Roman Polanski and the chain of abuse


Even in the virtual sphere, a lynch mob can be relentlessly cruel and unforgiving. I discovered this when I wrote an article in 2009 examining the suffering of Roman Polanski.

At the time he was under house arrest in Switzerland awaiting the response of the Swiss authorities to a request for extradition to the US. He was wanted on a rape charge to which he had pled guilty 30 years ago.

Despite declaring that I in no way excused the act of sex of a 40-year-old man with a 13-year-old girl, I received what to me was shockingly vicious commentary from the defenders of justice. Their hatred of a rapist was so immense, that they wished rape upon me, so that I might know how bad it was.

Putting aside the moral inconsistency of such a curse, the truth is that I was already 'in the club'. My first sexual experience had been at the age of 16 and is what I would now recognise to be rape.

At that point in my emotional development I was confused. The man was 36 and a friend of my older sister's then boyfriend, who happened to be a psychiatrist.

When in my confusion I explained to them what had happened, I was admonished for my folly and given an impromptu session with 'the psychiatrist'. I was in my youth and an extraverted joker, and he pronounced me unharmed and well adjusted. It has remained with me as a vile memory that tainted my sexual identity.

Despite this I was deeply moved at the powerful words and images in the documentary, Roman Polanski : A Memoir. Perhaps it touched me because many of my Polish Jewish relatives suffered the fate portrayed in this living testimony of the life of a young boy in Nazi occupied Poland. Now almost 80, Polanski choked back tears as he recalled his father telling him at age eight or nine, 'They took Mother'.

I tweeted a brief emotional comment about the movie and received angry tweets about making excuses for a rapist. I felt violated, but it put me in mind of a paradox: that defence of justice and rage against injustice does not necessarily equate with empathy and compassion, even for the victim. Perhaps, especially not for the victim.

My life was never in danger from 'my rapist' but my heart was. It tore at an already vulnerable sense of self-worth and may have been part of later depression.

Again I must emphasise I do not excuse the act of rape, especially of a child. But I am grateful that I was not part of a court process or media frenzy. The victim in the Polanski case states in the memoir that she suffered more from the court and media focus than she had from the actions of Polanski. When the case was again in the spotlight 30 years later, in 2009, the media hounded her and her family, as they did Polanski's family.

The outpourings of rage and refusal to recognise that Polanski was himself, massively, a child victim — of the juggernaut of the Nazi war machine — reflect the inability of many to grasp morality in any but an all or nothing way. This conceptualises a person as either right or wrong, all bad or all good.

But cannot the perpetrator also be the one who has been violated? Are some instances of a pernicious act more heinous than others? Is there no possibility of remorse and redemption? If this is denied then only revenge and punishment remain: an eye for an eye, and no one can be offered forgiveness.

Polanski makes a plea to be seen as more than the committer of this one criminal act. We could instead be astonished at his courage. Having at last achieved happiness at 30, he suffered further massive trauma when his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn son Paul Richard Polanski were murdered by Charles Manson followers. It is extraordinary that he found the courage to go on.

The world is richer for Polanski's brilliant art. The film for which he wishes to be remembered, The Pianist, conveys both the horror of the Holocaust, and a way to go on in the face of unspeakable destruction. The protagonist's emergence from amid the ruins of bombed-out Warsaw is a picture of optimism in survival.

This extraordinary resilience is the essence of Polanski's life and work. We could find inspiration in this. 

Lyn Bender headshotLyn Bender is a Melbourne psychologist. Her Twitter handle is @Lynestel 

Topic tags: Lyn Bender, Roman Polanski, rape, sexual abuse



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Existing comments

Polanski is a brilliant film-maker and I have long admired his films. His personal life, as Lyn observes, has been beset by tragedy. But Lyn's sentence "Polanski makes a plea to be seen as more than the committer of this one criminal act" causes me to reflect that perhaps "this one criminal act" still requires atonement - for his own sake as well as the victim. Perpetrators of rape should never be 'excused' for their crime. Many people experience heart-wrenching tragedy in their lives and don't violate another person in the way Polanski did. I hope he has experienced remorse and redemption.

Pam | 11 March 2013  

Thank you for speaking up . We are asked to forgive 70x7 IE . Hold not back ; forgive as you know you also need forgiveness .

Michael Ansted | 12 March 2013  

You make a valid point Lyn; in the end there must be forgiveness.

John Whitehead | 12 March 2013  

A very moving appeal to sensitive moral discrimination. A painfully complex situation handled with insight and generosity.

Joe Castley | 12 March 2013  

We're all worth more than the worst thing we've ever done. Lyn Bender says several times that she's not excusing Polanski's abuse of a child - she shouldn't have to keep saying it. I've been amazed, following online the unveiling of so much horror in the clerical abuse story, that so many people seem to be enjoying it! There's a sort of angry joy in condemnation and not by the victims. There's even a resistance to the voices of mercy and charity, even when they are the voices of victims. What's happening to us?

Joan Seymour | 12 March 2013  

Thank you for this voice of reason, this voice of compassion, this voice of humanity - voices too rarely heard. Lyn, do not be distressed at the abuse of the illiterate, the ignorant - they know not of what they speak.

John Nicholson | 12 March 2013  

Is it just me, or is anyone else wondering if the voices for forgiveness would be so loud if Polanski were a Catholic priest?

MJ | 12 March 2013  

Comment on MJ's comment. Polanski's earlier life appears to have been more difficult than most catholic priests. The expectations of a catholic priest demands a greater paragon of virture and example setting. Although the crime itself may be difficult enough to forgive, I think a 'cover up' is even more difficult. I personally would find it more difficult to forgive a catholic priest...but in the end once the just punishment is dished out and if there is still no forgiveness then what is left!

John Whitehead | 12 March 2013  

Lyn, you have pointed out the complexity of this situation very well, and others make the point about ultimate forgiveness. I can't argue with that. But two questions came to mind as I read your article: how many Holocaust survivors have committed acts like this? and Does the end (brilliant films etc) justify the means?

ErikH | 12 March 2013  

@John Whitehead: "but in the end once the just punishment has been dished out and if there is still no forgiveness what is left?" In Polanski's case, even though he pled guilty, he then fled. So any custodial sentence that may have been ultimately decided upon was not enacted. Polanski's act of fleeing has been the main reason, I think, that this case is still talked about 30 years later.

Pam | 13 March 2013  

Pam, true this is a tricky one, and you are right in saying that this is why it is still being talked about 30yrs later, and that we should not be fooled by excuses - after all we do have a moral choice; right down to the wire. Never the less in a documentary for A&E television Networks entitled Roman Polanski (2000), Samatha Gailey stated 'he had sex with me. He wasn't hurting me and he wasn't forcefull or mean or anything like that, and really I just tried to let him get it over with. She also claimed that the event had been blown "all out of proportion" I will also add that he paid her a large out of court settlement. I think Lyn Bender's theme is well maintained, and I personally believe that Samantha Gailey has probably forgiven him anyway.

John Whitehead | 13 March 2013  

I must say that I find Lyn's contribution a morally confused one. I agree that forgiveness and redemption are incredibly important, but they in and of themselves do not render redundant the need for both moral and legal accountability. This is the standard demanded of clergy and ordinary community members charged with the sexual abuse of children, and it is incongruous that celebrity and undoubted artistic contribution somehow places an individual like Polanski in a different moral category. How would we feel and respond if it were one of our children, or more to the point, how would that child subsequently feel about our response and justifications?

Tom | 13 March 2013  

During an interview with Larry King, Samantha Geimer said "What I want people to know is that they don't understand what happened" - Polanski seems to be the person she is least critical of in the whole saga . I think it is important to hear her perspective and  before making judgements on this case. She says that abuse of court process by publicity seeking judges and public officials did way more damage to her and her family than anything Roman Polanski had ever done.

Gyan | 15 March 2013  

Rapist defend rapist ....or you can use the term sexual abusers. shouldn't he be in prison? should they let rapists who are currently serving time go? Why not ? he is out? What about the victim? 13?

Mark | 30 March 2013  

Ethnic loyalty is greater than moral universalism. The Tribe is loathe to condemn one of its own.

Phil | 28 June 2015  

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