Initially I thought it no more than mildly interesting in a world full of more interesting events when I read that Roman Polanski had been imprisoned in Switzerland prior to being extradited to the US on a 30-year-old charge of rape. But, increasingly, in the news, on Facebook, Twitter, the LRB blog and in conversation, I’ve been reading the argument between those who think he should not have been arrested and those who think he should, even after all this time, be returned to the US for sentencing, although the woman concerned (Samantha Geimer – she has allowed her name to be published) has now said that she doesn’t want the matter pursued.
Then I got twitchy when I read the petition written by Bernard-Henri Lévy, and signed by Paul Auster, Milan Kundera, William Shawcross, Claude Lanzmann, Salman Rushdie, Mike Nichols, Neil Jordan, and, to bring up the female numbers, Diane von Furstenberg, the Isabelles Adjani and Huppert, Yamani Benguigui, Danièle Thompson and Arielle Dombasle. It reads:
Apprehended like a common terrorist Saturday evening, 26 September, as he came to receive a prize for his entire body of work, Roman Polanski now sleeps in prison.
He risks extradition to the United States for an episode that happened years ago and whose principal plaintiff repeatedly and emphatically declares she has put it behind her and abandoned any wish for legal proceedings.
Seventy-six years old, a survivor of Nazism and of Stalinist persecutions in Poland, Roman Polanski risks spending the rest of his life in jail for deeds which would be beyond the statute of limitations in Europe.
We ask the Swiss courts to free him immediately and not to turn this ingenious film-maker into a martyr of a politico-legal imbroglio that is unworthy of two democracies like Switzerland and the United States. Good sense, as well as honour, require it.
Let’s leave aside the matter of the commonness or otherwise of terrorists as opposed to the uniqueness of film-director rapists, and the question of how soundly Polanski sleeps in prison. Leave aside, too, the years-ago argument and the woman’s present wish not to have legal proceedings – those are legal matters. And ignore the use of the word episode where rape would have been more precise. Polanski was finally charged with unlawful sexual intercourse, rather than rape. The lesser charge was offered to him providing he agreed to plead guilty so that the girl would not be required to give evidence in open court. This is the basis on which Whoopi Goldberg insisted, when the news of his arrest broke, that he should be released, because he hadn’t committed ‘rape-rape’. The plea bargain came with a promise of a sentence of just 40 or so days – to finish up a 90-day detention for psychiatric and probation reports which was cut short, and then voluntary deportation. When Polanski’s lawyer heard that the judge was claimed to have said he was going to renege on the deal, and impose a longer prison sentence and then enforced deportation, Polanski jumped bail and left the country.
The petitioners suggest that Polanski’s persecuted youth in Poland offers some explanation for his having sex with a 13-year-old at the age of 44. It might, but it doesn’t explain why others who have a similar background haven’t done that, or why some people without a disadvantaged background have. As to his talent, it’s clear there’s long been a thought around that ‘creative’ types are inclined to behave outside social norms. This is sometimes true, but as I understood it, the point was that we must look at the work separately from the behaviour, not that the behaviour itself should be excused. Polanski has made some cracking films, but Knife in the Water and Chinatown, fine works as they are, surely don’t license their director to rape.
Of all the excuses and explanations for Polanski’s behaviour that have tumbled out, the most entertaining was offered at the time of the initial hearing, in the probation officer’s report requested by the judge:
Possibly not since Renaissance Italy has there been such a gathering of creative minds in one locale as there has been in Los Angeles County during the past half-century … While enriching the community with their presence, they have brought with them the manners and mores of their native lands which in rare instances have been at variance with those of their adoptive land.
(Be grateful for whatever laughs you can get in this miserable little story.)
As to his present martyrdom in a ‘politico-legal imbroglio’: the rape was admitted by Polanski, no one denies that it happened or that he skipped bail before sentencing and has carefully not returned to the US since. Possibly, there are other rapists on the run in Europe and America who are not ingenious film-makers and are therefore not being pursued, and if so, that is certainly unfair; though I’m inclined to think that they should be pursued rather than Polanski released from his responsibilities (apparently, he is still in default of $500,000 of the settlement he agreed to pay Samantha Geimer).
In 1961 I was raped by an American in London. I was 14, a year older than the girl Polanski gave half a Quaalude and champagne to, then had oral, vaginal and anal sex with. In defence of Polanski, various people have pointed out Geimer was a teenage model and was doing a photo-shoot her mother had fixed up with Polanski, who said he wanted to take the pictures for Vogue. As further evidence to mitigate Polanski’s crime people have pointed out that after she had been drinking champagne (encouraged by Polanski during the photo session) Polanski got into a jacuzzi and suggested she join him, but she said she had to go home. He phoned her mother and said she would be late, then he let her speak to her mother. Geimer replied ‘no’ when her mother asked if she wanted to be picked up and taken home, and she consented, according to one telling, though this isn’t clear in the grand jury transcript, to oral sex. She also told the judge that she’d had sex twice before with her boyfriend, who was around her own age.
What got my interest finally and fully engaged was the idea of a 13-year-old consenting to have oral sex with a 44-year-old film director. Not, of course, that children aren’t sexual or even apparently complicit sometimes in sexual play. She was clearly not an innocent. (Though previous sexual experience is not a bar to a rape conviction even where the victim is over the age of consent.) Nevertheless, in order for her to consent to oral sex, Polanski must have asked her. How did he ask? Some questions are more like questions than others. What is it like to be 13, a wannabe movie star (nearly all 13-year-olds are), in the presence of a powerful movie director in the house of a famous movie star (Jack Nicholson), being given a powerful drug and alcohol and then invited to give the great man a blow job or make yourself available for cunnilingus?
I was neither dazzled nor drugged into sex when I was 14 – I was embarrassed into it. I was walking along the street, one Friday morning, on my way to the Notting Hill Gate library, feeling cross after a row with my father, when a man with an American accent, in his twenties, suddenly appeared and started walking beside me. He asked my name. I ignored him. He repeated his question over and over again. That stuff happened. You just kept on walking when strange men spoke to you or exposed themselves. But this one was really persistent. He marched alongside me and then said that he was a singer and he’d written a new song. He wanted to know what I thought of it. When I said piss off, again, he started to sing. Loudly. These days, of course, I might well sing loudly in the street myself and not give a toss. But 14 is different. I was excruciated. A man singing to me full-throatedly as I walked down the road made me publicly ridiculous and clearly everyone on the planet was turning their head to stare at me. And laughing. I was beside myself with embarrassment. That, at any rate, was what my 14 was like. I hissed at him to stop and he said he would if I went to the recording studio where he worked and listened to him singing his song properly. It was just round the corner, a few minutes from where I lived. Then he started to sing again. He was amiable and quite funny, not frightening, if much too insistent.
I didn’t think a recording studio would be silent and empty, I supposed that other people would be there, technicians, people just hanging around, but I think maybe I would have gone even if I’d known it was empty, just to shut him up. It was in a basement a block from where I lived. He unlocked the door and let me in, then he closed the door behind me and I heard the key turn in the lock. There really is a special sound of a key turning in a lock in an empty room. I asked to leave, and said I wanted to go home, suddenly scared, but he put the key in his back pocket and smiled. I want to go home, I told him, again, a little panicky. Not until we’ve had a good time, he said, and there’s no point in screaming, it’s a recording studio, the place is sound-proofed. He pulled me by my upper arm further into the room.
Behind a glass wall there was that bank of recording equipment you see in pictures. In the main room, where we were, there were some mikes, a set of drums, a fridge and a sofa. I said that I was only 14 and he laughed. No, I wasn’t, he told me. I was, I said. He pushed me on to the sofa and I repeated that I was 14, and – I was pleading now, knowing I was in trouble – I was a virgin. I was at any rate young enough to think that telling him that would give him pause. No, I wasn’t, I was not 14 and I was certainly no virgin, he laughed, as he pushed up my skirt. I have no idea whether he believed what he was saying or not.
Even for those days, I didn’t have much interest in sex, and I knew even less. I’d read some steamy books from the library, but the steam always obscured exactly what was going on. I really didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. I knew it was sex and that I was being raped (I’d read about that), but the details were quite fuzzy. I was frightened, but not because I thought he was going to kill me or even physically hurt me. I was frightened because I was being pinned down. I was also embarrassed (again) at the nakedness of my lower body (I’d never been naked with a man before, apart from my father) and I think I remember even finding a space to worry about whether my knickers were clean.
The sex took what seemed to me an incredibly long time, much longer than I’d previously imagined it took to ‘do it’ from what I’d read and seen at the movies. I’d thought it would be just seconds and I couldn’t understand why it was going on and on. It was also very painful – I hadn’t known that happened either. Several times I screamed with the pain. I was crying throughout, and asking him to stop (I used the word ‘please’ a lot). I still wasn’t scared for my life. He wasn’t violent: he just carried on, refusing to stop, repeating that I was no virgin and paying no attention when I told him it hurt. He wasn’t violent. I mean that he didn’t hit me.
When he’d finished, he stood and straightened his clothes. I pulled down my skirt and sat up. He went to the fridge and got out a bottle of milk, offered it to me, and when I shook my head he drank most of the pint.
‘You came a lot,’ he said, approvingly.
I didn’t know what he was talking about, I didn’t know what ‘coming’ was. I didn’t say anything.
‘All that crying, you were having a good time.’
Apparently, my crying signalled a long and continuous orgasm to him. I wasn’t inclined to tell him I hadn’t enjoyed it – I didn’t want to talk and I thought that contradicting him might anger him. I wanted to get out. When he’d finished the milk, he asked if I wanted to go for a coffee, but he let me go home when I said no, providing I gave him my phone number so we could meet up again. He must have told me his first name, but I have no recollection of it. Then I left and went the hundred yards or so to my house, where I went straight to my room, took off my pants and saw blood on them, and then went to bed.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in bed, sleeping a bit, feeling mostly sore inside and very blank. I was quite numbed by the experience, but I had also a strong sense of how stupid he was to have thought that I’d been enjoying myself – as I supposed ‘coming’ was. And I had a powerful after-image of him tipping back his head and drinking the milk from the bottle. Drinking milk always made me vomit. My overall reaction solidified into contempt rather than shame. I didn’t think that it was the most terrible thing that had ever happened to me. It was a very unpleasant experience, it hurt and I was trapped. But I had no sense that I was especially violated by the rape itself, not more than I would have been by any attack on my person and freedom. In 1961 it didn’t go without saying that to be penetrated against one’s will was a kind of spiritual murder. I was more disgusted by him than I was shamed or diminished. A different zeitgeist, luckily for me.
Nevertheless, for many years, I thought of the incident as ‘when I got myself raped’. I was very aware of having gone voluntarily to the recording studio with him. And, that morning, I was angry with my father, who had just stopped me from going on the Aldermaston March. ‘You can’t go, you’ll get raped,’ he said. And the truth was that I was secretly meeting a boy from school to go on the march with. He was bringing a sleeping-bag. Once, in Trafalgar Square, he had, to my astonishment, put his tongue in my mouth. I hadn’t thought we would have sex together on the march, but perhaps we would have. One other thing I remember thinking in the recording studio, aside from it hurts and it’s taking such a long time, was: ‘This’ll show my father.’
My new friend, as I suspect he thought of himself, phoned a couple of days later and my father answered the phone, didn’t like the sound of him and told him not to call me again. I hadn’t told him about it, I never spoke of it to anyone until much later, and left the whole thing to be something that had happened. I did figure I was somewhat responsible. Indeed, an older, experienced male friend told me only a few years later that it was impossible to rape a woman: if penetration occurred she was willing. I hadn’t told him about my rape, but I wondered if I ought to stop thinking of it as rape, in that case, since I had been penetrated. I’ve changed my mind about that now, although I still don’t think it was the worst experience of my life.
In mitigation, Polanski told the court that he believed she had been ‘not unresponsive’. Geimer recalled:
I said: ‘No, no. I don’t want to go in there. No, I don’t want to do this. No!’– and then I didn’t know what else to do. We were alone and I didn’t know what else would happen if I made a scene. So I was just scared, and after giving some resistance, I figured well, I guess I’ll get to come home after this.
That sounds authentic to my ears. Doubtless Geimer (and Geimer’s mother) had got herself into the situation where rape could happen, as I had. Perhaps she had responded, had even consented to oral sex with Polanski. He then penetrated her and asked when she last had her period. When she wasn’t sure, or was too embarrassed to say, he sodomised her, just in case. Was that thoughtful? Let’s still call it rape-rape and not worry too much about Polanski’s present sleeping arrangements.