'Forget it, Roman?' Polanski and the Politics of What We Remember

A friend suggested I should comment regarding Roman Polanski's arrest and the attempt to extradite him to the US to face charges stemming from his admitted sex offence against a 13 year old girl in 1977.  I'm reluctant to do so, because the issues are complex and probably better handled in conversation where dialogue partners might arrive at a truth together, so I'd like to invite such a conversation in the comments below. ADDS at 10.50am, October 1st 2009: After a day of reading and attempting to respond to people's comments on this and other blogs, I'm further persuaded of the challenges indicated above.  I'm grateful for the conversation, but eager to emphasise that I don't have any answers here - I am trying to raise some questions that I think need to be discussed.  So, despite the fact that nothing in the original version of this post should have been understood to imply otherwise, let me state explicitly for the record: It is self-evident that Roman Polanski did a terrible thing, which was not merely a breach of the law, but morally wrong, and had the potential to be profoundly damaging to the victim/survivor.  I think the legal proceedings against him should be carried through to their conclusion; he should be held accountable under the law.  But I don't believe that this means that the issue can then be considered resolved and forgotten about.  My original post below indicates some of the other issues that I think need to be discussed in this case.  I am neither an expert on these matters nor do I have a monopoly on understanding them.  I am simply hoping to encourage a wider discussion in the hope that such a discussion will reduce the potential for such awful abuse to happen in the future.

ADDS at 6.35pm, October 2nd:  Just read a helpful summary refutation of the arguments against Polanski's extradition.  I differ from the tone of some of the article, and still don't think that equating the concepts of moral justice, the restoration of a victim/survivor, and accountability with the potential for real rehabilitation for the perpetrator with the application of one country's particular legal system is good enough, but I found much of this article compelling.  Let me reiterate: I think that the legal process should take its course for Polanski, and accountable justice should be served: I have never stated otherwise.  But as I said before, my earlier post was not an attempt at addressing the case comprehensively - how could it be?  It was actually an attempt at talking about other issues surrounding the case; it has been suggested that this was insensitive of me, and if that is so, I apologise.  Talking about the issues in a meaningful way is not easy for anyone; and so I hope that we can continue the conversation in the same spirit of sensitivity to victims and survivors, mutual respect for other commenters and generosity toward each other that I was trying (and clearly not entirely succeeding) to advocate in the post.

Now, to my original post:

It seems to me that BOTH the extremes of 'lynch mob' politics and the ‘oh he’s an artist and European so it doesn’t really matter’ tendency are missing part of the story.  Some of the calls for Polanski’s punishment dabble in self-righteousness; but the attempts to mitigate his behaviour are ridiculous (witness the utterly absurd article published in ‘The Huffington Post’ that called for a boycott of Swiss chocolate, and asserted that his actions didn’t matter because the age of consent in California was 14 then, and is probably 13 now [this is not true, by the way]).

One hopes that the fresh interest in the story can allow space for serious discussion about the issues at the heart of the case, and not just whether or not one man should or should not be punished for his particular crime.  Some of these issues, I believe, include the following:

1: The sexualisation of children in our culture; the fact that the 13 year old victim in the case was being photographed for a magazine spread is surely part of the problem.  The groundwork for what happened at Jack Nicolson’s house in 1977 was laid by an entire subculture of the industrial-entertainment complex.  Polanksi is not the only guilty party; nor is the girl the only victim.

2: The role that trauma plays in the behaviour of people who abuse others.  No one would doubt that the loss of family members in the Holocaust, vagrancy and homelessness as a young man, and - obviously - the horrific murder of his wife must have taken an unimaginable toll on Roman Polanski.  Indeed, I have two friends who have spent time independently with Polanski, and both of them say that - to them - his scars are right on the surface.  One of them made one of the most tragic comments I think I’ve ever heard about another human being when he said, ‘Polanski is the only person I’ve ever met who has no sense of the transcendent.’  The man may already be living in a kind of personal hell.

Does this justify behaviour that appears to suggest a lack of conscience, or a disregard for the experience of the 13 year old girl?  Of course not.  Does it help to explain it?  Possibly; maybe even probably.  Does demonising him help to prevent other people behaving the way that he did?  Probably not - we know that pathological behaviour is not necessarily restrained by the threat of punishment; we also know that one method that does reduce the enaction of pathology includes working with the perpetrator in a therapeutic context.  It should go without saying that therapy that is contingent on dehumanising the person responsible does not exactly work.

In short, we have to find a way to talk about trauma that takes its effects seriously without giving people an easy pass for behaviour that causes suffering to others.  Our culture sorely fails at dealing with trauma – turning it either into an excuse for vengeance, or a Victorian-circus style exhibition of other people’s sorrow.  We are more than happy to invest time and money in tabloid naming-and-shaming, or in watching 'Dr Phil' or Jerry Springer, but many of us have hardly even begun to wonder what it would take to create spaces in our communities for the re-humanisation of everyday life, the graciousness and patience that healing from trauma requires, and a decisive choice in favour of seeing each other as vulnerable vessels, rather than robots in the supply-and-demand chain of consumer culture.  All these things might actually reduce the experience and effects of trauma so many of us seek to work through.

3: The fact that celebrity can sometimes get you out of jail free, in both a figurative and literal sense.    Another 76 year old man guilty of the same offence who didn’t happen to be an Oscar-winning director would very likely be treated differently.   At the same time, we might guess that the victim's mother never would have left her alone with this man if he had not been offering her fame on a silver platter.  The whole story smacks of a screwed-up value system that pervades when money and celebrity magnetise our time and trump our investment in the common good.

4: The fact that Roman Polanksi has made some astonishing films, that do, in fact, offer some insight into female experience, and are sharply critical of abuse by men.  'Chinatown' is, for me, a film I would find it hard to imagine my own love of cinema without.  I don't think he would have made such films had he not experienced the suffering we already know about.  And I don't think I would feel conflicted about how much I admire the film if he had not abused the girl.

5: The relationship between the US and Europe.  The French Culture Minister said on Sunday that 'there is an America that we love, and an America that scares us'.  I understand what he means – and I live here – but, despite the potentially mixed motives of the Los Angeles DA's office, I wish he had used a different occasion to make these remarks; implying as they do that demanding accountability for sexual offences committed in the US is an illegitimate cause, and the exclusive preserve of 'scary' people.  Something about politicians refusing to provide decent healthcare for the poor, or public commentators giving oxygen to the claim that a President who wishes to do so is the Antichrist might have been a better context for these remarks.  That's the America that scares me.

6: The obsession with sexuality over all other moral questions in popular culture.  Last week, another iconic figure of the 1970s was accused of imposing incest on his daughter; for some reason, I haven't seen much sympathy for the daughter in the media - in fact, some have used this to make the daughter look bad.  This is just one example of our culture's apparent paralysis when it comes to speaking maturely and compassionately about sexuality.  To return to the question of how trauma affects a victim/survivor’s behaviour, it would be easy to suggest that the events of the past decade in the US American culture wars has left my adopted nation vulnerably unsure of where it stands; it would also be easy to suggest that people who have been deeply wounded often project their woundedness onto an external enemy, or displace anger from one legitimate target to another.

7: The chances of recidivism: No one has made any suggestion that Polanski is going to behave this way again.  And, no matter what the gravity of his actions is, he was under the impression that he had made a plea bargain that would avoid him serving more time in jail.  Whether or not that raises questions about how the US criminal justice system operates is certainly worth discussing.

8: The response of the victim/survivor in the case.  I have not named her here, because she has repeatedly said that the publicity surrounding the case is harmful to her and her family.  I want to show some respect to someone who, it appears, has offered some of the few sensible, measured, and gracious words in the whole matter.  She has said that while what he did to her was a violation, and wrong, and deeply traumatising, that she would prefer the events to be forgotten, and for him to be allowed to get on with his life, presumably at least in part so that she can get on with hers.

But ultimately what I want to say is best summed up by a couple of memories, one from a movie, one from real life.

'Chinatown' famously ends with an injunction to the central character to 'forget it', to ignore injustice because injustice is the way of the world, or at least of this particular world. In this case, he's being told that there is something about LA; that the powerful will get away with murder; and that if you try to stop them, it will be more trouble than it's worth.  The supreme irony of the Polanski case may turn out to be the fact that the very same District Attorney's office fictionalised as impotent in his greatest movie turns out to be the one trying to send him to prison in the last years of his life.

But 'Forget it' is neither the first, nor the most important 'forget' in Roman Polanski's life.  He was a child in the crucible of the Holocaust, and at the other end of his life, he made a film about it; this film, 'The Pianist' is part of the cultural idiom enshrined by the deepest shibboleth arising from the Nazi genocide: 'Never forget'.

Roman Polanksi finds himself between two 'forgets' - both of which tell a truth about human experience: on the one hand, that justice, as understood by the legal system, is a game, a bargaining process in which people pawn morality in exchange for an outcome that satisfies the scapegoat mechanism, but may not serve any higher notion of accountability, reconciliation, or personal/societal change.  On the other, the shadow of the murder of his mother and his wife is long; even if he wants to forget it, our culture won't let him, which is exactly the same position that the woman he raped is in.  There has to be something better than this for everyone concerned.

I recall the English writer Jo Ind speaking at Greenbelt a few years ago, saying (and I’m paraphrasing) that sexuality is difficult terrain at the best of times.  Most of us have been wounded at some point by our experiences of sexuality; many of us feel shame for how we have sometimes treated others.  The story of Roman Polanksi and the woman he raped is not just painful for the victim and the person responsible; it may trigger all kinds of traumatic responses in people reading or hearing about it.  Jo Ind suggested that if sexuality is to become a site of fulfillment, wonder and joy, rather than shame, sorrow, and unfulfilled potential, it must always be treated with tenderness, not used as a weapon, nor as a way of reducing a person to the violations they've committed, or that have been done to them.  I’d want to echo this, and make a simple plea that, if we want to respect the victim/survivor in this case, if we believe that the criminal justice system should help offenders change their behaviour and not just make them suffer for what they’ve done, and if we want to live lives characterized by compassion and not the kind of self-righteousness that only turns inward and makes us hate ourselves, then we should turn the volume down and try to invest our conversation with a bit of humanity.

And then - finally - let's have an intelligent public conversation about trauma, pathology, abuse, and survival.

For me, for a start, that would mean no petitions to stop Polanksi's extradition; and no lynch mobs lining up to destroy him for what he did; getting serious about a restorative justice process that seeks to respect the suffering of victims/survivors and hold people accountable for their actions, while taking defendants' trauma into account, no matter how rich or creative they are; and figuring out that vengeance doesn't serve to help victims/survivors heal any more than trying to pretend their pain isn't real.

And that's where I need to pause, and acknowledge that I am not an expert on any of this; and I'd love to have a conversation with you in the comments below in the hope that we can come up with some wisdom together.