period he later described as the happiest of his life. However, this happiness was brought to a shuddering, screaming halt by the events of August 9th 1969, when the heavily-pregnant Tate and four of her friends were brutally murdered by the Manson Family at the Polanskis’ rented home in LA. Tate’s death naturally sent Polanski into a tailspin, adding yet another layer of trauma to an already unhappy life.

Trauma can indeed make people do strange things, but there is absolutely no excuse for the events of March 10th 1977; no matter how much Polanski’s allies and friends try to excuse his behaviour as being in the distant past and romanticise the further ‘trauma’ of his arrest 31 years later. He’s not the one who was traumatised by this incident; he’s not the victim here.

Back in 1977, Polanski had been given parental permission to photograph 13-year old Samantha Gailey (now Gaimer) for the French edition of Vogue. The photo session started off OK, but Gailey grew more and more uncomfortable with the situation and became deeply suspicious of Polanski’s motives as time went on. It appears she was right to be suspicious – she later testified that after being drugged with a combination of champagne and quaaludes, and despite her resistance, Polanski raped her. I won’t go into any depth as to what he did (there’s no need – and the actual details of her testimony are easy to find online), but this sounds like a particularly nasty and brutal assault on a young woman who was little more than a child at the time. Polanski was initially charged with a veritable laundry list of offences, including rape by use of drugs, sodomy and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor, but after a plea bargain was struck (allowing plea bargaining to an admitted rapist? Way to not taking the victim seriously…), he ended up being charged with the less serious offence of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor and promptly skipped town for 31 years.

Now an adult and with a family of her own, Samantha Gaimer has gone on record a number of times as preferring that the charges (which could land Polanski with a possible life sentance) be dropped, commenting in a 2008 interview: “I think he’s sorry, I think he knows it was wrong. I don’t think he’s a danger to society. I don’t think he needs to be locked up forever and no one has ever come out ever – besides me – and accused him of anything. It was 30 years ago now. It’s an unpleasant memory … [but] I can live with it.” To an extent, I can understand where she’s coming from here. She wants to move on from the past and live her life in the present, and the continued focus on the case drags up old memories as well as encouraging instrusive press coverage that has a negative impact on her family as a whole. However, she is a brave woman to forgive the man who violated her so brutally at such a young age – in her shoes, I’m not sure I could. I admire her strength in pulling her life back together so successfully after being raped, which is – please remember – one of the worst betrayals of trust and position anyone could ever suffer.

But despite his undoubted talent as a film-maker, I find it nigh on impossible to feel the kind of sympathy for Polanski and the righteous outrage over his arrest that the French, in particular, have somehow summoned up over this. Despite Samantha Gaimer’s determination to get on with her life and her desire that the charges be dropped, the French attitude that Polanski is somehow the victim in all this is deeply insulting to Gaimer and her continued strength – in fact, this sort of attitude is an insult to every single rape survivor, everywhere, whatever their gender, age or circumstances.

A piece of unsolicited advice, if I may, Mr Polanski? If you want to avoid a thirty year exile from your home and career, and if you want to avoid being arrested by Swiss cops on an outstanding American warrant, there is one small thing I’d recommend you do – it’s not much, but it could have made all the difference. Don’t violate a 13-year old girl in the first place.

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