Women's Rights

Victoria Coren Mitchell on Polanski and Geimer

I’m all for nuance, but Victoria Coren Mitchell’s grey scale sensitivities go too far here, in an article about Roman Polanski and the 13 year old girl he raped.  It starts very very strangely:

Samantha Geimer, the girl in the Roman Polanski rape case, has published what might be the most important and valuable book of the century so far.

When Coren Mitchell describes the actual rape she acknowledges that this was a horrific crime, and reports her feelings of rage at reading about such brutality.  However even when describing the rape there is some softening or reticence about the way she does so:

A few weeks later, Polanski took Samantha to Jack Nicholson’s house, gave her several glasses of champagne and part of a sleeping pill, then had sex with her. It was statutory rape. Geimer says: “It was rape in every sense of the word. I said no.”

The way in which he had sex with her is indelicate to include, but important. Geimer’s book expresses it with literate sarcasm: referring to a sympathetic psychological report after Polanski’s arrest, which cited his “solicitude concerning pregnancy” as a mitigating factor, Geimer says this was “an interesting new euphemism for sodomy”.

There was no need to note that this was statutory rape, a phrase which could be taken to imply apparent consent on Geimer’s part.  And she twice uses the phrase ‘had sex with’, even though she quotes Geimer quite clearly saying ‘it was rape’.

The part about Polanski’s own terrible early experiences is perhaps not the most egregious part of the article (though, as others have said, these things are no excuse for rape). This was awful though:

“A second complicating factor is that Polanski’s work is filled with beauty and humanity.”

It’s not remotely complicating.  One may perhaps compartmentalise one’s appreciation for Polanski’s work from one’s feelings about him personally, but his films do not affect or mitigate, in any way, his responsibility for his actions. (I was very much on the U.S. Army officer’s side in Taking Sides, Szabó’s excellent film about Furtwängler.)

It is possible that the brief passages she quotes here from Geimer read differently in their original context  but taken in isolation they are worrying:

She says that the police investigation, hospital exams and reporting of the case were more traumatic than the attack itself. She says: “I did something wrong, I was stupid… To pose topless, and to drink and to take the [sleeping] pill.”

It is so easy and tempting to knock this into a pigeonhole: the misguided self-blame and denial of the victim. But this woman is too smart and articulate for us comfortably to assume we know better. She puts these complicated thoughts out there, alongside her anger, not because she’s too damaged to think clearly but because she can’t bear the world’s oversimplification.

When a therapist on the Oprah Winfrey show explained that Geimer was suffering from “victim’s guilt”, she said this was “patronising”; who would dare patronise her further by saying that it wasn’t?

You can’t really argue with her statement that the official investigation of the rape was more traumatic than the attack itself – if that’s her subjective perception. But certainly when taken out of context and juxtaposed with ‘I did something wrong, I was stupid’ the effect is to gloss over the actual rape and suggest that a child victim of rape – that any victim of rape – should take at least some of the responsibility for what was done to her.  I think it is actually more patronising to treat Geimer as someone whose views, including her interpretation of her own experiences, cannot be contested than it is to take issue with her words, and the effects they may have. Here is a good response from Ending Victimisation and Abuse.

Update Someone commenting at the Guardian has made a very interesting point – that Geimer’s ‘I was wrong’ quote should be seen as her criticism of the way the investigation was handled, a kind of ventriloquisation of the way she was judged by others.  That reading is perhaps hinted at in the words leading up to the quote in Victoria CM’s piece. However the way she goes on to characterise Geimer’s position as ‘self-blame’ doesn’t help the reader see that Geimer is (perhaps) analysing the way her treatment made her internalise a sense that she was to blame, rather than asserting that what happened was remotely her fault.