Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

The Troubling Case of Roman Polanski

What I find most problematic about the people who are publicly rushing to condemn filmmaker Roman Polanski – who was arrested last week in Switzerland on an outstanding U.S. warrant dating back 30 years, when Polanski fled the States to avoid sentencing after pleading guilty to having unlawful sex with a minor – is how many of them are writers.

Polanski pleaded guilty to engaging in unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in the hot tub at Jack Nicholson’s California home in 1977. Although he had entered a plea to a reduced charge in the hopes of receiving a lighter sentence, he fled the country because he had reason to believe that the judge in the case, now deceased, wanted to make a name for himself by throwing the book at the filmmaker. He has not entered the States or Britain since.

Now, let’s get this out of the way right up front: unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old is wrong. Polanski, who admitted to this act (although he denies that he knew she was 13 at the time), is criminally, if not morally culpable. Having said that, the overheated rhetoric of Kate Harding’s recent Salon article is somewhat suspect. “Roman Polanski raped a child,” Harding screeches in peals of full-blown righteous indignation. Well, no, he didn’t. Although his victim (and that is the appropriate word to describe her) was underage, she was not a child. Childhood and adolescence are not the same thing.

Polanski has said that he didn’t know that his victim was 13. Although it will likely win me no friends, I’m inclined to believe him. It is doubtless anathema to admit to it, but there are many 13-year-olds wandering the halls of any given city high school who could easily pass for 18 or older. And in terms of sensibility, some young teens are as calculating and as morally unkempt as many adults. Polanski’s victim repeatedly told him to stop his sexual advances; it’s this fact, not the girl’s age, that is most damning to the filmmaker. It is not possible to take the moral high ground when you admit to plying someone with drugs and alcohol then committing acts of unlawful sexual intercourse, regardless of the age of your victim. However, it should be reiterated: Polanski’s victim was not a child.

The foregoing is in no way meant as a defence of the filmmaker’s actions. However, his impulse to flee the country following a trial that may have involved judicial and prosecutorial misconduct seems like the understandably panicked reaction of a man whose experience with the forces of state authority has not been stellar. Polanski’s mother died in a Nazi death camp and his father was a Holocaust survivor. Polanski himself spent much of his childhood in the Krakow ghetto in Poland, a country from which he later emigrated to escape the communist government. His wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family, a crime for which he was initially suspected.

Again, none of this exculpates Polanski’s guilt for the crime of rape. However, when writers rush to condemn the man – in the most overblown and indignant prose imaginable – it appears from where I sit to amount to a failure of one of the artist’s most significant attributes: empathy. Not forgiveness, not acceptance of another’s actions, but empathetic understanding. Polanski’s crime – and all its attendant issues of patriarchy, entitlement, and the like – is clearly a flashpoint for a great deal of emotion. But it is incumbent upon writers especially to take a step back from their emotional reactions to a situation and try to come to grips with the personages involved, in all their muddiness and humanity. Perhaps then, they would be able to see Polanski for what he is: a flawed, scarred, imperfect human being. A man who committed an unquestionably bad act. But the writer’s impulse, rather than jumping on a condemnatory emotional bandwagon, should be an attempt to understand that bad act. If artists abdicate this responsibility, who will be left to take it up?

(From That Shakespearean Rag)