‘Forget it, Roman?’ Polanski and the Politics of What We Remember

A friend suggested I should comment regarding Roman Polanski’s arrest and the attempt to extradite him to the US to face charges stemming from his admitted sex offence against a 13 year old girl in 1977.  I’m reluctant to do so, because the issues are complex and probably better handled in conversation where dialogue partners might arrive at a truth together, so I’d like to invite such a conversation in the comments below.

ADDS at 10.50am, October 1st 2009: After a day of reading and attempting to respond to people’s comments on this and other blogs, I’m further persuaded of the challenges indicated above.  I’m grateful for the conversation, but eager to emphasise that I don’t have any answers here – I am trying to raise some questions that I think need to be discussed.  So, despite the fact that nothing in the original version of this post should have been understood to imply otherwise, let me state explicitly for the record: It is self-evident that Roman Polanski did a terrible thing, which was not merely a breach of the law, but morally wrong, and had the potential to be profoundly damaging to the victim/survivor.  I think the legal proceedings against him should be carried through to their conclusion; he should be held accountable under the law.  But I don’t believe that this means that the issue can then be considered resolved and forgotten about.  My original post below indicates some of the other issues that I think need to be discussed in this case.  I am neither an expert on these matters nor do I have a monopoly on understanding them.  I am simply hoping to encourage a wider discussion in the hope that such a discussion will reduce the potential for such awful abuse to happen in the future.

ADDS at 6.35pm, October 2nd:  Just read a helpful summary refutation of the arguments against Polanski’s extradition.  I differ from the tone of some of the article, and still don’t think that equating the concepts of moral justice, the restoration of a victim/survivor, and accountability with the potential for real rehabilitation for the perpetrator with the application of one country’s particular legal system is good enough, but I found much of this article compelling.  Let me reiterate: I think that the legal process should take its course for Polanski, and accountable justice should be served: I have never stated otherwise.  But as I said before, my earlier post was not an attempt at addressing the case comprehensively – how could it be?  It was actually an attempt at talking about other issues surrounding the case; it has been suggested that this was insensitive of me, and if that is so, I apologise.  Talking about the issues in a meaningful way is not easy for anyone; and so I hope that we can continue the conversation in the same spirit of sensitivity to victims and survivors, mutual respect for other commenters and generosity toward each other that I was trying (and clearly not entirely succeeding) to advocate in the post.

Now, to my original post:

It seems to me that BOTH the extremes of ‘lynch mob’ politics and the ‘oh he’s an artist and European so it doesn’t really matter’ tendency are missing part of the story.  Some of the calls for Polanski’s punishment dabble in self-righteousness; but the attempts to mitigate his behaviour are ridiculous (witness the utterly absurd article published in ‘The Huffington Post’ that called for a boycott of Swiss chocolate, and asserted that his actions didn’t matter because the age of consent in California was 14 then, and is probably 13 now [this is not true, by the way]).

One hopes that the fresh interest in the story can allow space for serious discussion about the issues at the heart of the case, and not just whether or not one man should or should not be punished for his particular crime.  Some of these issues, I believe, include the following:

1: The sexualisation of children in our culture; the fact that the 13 year old victim in the case was being photographed for a magazine spread is surely part of the problem.  The groundwork for what happened at Jack Nicolson’s house in 1977 was laid by an entire subculture of the industrial-entertainment complex.  Polanksi is not the only guilty party; nor is the girl the only victim.

2: The role that trauma plays in the behaviour of people who abuse others.  No one would doubt that the loss of family members in the Holocaust, vagrancy and homelessness as a young man, and – obviously – the horrific murder of his wife must have taken an unimaginable toll on Roman Polanski.  Indeed, I have two friends who have spent time independently with Polanski, and both of them say that – to them – his scars are right on the surface.  One of them made one of the most tragic comments I think I’ve ever heard about another human being when he said, ‘Polanski is the only person I’ve ever met who has no sense of the transcendent.’  The man may already be living in a kind of personal hell.

Does this justify behaviour that appears to suggest a lack of conscience, or a disregard for the experience of the 13 year old girl?  Of course not.  Does it help to explain it?  Possibly; maybe even probably.  Does demonising him help to prevent other people behaving the way that he did?  Probably not – we know that pathological behaviour is not necessarily restrained by the threat of punishment; we also know that one method that does reduce the enaction of pathology includes working with the perpetrator in a therapeutic context.  It should go without saying that therapy that is contingent on dehumanising the person responsible does not exactly work.

In short, we have to find a way to talk about trauma that takes its effects seriously without giving people an easy pass for behaviour that causes suffering to others.  Our culture sorely fails at dealing with trauma – turning it either into an excuse for vengeance, or a Victorian-circus style exhibition of other people’s sorrow.  We are more than happy to invest time and money in tabloid naming-and-shaming, or in watching ‘Dr Phil’ or Jerry Springer, but many of us have hardly even begun to wonder what it would take to create spaces in our communities for the re-humanisation of everyday life, the graciousness and patience that healing from trauma requires, and a decisive choice in favour of seeing each other as vulnerable vessels, rather than robots in the supply-and-demand chain of consumer culture.  All these things might actually reduce the experience and effects of trauma so many of us seek to work through.

3: The fact that celebrity can sometimes get you out of jail free, in both a figurative and literal sense.    Another 76 year old man guilty of the same offence who didn’t happen to be an Oscar-winning director would very likely be treated differently.   At the same time, we might guess that the victim’s mother never would have left her alone with this man if he had not been offering her fame on a silver platter.  The whole story smacks of a screwed-up value system that pervades when money and celebrity magnetise our time and trump our investment in the common good.

4: The fact that Roman Polanksi has made some astonishing films, that do, in fact, offer some insight into female experience, and are sharply critical of abuse by men.  ‘Chinatown’ is, for me, a film I would find it hard to imagine my own love of cinema without.  I don’t think he would have made such films had he not experienced the suffering we already know about.  And I don’t think I would feel conflicted about how much I admire the film if he had not abused the girl.

5: The relationship between the US and Europe.  The French Culture Minister said on Sunday that ‘there is an America that we love, and an America that scares us’.  I understand what he means – and I live here – but, despite the potentially mixed motives of the Los Angeles DA’s office, I wish he had used a different occasion to make these remarks; implying as they do that demanding accountability for sexual offences committed in the US is an illegitimate cause, and the exclusive preserve of ‘scary’ people.  Something about politicians refusing to provide decent healthcare for the poor, or public commentators giving oxygen to the claim that a President who wishes to do so is the Antichrist might have been a better context for these remarks.  That’s the America that scares me.

6: The obsession with sexuality over all other moral questions in popular culture.  Last week, another iconic figure of the 1970s was accused of imposing incest on his daughter; for some reason, I haven’t seen much sympathy for the daughter in the media – in fact, some have used this to make the daughter look bad.  This is just one example of our culture’s apparent paralysis when it comes to speaking maturely and compassionately about sexuality.  To return to the question of how trauma affects a victim/survivor’s behaviour, it would be easy to suggest that the events of the past decade in the US American culture wars has left my adopted nation vulnerably unsure of where it stands; it would also be easy to suggest that people who have been deeply wounded often project their woundedness onto an external enemy, or displace anger from one legitimate target to another.

7: The chances of recidivism: No one has made any suggestion that Polanski is going to behave this way again.  And, no matter what the gravity of his actions is, he was under the impression that he had made a plea bargain that would avoid him serving more time in jail.  Whether or not that raises questions about how the US criminal justice system operates is certainly worth discussing.

8: The response of the victim/survivor in the case.  I have not named her here, because she has repeatedly said that the publicity surrounding the case is harmful to her and her family.  I want to show some respect to someone who, it appears, has offered some of the few sensible, measured, and gracious words in the whole matter.  She has said that while what he did to her was a violation, and wrong, and deeply traumatising, that she would prefer the events to be forgotten, and for him to be allowed to get on with his life, presumably at least in part so that she can get on with hers.

But ultimately what I want to say is best summed up by a couple of memories, one from a movie, one from real life.

‘Chinatown’ famously ends with an injunction to the central character to ‘forget it’, to ignore injustice because injustice is the way of the world, or at least of this particular world. In this case, he’s being told that there is something about LA; that the powerful will get away with murder; and that if you try to stop them, it will be more trouble than it’s worth.  The supreme irony of the Polanski case may turn out to be the fact that the very same District Attorney’s office fictionalised as impotent in his greatest movie turns out to be the one trying to send him to prison in the last years of his life.

But ‘Forget it’ is neither the first, nor the most important ‘forget’ in Roman Polanski’s life.  He was a child in the crucible of the Holocaust, and at the other end of his life, he made a film about it; this film, ‘The Pianist’ is part of the cultural idiom enshrined by the deepest shibboleth arising from the Nazi genocide: ‘Never forget’.

Roman Polanksi finds himself between two ‘forgets’ – both of which tell a truth about human experience: on the one hand, that justice, as understood by the legal system, is a game, a bargaining process in which people pawn morality in exchange for an outcome that satisfies the scapegoat mechanism, but may not serve any higher notion of accountability, reconciliation, or personal/societal change.  On the other, the shadow of the murder of his mother and his wife is long; even if he wants to forget it, our culture won’t let him, which is exactly the same position that the woman he raped is in.  There has to be something better than this for everyone concerned.

I recall the English writer Jo Ind speaking at Greenbelt a few years ago, saying (and I’m paraphrasing) that sexuality is difficult terrain at the best of times.  Most of us have been wounded at some point by our experiences of sexuality; many of us feel shame for how we have sometimes treated others.  The story of Roman Polanksi and the woman he raped is not just painful for the victim and the person responsible; it may trigger all kinds of traumatic responses in people reading or hearing about it.  Jo Ind suggested that if sexuality is to become a site of fulfillment, wonder and joy, rather than shame, sorrow, and unfulfilled potential, it must always be treated with tenderness, not used as a weapon, nor as a way of reducing a person to the violations they’ve committed, or that have been done to them.  I’d want to echo this, and make a simple plea that, if we want to respect the victim/survivor in this case, if we believe that the criminal justice system should help offenders change their behaviour and not just make them suffer for what they’ve done, and if we want to live lives characterized by compassion and not the kind of self-righteousness that only turns inward and makes us hate ourselves, then we should turn the volume down and try to invest our conversation with a bit of humanity.

And then – finally – let’s have an intelligent public conversation about trauma, pathology, abuse, and survival.

For me, for a start, that would mean no petitions to stop Polanksi’s extradition; and no lynch mobs lining up to destroy him for what he did; getting serious about a restorative justice process that seeks to respect the suffering of victims/survivors and hold people accountable for their actions, while taking defendants’ trauma into account, no matter how rich or creative they are; and figuring out that vengeance doesn’t serve to help victims/survivors heal any more than trying to pretend their pain isn’t real.

And that’s where I need to pause, and acknowledge that I am not an expert on any of this; and I’d love to have a conversation with you in the comments below in the hope that we can come up with some wisdom together.

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25 responses to “‘Forget it, Roman?’ Polanski and the Politics of What We Remember

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your rejection of both ‘typical’ responses to this, and said so on-air Monday (though not in nearly as eloquent and nuanced a way). It did, however, inspire something of a backlash on the phones; it appears people have trouble holding that someone can be both a victim with reasons for his actions AND a guilty party who must face up to the serious consequences of them.

    While I am enthusiastic about the conversation you suggest we should all have about the complex issues behind this story, I think such a conversation is peripheral to the question of how the justice system handles Polanski. That he would be treated any differently than anyone else because he’s a celebrated and brilliant filmmaker is not a defendable proposition. That he is also, in many ways, a victim himself does not mitigate his responsibility, though studying it keenly should help us to understand his actions. But “I understand” should never be equated with “I excuse.”

    • Thanks John – I completely agree that he should not be treated differently because of his creative achievements; sorry if my post suggested that. Nor do I think that only he should be treated differently because of his particular awful trauma – I think that the entire enterprise of a retributive criminal justice system needs to be overhauled to include space for EVERYONE’s particular trauma to be explored as part of the process of accountability, ensuring public safety, and ultimately restoration.

      • I’d be fascinated to hear more sometime of how you think that might look in practice. Your piece on this above is one of the best I’ve seen (and perhaps I’m even more inclined to have enjoyed it because I so completely agreed, in content and tone).

  2. once again, gareth, you’ve cut right to the heart of the matter. your points are well-made and do serve to illustrate some of the complexity of this case. one other impetus in all this is our prurient desire to see the high brought low. in the guise of being seekers after justice and truth, we wilfully ignore the express wishes of the victim herself (again, thank-you for not including her name) and impose our own felt needs onto the situation.

    lastly, it is depressing how readily we condemn others for their sexual indiscretions while making no comment whatsoever on our own complicity in the utterly sexualised culture which spawned them. again, thankyou for drawing attention to this.

    love what you’re doing here gareth and so happy that you’re starting to get some of the kudos you deserve. keep fighting the fight my friend.

  3. Hi Shane – thanks for your kind words; glad to know you’re here.

  4. big fan!

    long time reader …

  5. best comment on the issue I’ve read by a bagles gowl…

    • Thanks David; I’m rather terrified by the notion of being compared to a bagles gowl; but if it’s an Irish Methodist thing, it’s alright with me 🙂

  6. Just out of interest, do you believe in punishment at all? And if so, who — which individuals, groups or supra-groups — are allowed to determine the extent of it (and carry it out)?

    • garethihiggins

      I believe in an accountability that implies people responsible for crime being confronted with the consequences of their actions, engaging in some form of restitution, and forfeiting for a period of time, some of the liberties that their commission of the crime warrant. Some would call that punishment. But I don’t believe that accountability and retribution are the same thing; the criminal justice system, to my mind, often errs on the side of retribution. In the absence of a better and more representative authoritative body, it falls to the state to carry this out. I am far from either being an expert on these matters or having worked out all of my opinions – I’d be grateful if you would like to answer your own question so we can have more of a sense of what you think.

      • I’m not an expert either. Not at all. I *think* I believe in punishment. That’s to say that as well as whatever it takes to get restitution and be reformed, I also believe that the perpetrators of what we have decided are crimes should be punished. I don’t mind if you call it the forfeiting of liberties or something else, but I think it is appropriate for a society to say ‘this is how we show that this was wrong.’

        That being the case, what to do with a man who confessed to raping a child? Surely, surely, surely, the answer is ‘arrest him’.

  7. “by a bagle’s gowl”, doesn’t refer to you but is a term refering to a comparatively long distance… ie your article is the best on the subject by a considerable way… bagle meaning beagle, gowl meaning howl… Oh I wish I hadn’t bothered… Don’t you know your Ulster Scots!? Or have you become all Yankified!?

  8. garethihiggins

    aha. i now consider it a compliment, and despite being a bagle’s gowl from ye olde belfast, i retain my half ulster-scots, half munster-celtic heritage even in the land of the free and home of the exceptionally brave.

  9. I enjoyed your post and it is exactly what I would expect given your compassionate desire to cut to the humanity of any situation. I want to raise a couple of issues – not wanting to come across that I only have critical things to say I’d like to reiterate that I am in agreement with you on much of it and am only commenting on the things I disagree with.

    I think the dichotomy you set up between lynch mobs and apologists is inaccurate. If you were to read the blogs and comments on feminist websites like feministing and The F-Word you will find people who, like me, can maturely embrace the pain Polanski had suffered in his early life but are passionately immovable on the need for him to face punishment. This is not “demonizing” as you call it but a desperate cry out for justice to finally be done.

    While you make good comments on the sexist culture that contributes to placing girls in a vulnerable position, I would argue that the biggest threat to all women’s safety today is the terrible record of the justice system in convicting rapists. Unless we see improvement in this area and a massive change in attitude from police, lawyers, judges and jury members, women remain vulnerable to abuse from men who feel they can get away with it – in fact who believe they are not really doing anything wrong. So in a way, you are prioritizing the fault of the culture over the fault of the individual – i would argue that it is through individuals not being held to account that a culture is created. And no matter what fucked up sexual culture both Polanski and his victim were living in when a 13 year old girl says “No, please stop”…over and over again…and you go right ahead and rape her both vaginally and anally you’ve got a hell of a lot to take personal responsibility for.

    most of all I think your comments fail to address the fact that what Polanski did in running away from justice was a disgusting outrage and affront to all women, whatever poetic reflection he may be making on it in Chinatown. I am intrigued by Wanderer’s comment about punishment because I increasingly think that if Polanski had a shred of decency he would have faced up to the punishment that went with his crime instead of first of all trying to wriggle out of it with a plea bargain and then running away when that didn’t work. The action he chose when he got on a plane that day is what has left his victim dealing with the ongoing trauma of media intrusion all these years. Apologists who say it’s cruel to her to be pursuing him now should ask themselves how cruel it was for him to walk away from her pain when she was only a 13 year old child. If Chinatown is about how it’s pointless to stand up to injustice because the powerful will never be held accountable then how fucking dare he make that comment. That in my mind is immoral, if art can ever be called that.

    I think I’m done for now, but I’ll write more I’m sure…

    • garethihiggins

      Hi Kellie – I think your contribution here is important and meaningful. You’re right – the dichotomy I used is possibly misleading; thank you for bringing it up.

      The point about low conviction rates is one of the core issues; it’s deeply disturbing.

      And while this may seem a small or petty point, I should clarify that he made ‘Chinatown’ three years before the rape; and I think in using screenwriter Robert Towne’s bleakest version of an ending he was probably reflecting on his own experience of life to that point.

      I want to emphasise that I think the Polanski legal case should be seen through to its conclusion; but that the legal system must be overhauled to include a more mature reflection on questions of trauma. Not for a second do I wish to suggest that Polanski’s actions matter less than they do. But I really want to talk about the wider issues of trauma, punishment, survival and restorative justice as well as Polanski per se.

  10. thanks for clarifying the Chinatown point. The chronology wasn’t obvious in your original post and I found the idea of it extremely disturbing. Your points on the film make more sense now that I know the order of things.

    I understand your desire to have those conversations. I suppose a few years ago those would have been the conversations I would have prioritised. I’m having other conversations these days, not necessarily incompatible ones but perhaps more urgent ones for the people that I am engaged with.

  11. garethihiggins

    Please feel free to elaborate – I don’t think the conversations are incompatible.

  12. on society: you commented that the girl’s mother may not have left her with polnski if it had not been for the promise of fame. i’m not sure what point you are making. many people leave their children with people they basically don’t know but agree to trust. i do it 5 mornings out of 7. not to mention the fact that most child abuse cases occur within families. as you said yourself, the issues are complex but i believe that this is why every criminal case should be held up against the constructed set up emotional boundaries that we call ‘the law’, regardless of the person’s background or their trauma.

    • garethihiggins

      Leaving your kids in professional childcare subject to child protection legislation and leaving a child alone with a man who wants to photograph her in a jacuzzi are two very different things. Please hear me when I say that nothing that I have written implies that the law should not be accountable and strive for objectivity. Polanski should have his day in court, should face the accusations, and make his case. I am not trying to mitigate anything that he did. I am trying to say that our culture may lack the will to engage with the complexity that we both agree exists.

  13. hmm. for ’emotional boundaries’ please read ’emotionless boundaries’

  14. As a teen living on the streets of Los Angeles, concurrent with the Manson to Chinatown era, I was the victim of rape three separate times.

    One of the persons was a successful surgeon in Santa Monica, who took me to his Malibu home. Another was a television producer – the third, someone from the athletic department at UCLA.

    None of these rapists were ever charged or punished – at least, not by the legal system. I have faith, however, that no one escapes without coming to terms with their need for mercy.

    Had they been of sufficient celebrity, and a victim of notoriety, as Polanski was, to guarantee a favorable personal financial outcome, should that have been a motivator? There is no doubt that entered into the equation in a number of people on all sides involved in the Polanski case. Lots and lots of aftermath opportunistic self-interest, in the Hollywood Babylon style.

    Were I able to make the choice to pursue my anonymous, unfamous rapists via our increasingly dysfunctional legal system, I would not do so.

    In the intervening years and practical experience of my life, to do so would without any doubt be contrary to what I believe real justice entails – and I have seen plenty of what happens when it does and does not. Often I am convinced it is used psychologically by the public more to delude those not caught within it of their own self-righteousness.

    Our justice system isn’t either corrective or restorative – it has come to be characterized mostly, like other areas of our national life, by a destructive belief in revenge, domination and even supposedly redemptive violence. For those intimately involved with it, all too often the motivation is financial self-interest and greed. Add to this the poisonous celebrity culture freakshow prurience of public Los Angeles life, extended out from there as our American gift to the world.

    In some places, even the death penalty is seen as appropriate by some for such offenses. However, my life was not taken, so even under a non-Christian “eye-for-an-eye” legalistic morality, such would be inappropriate as would be the living death equivalent of long or lifetime imprisonment.

    Our legal system does not restore sinners, only offer endless condemnation, even should people be released from their sentences, or even if they have repented and reformed. Our nation, sad to say, is among the most unforgiving of nations, with 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 4% of its population – and this does not even attempt follow God’s model of reconciliation and restoration.

    I would counsel everyone to think what the Amish response to the violence of the murder of their schoolchildren in Pennsylvania in the Fall of 2006 entailed and how its practical qualities of response to evil suffered at the hands of our fellow human beings model what Jesus commanded us, responding with doing good to those who do evil rather than responding in kind and compounding the problem that afflicts us all so severely in this country – and is not working.

    I note that my position is mirrored by Roman Polanski’s victim – who was placed in this position by others, much as I was.

    What should happen if Polanski is brought back to our city of Lost Angels? Roman, in the courtroom, should admit his culpability and ask forgiveness, explain his own torment, his long-ago victim should accept and offer him her forgiveness, they should embrace and the prosecutor, instead of hungering for celebrity and career advancement possibilities, should withdraw all charges as no longer in the public interest.

    As convincing proof for its practicality, this is just what occurred in a meeting between KGB tormentors and unjustly imprisoned dissident victims in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union – reconciliation and mutual tears.

    Miracles based on such uncommon sense can happen – they must happen, or none of us have any hope.

  15. there may be complexity in humanity. there is no complexity in this case. if i drive my car into a brick wall certain things will happen as a consequence of that, regardless of any of the complex reasons i may have driven into the wall. this seems to me like one of the few times when the law can actually act as the brick wall. don’t get me wrong, i am not interested in seeing roman polanski smashed up (my analogy isn’t that literal) and i don’t think i am unwilling to engage with complexity. but this just doesn’t seem that complicated.

    • garethihiggins

      I should have been clearer – I didn’t mean the complexity of what he did – I mean the complexity of how it should be responded to; I genuinely think that you and I agree about this.

  16. garethihiggins

    N M Rod – thank you for your gracious and courageous comment.

  17. I do agree with the 8 or 9 aspects you presented. I just want to add an example, one more piece in the puzzle.The legal system must also try to restore the perpetrator, make him deeply realise what he has done to another human being and make it possible for him to stop acting out. In Sweden and Norway
    there are specific programs for sexual offenders in prison. They need to be protected during the process, some try to commit suicide when they work through both the traumas in their own childhood and the terrible crimes they have done. Very few commit new crimes.