As I’ve previously observed, a lot of people on both the political left and right neglected to consider some pretty obvious aspects and details of the liaison between Roman Polanski and a certain young lady 32 years ago and simply accepted her Grand Jury testimony uncritically as a perfectly factual and objective version of events.
That acceptance of a less than complete, biased and self-interested account, combined with a liberal application of emotionalism and indignation, easily turned a tawdry Hollywood casting couch trist into a horrid sex crime with a child victim. Left or right, a surprisingly large number of people seem to find the editorial equivalent of participation in a lynch mob to be a gratifying form of self expression.
The probation officer all those years ago was in possession of a more accurate and complete understanding of the case, and his sentencing report, quoted by the New York Times, arrives at very different conclusions.
The report, submitted by acting probation officer Kenneth F. Fare, and signed by a deputy, Irwin Gold, recommended that Mr. Polanski receive probation without jail time for his conviction on one count of having unlawful sex with a minor. In a summary paragraph, the report said: “Jail is not being recommended at the present time. The present offense appears to have been spontaneous and an exercise of poor judgement by the defendant.” It went on to note that the victim and her parent, as well as an examining psychiatrist, recommended against jail, while a second psychiatrist described the offense as neither “aggressive nor forceful.”
Despite Ms. Geimer’s age and her testimony that she had objected to having sex with Mr. Polanski and asked to leave Jack Nicholson’s house, where the incident occurred, the probation report concluded, “There was some indication that circumstances were provocative, that there was some permissiveness by the mother,” and “that the victim was not only physically mature, but willing.”
As we see, the authorities at the time, took the young lady’s testimony of her own reluctance with a very large grain of salt, doubtless concluding that both the circumstances of the encounter and many of her own actions signaled explicitly affirmative intentions.
The most interesting aspect of all of this is the fact that Roman Polanski’s flight thirty one years ago was precipitated by precisely the same sort of journalistic feeding frenzy which has been replayed all over again recently. A firestorm of sensationalized accounts of Polanski’s misdeed alarmed the publicity-conscious judge who intended to set aside the conventional processes of justice and overrule a plea bargain already agreed to by both the prosecution and the defense.
Polanski did not escape justice. He had already served a 42 day term of imprisonment, which was supposed to constitute his actual sentence. Polanski also settled privately with the young lady, paying her a sum of money of a specific amount never publicly disclosed. What Polanski escaped was injustice.
He escaped a breach of the normal, impartial, and objective processes of justice, which were in the process of collapsing due to official cowardice and unwillingness to resist a wave of public indignation, mischievously created by irresponsible journalism.
Long-standing cultural restraints on sexual expression and activity have been dwindling away in America for all of the last century, but one powerful prohibition not only survives, but continues to be able to turn ordinary Americans into something very much resembling belligerent Muslims bent on wiping out any stain upon the chastity of their females in blood: the issue of age.
Underage sex is still a kind of priapic third rail. And like Nabokov’s Humbert, Roman Polanski proved to be another sophisticated European gentilhomme d’un certain âge susceptible to the charms of the knowing nymphette. His sin happens to be relatively unique in being capable of getting Americans in general worked up into a lather of righteous indignation just as effectively in 2009 as in 1978 or in 1955 (the publication date of Lolita).
In exactly the same way that the idea of black sexual aggression directed at white women was once upon a time so horrifying an idea to the general community in certain American states that any close resemblance to that supreme phobia could suffice to set into motion the processes of storytelling which would fit the details of the actual case into the terrible archetype, frequently with lethal results, so too today is the idea of adult sexual aggression directed at children a compelling, and potentially dangerous, archetype.
Let’s try another literary trope. Picture Roman Polanski, not as Humbert Humbert, but as Tom Robinson, the black defendant in To Kill a Mockingbird. Just like the Polanski case, To Kill a Mockingbird features a public frenzy of indignation at a defendant accused of being a sexual aggressor toward an innocent victim, who is supposed to be protected from the advances of anyone like the defendant by powerful social taboos. Just as in the Harper Lee novel, adjudication of the Roman Polanski case revolved around issues of just who was the actual initiator and whether female consent had been given. Fearful archetypes and framing narratives can work in exactly the same in either case, can’t they?