Monday, September 28, 2009

Poor little child rapist: the trials and tribulations of Roman Polanski

‘Government ministers, movie directors, writers and intellectuals have expressed shock and outrage after the detention of Oscar winning director Roman Polanski in Switzerland on three-decade-old child sex charges,’ begins an AFP article run by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Herald Sun.

Three-decade-old charges? How dare they! Just because he raped a child doesn’t mean he should be persecuted for it, should he? I mean, it’s yesterday’s news. The victim (or according to some reports, ‘victim’ - note the quotation marks) has moved on with her life, so why shouldn’t we? And he’s an Oscar winning director – isn’t that what’s really important here, not some past misbehaviour back in the hedonistic free love 1970s?

Of course, the official charge is statutory rape – that he unlawfully had sex with a 13-year-old aspiring actress in Jack Nicholson’s Mullholland Canyon mansion. What happened, according to the girl’s 1977 grand jury testimony, is that he took topless photos of her, ostensibly for French Vogue, followed by naked photos in a hot tub. He then stripped off and followed her into the hot tub. ‘That’s when I realised something was wrong,’ she later said. When she got out, inventing an asthma attack and asking to go home, he followed her into the bathroom, where she was wrapped in a towel, lured her into the master bedroom (where she told him she didn’t want to go), performed oral sex on her (while she repeatedly asked him to stop and asked to go home), had vaginal sex with her (while she asked him to stop and asked to go home), then anally raped her (while she – that’s right – asked him to stop and asked to go home). When asked why she followed him into the bedroom, why she went with him, why she didn’t call for help or more forcefully resist, she said ‘Because I was afraid of him’.

He was a 43-year-old world famous film director who was guest editing French Vogue. He’d shot some of the most celebrated films of the 1970s – Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown – and had taken her to the mansion of the star of one of those films. As she pointed out in her testimony, he had the car and was her only way of getting back home. He had plied her with alcohol and Quaaludes. (She was drinking champagne during the photo shoot.) She was 13 years old. The gap in this power relationship was an unbridgeable chasm.

In court, where he was charged with rape, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of statutory rape in order to save himself jail time. When it seemed that the judge might not honour the deal, he decided not to come home from Europe, thus becoming a fugitive from justice and a citizen of France, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.

French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterand has called Polanski’s arrest “absolutely horrifying” and calls the case “an old story which doesn’t really make any sense”. British writer Robert Harris, who is collaborating with Polanski on a film version of his thriller The Ghost, says “I'm amazed this should happen now, and I cannot begin to fathom what reason lies behind it.”

Well, the answer may partly lie in fresh appeals by Polanski’s lawyers to have his original case overturned, based on evidence from the 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired that the original judge improperly colluded with prosecutors. In May, a Los Angeles judge refused his bid to have the charges dismissed, after he failed to appear in court. Hmmm ... perhaps he might have prompted the renewed focus on his long-outstanding arrest himself?

Reviewing the documentary for in February this year, Bill Wyman made an excellent point: “The issue here isn't Polanski being left alone; he's the one trying to get his case dismissed. The movie tries to drum up sympathy for Polanski by playing up the media firestorm he was at the center of; but that's Polanski's fault, too. (Before they rape children, celebrities should consider how the media attention sure to result will have adverse consequences for their victims, as well as themselves.)”

Which brings us back to the victim and her much-trumpeted wish for Polanski’s case to be dismissed – for the judicial system to forgive him as she has. I understand her wish, which is about her desire to avoid the publicity that has long followed her (and destroyed the dream of being an actress that had led her to the disastrous photo shoot in the first place). In a written statement to the court this January, she said: “Every time this case is brought to the attention of the Court, great focus is made of me, my family, my mother and others. That attention is not pleasant to experience and is not worth maintaining over some irrelevant legal nicety, the continuation of the case.” In other words, her main reason for wanting the case dismissed is so that she can move on with her life – not, as some media reports seem to suggest, because it wasn’t such a big deal, or he didn’t do the wrong thing.

Geimer told CNN’s Larry King in 2003 that ‘I tried to take a girlfriend along because I was feeling uncomfortable. But he kind of at the last minute asked her not to go. So actually when I left, my mom didn't realize I was going alone.’ After the rape, she went straight to the car, and was crying by the time he joined her there. She says, ‘So he asked that, you know, you shouldn't tell your mom. We should keep this secret.’ A week before the King appearance, she authored an LA Times opinion piece in response to all the journalists calling asking her if she thought Polanski should get an Oscar (her answer: judge it on his film, not on what he did to me). She summed up the experience: ‘It was not consensual sex by any means. I said no, repeatedly, but he wouldn't take no for an answer. I was alone and I didn't know what to do. It was scary and, looking back, very creepy.’

Her attorney explained the decision-making process behind his plea-bargaining, allowing Polanski to plead guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sex with a minor and commute the more serious charge of rape, to Larry King. ‘This was - this courthouse, with cross examination about these sort of delicate events was not the place for a recovering young girl ... My job, I thought, was to try to keep her out of the courtroom, try to keep her to getting back to her life.’

Much has been made of Polanski’s tragic past – his childhood as a Holocaust survivor, the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by Charles Manson. This is juxtaposed with the achievements of his career as a director – Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, his Oscar for The Pianist – to paint a portrait of a tragic, tortured genius. ‘This is somebody who could not be a rapist!’ exclaimed one or his friends and supports in the 2008 documentary. He sure sounds like one. And neither his tragic past nor his artistic achievements excuse his behaviour.

Whether Polanski should be brought to trial when the victim would prefer the case dismissed is a valid – and thorny – issue for debate. Why should she be made to suffer more than she already has? But to suggest he deserves a presidential pardon from Barack Obama, as Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski plans to request, ‘for his services to Polish culture’, is not just ridiculous, but deeply insulting – to the victim, to all victims of rape, and to the basic tenets of our culture. Have we gone so far as to suggest that celebrity and high achievement are more important than the most basic laws of behaviour that govern our society? And let’s not fool ourselves that we’re debating the issue of sex with a minor – it’s plainly obvious from the victim’s testimony that we’re dealing with rape.

In the final analysis, I can’t help but think that the legal process should be followed – that Polanski should return to the US to face trial. It’s very likely that his sentence will be commuted to time served (he was in jail for 45 days for psychiatric assessment back in 1977), or serve an extra term to bring it to 90 days, as was negotiated in his initial plea bargain. (A plea that the judge – who is now dead - had threatened to overturn, causing his flight.) Not that that’s the point.

I think he should be tried as would anyone facing such a charge because a clear message needs to be sent that power and privilege are not a force field that allows those who possess it to behave with impunity. Powerful men need to know that it’s not okay for them to sexually abuse or intimidate women – particularly underage girls, who are even more vulnerable to abuse – because of their positions. Letting Polanski go or ignoring the international warrant for his arrest sends the opposite message – that there’s one rule for ordinary people, and another for the elite. And that’s a dangerous message.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Anxiety and (self) R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

The crickets chirping in the emptiness over here at Jabberwocky has been the flipside of an incredibly busy life lately. Deadlines piling up – and, mortifyingly, sometimes shooting past. New projects taking up too much space in my head, let alone hours in the day. Too many nights sleeping on the couch – because I can’t turn down the volume on my brain enough to allow sleep in bed, but I can trick my body into dozing off if it thinks it should be awake.

I’ve had some wins in the work sphere, which is great. But every win seems to make me more anxious about the next task or goal, the potential for failure more loaded. Which makes it harder to concentrate on that task. Which makes it less likely I’ll complete it well. And I keep taking on too much work because I’m afraid to say no, afraid to miss out. Worse, I’ve been chasing work when I should be planning a rest, because I need to have done it. Because I need the adrenaline rush of a 'yes'. Each commission is another cotton-bud balm on my anxiety.

And the less I sleep, the harder it is to think and work efficiently; thus the more frantically my brain whirs through its to-do list at night. Depriving me of sleep. Making me more anxious.

Yes, perversity rules.

Over-concentration on every detail is obliterating the big picture. The pinpricks of every task and every associated worry dance before my eyes and merge into a gauze of anxiety, blocking my internal access to the machinery of analysis and action. An afternoon is wasted fixating on an imagined slight. An evening passes with a tape of a recent social occasion running in the background of my brain, scanning for slip-ups. I am poised to take offence, my skin dangerously thin, nerves pulsing too close to the surface.

I need to press control-alt-delete. I need to reboot. I can’t.

I reached for a self-help book this morning. We all have our own version of self-help, I guess – the Bible, the Koran, Oprah Winfrey, psychotherapy. Different horses for different courses.

Something about my manic vulnerability today reminded me of an essay in Joan Didion’s Slouching to Bethlehem, ‘On Self Respect’. It provided the right kind of salve for me – a mixture of comfort and admonition, understanding and rebuke. The symptoms she described seemed to fit, so perhaps the definition did, too?

She writes:

To do without self-respect ... is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that deals one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, the Phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commissions and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice, or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

So, I thought, re-reading it. There’s my symptoms, pretty much. Or some of them. Maybe that’s my problem; maybe I should snap out of it, like Joan Didion would. Do what I can do, accept my failings and my achievements equally as my due, and move on from both. Rely on my own opinion instead of worrying over others’. Let my vision of myself be based on what I know I'm capable of, rather than how I'm performing in the outside world.

People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things ... In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of mortal nerve; they display what was once called character ... Character, the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.

So I turned off all the internet-based social networking I was mechanically, joylessly surfing, put on a CD, cooked myself breakfast, then sat down to do some serious work. I thought about everything Joan Didion has achieved and how much more I could achieve if I was disciplined and focused and self-contained and able to block out the outside world. I did a very reasonable and thoughtful few hundred words before the anxiety kicked back in. And then I fled back to Didion's words for comfort, followed by writing this, in an effort to purge my anxiety by putting it on paper (or on screen).

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notion of us.

... It is the phenomenon sometimes called 'alienation from self'. In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

I’m going back to work now; internet off. Really. I believe in my ability, if not to immediately move on, at least to lock my neuroses away for an afternoon - and an evening - and get on with life, meeting it and my deadlines head-on.