December 2013

Danielle Sherrod


The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski by Samantha Geimer

There’s a common link in almost every story told about rape: the destruction that comes afterwards. In her memoir, Denial, author Jessica Stern, writes:

When authorities refuse to believe the victim, when bystanders refute what they cannot bear to know, they rob the victim of normal existence on earth. Bystander and victim collude in denial or forgetting, and in doing so, repeat abuse. Life for the victim now begins anew. In this new world, the victim can no longer trust the evidence of her senses. Something appears to have happened, but what… The victim will begin to wonder: What did I do? But the sensation of shame is shameful itself, so we disassociate that too.

Her recount of being sexually assaulted by a serial rapist at age fifteen is frightening, but even more disarming is the denial that everyone around her seems to envelop themselves in. Surely that man couldn’t have been a rapist. Surely the claims weren’t true. Surely it was a set up. Stern is exposed to discount after discount, despite her sitting as testimonial evidence, directly in front of them. It’s a method of emotional hostage taking, one that causes Stern to wonder if it was ever worthwhile to even bring it up in the first place. That reaction is all too familiar. We see it blatantly in Steubenville, and we see it casually in Robin Thicke. It seems that most people can agree that rape is a terrible thing. But they can’t seem to agree on the actuality of it.

So brings us to The Girl: A Life In The Shadow Of Roman Polanski, Samantha Geimer’s testimony on being raped by acclaimed director Roman Polanski, and more so, how it would define nearly everything in her life that came after. A recap. Samantha Geimer was a thirteen-year-old. Roman Polanski wanted to take pictures of her. Samantha’s mother said okay. Polanski took pictures. Polanski gave the thirteen-year-old champagne and Quaaludes and sodomized her in Jack Nicholson’s home. Geimer’s family pressed charges. Polanski fled the country. The media had a field day. Geimer fought desperately to protect her privacy. Geimer watched as everyone and their mother gave their opinion on the Polanski case. Geimer watched over and over as she was cast back to the role of “The Girl,” while the general public played theoretical field hockey with what kind of victim, or “said victim” she really was.

Which brings up the question, what is a “good victim”? It certainly is a question that Geimer says she inherently struggles with. It’s one thing to have people consistently questioning whether or not you have been violated, it’s quite another to have them question whether you are deserving of any sort of justice, based on your reputation as a victim. “Almost immediately from the start of this case, I felt the pressure to be damaged,” says Geimer. “But I refused to be damaged enough to be a 'good victim'." Geimer knows a truth that almost all who have been sexually assaulted or rape know: Unless you are the purest of the pure, chances are, something about you will be found to be “not a good victim.” Something about you that really wanted it. Something that deserved it. It’s a menacing myth, and one that completely wipes away complexity when sexual violence comes crashing into lived experience. Geimer writes, “If I had to choose between relieving the rape of the grand jury testimony, I would choose the rape.”

It’s a provocative statement, one that is certainly not going to not upset someone. But Geimer has a point in what she is saying, regarding the experience of what rape survivors will call the “rape after the rape,” i.e., the trial of public opinion. Discussions about rape tend to have one of two roles that one who has had such violence done to them: Victim or Liar. Both are othered, almost always scapegoated, and often serve as a totem for our society to project the worst of their fears and bias. Just look up any of the conservative viewpoints from those involved in our most recent election, and you will find a collection of quotes on rape that should be read out loud, just to surprise yourself with how it sounds passing from your own lips. There’s every justification, every excuse permissible, all with a collective echo supporting them. There’s even a Days without a GOP rape mention site that serves to jog the memory if needed be (as of writing this piece, we are at 58). Todd Akin’s famous “legitimate rape” call heard round the world is still all too fresh in our minds, but it would be disingenuous to think that this sort of response is only sequestered to a politician’s misguided rhetoric. Invoke Lewis’s Law, and you’ll find that journalistic pieces that deal with rape as a topic are followed by countless comments on everything from false rape accusation statistics, to how rape accusations are actually a tool used by aggressive feminists, to well, that's just biology. And he’s done so much good. And maybe she had it coming.

But Geimer’s frustration doesn’t just end at the naysayers who swear by that familiar rhetoric of excuses and apologies. She expounds on what it means to be a talking point by and for feminism, without actually feeling represented. Whether this means consistently being put back in the “victim” category, being used as the poster girl for the worst of rape culture, or simply being dismissed for not concurring with most feminist ideas of what rape means, Geimer feels that while the discussion is good, it still doesn't acknowledge the main focus of the issue: the victim's wants. It’s a messier point. But Geimer still feels that even though she is glad that someone is talking about the ills of rape, someone else is still doing the talking for her, and what they are saying isn’t what she wants to say, nor what she as the individual in the case wants.

I must admit, there are parts of Geimer’s book that cause me to cringe. I read passages where my emotional core couldn’t accept the fact that perhaps rapists can change, even if evidence might say so or that I can’t get over the anger at what seems like it has gone unpunished, even supported. The mere mention of the 2009 petition to free Polanski or the infamous “rape-rape” or the “so-called crime” is enough to make be go blind with a particular type of rage. But here’s the thing. I’m not Geimer. I am, however, being the exact sort of influence that Geimer wants to undo, which is that of blanket responses and treating each case as if it were all the same. It is to place my own wants and needs on what I think should be done, above what Geimer wants, solely on the logic of “because it is how I feel.” That’s precisely what Geimer has found so frustrating, and it is a common reaction. We want it to end, but we want to do it our way. It’s a similar type of silencing, a similar type of treatment towards victims of being “good enough.” But I also think that's what rape and rape culture does: It makes an act of violation forever a mark on how you view such things. It’s something that many may never be able to speak from on an emotionally removed place. Maybe that's just part of what you carry around afterwards. But just because it is carried, that does not mean that everyone has to carry it the same way. That’s all Geimer wants her defenders to realize. It’s a horrifying, but ultimately freeing feeling at once to realize that even while you think you are fighting a problem, you are just as much a part of it.

Geimer’s own coming to terms may not be the cathartic ending that everyone hoped for. Frankly, I think we would hope for no rape at all, but in this case, Geimer has found a peace, even by way of a broken justice system. “I’m interested in justice. And justice I believe, starts with the interests of the victims.”

I’m curious of how we translate into the larger culture’s response. How do we have real conversations, honest conversations, about how we deal with rape and rape culture? About how we heal as individuals? Perhaps it’s hearing more testimonies and stories of those who have survived sexual violence, mostly to show the array of what it means to go through such an experience. Most of us tend to grow up absorbing the idea that rape was the boogey man in the alley. The bump in the night, with fighting, and severe force. It a myth we repeat to ourselves over and over that leaks back into the everyday crevices of our lives, turning rape into an unnerving, ridiculously benign, normalcy. How tremendous is that normalcy? Geimer appeared on the Today Show in early September.

Geimer: "How do I feel about him? I hope he's well. I was 13. That makes it rape, but I didn't experience it that way. In my mind, I didn't know that was illegal. I didn't understand he could go to jail for it. I was young."

Today Show: “ Did you feel taken advantage of?”

Geimer: "Oh, yes, It was a bad thing to do and [Polanski] knows that."

Many were quick to jump onto Geimer for not acquiescing to the identity in which they had grown accustomed to placing her in: rape victim. But perhaps it could be said that this is one of the ways in which sexual assault is particularly poisonous in its normalcy. Rape brings on shame due to a sense of complicity, not just on the victim, but also of everyone’s collective reaction to them. It’s saying “you are not reacting like a good rape victim.” You fall from the altar of “good victim” if you don’t fit into a certain mold, exhibit certain behaviors. Again, it’s a reflection of a culture that is willing to accept that rape happens, but not the lived experiences or wants of a person it has happened to.

When people experience sexual violence, there is sort of a membrane broken. We are terrified to call it rape, because it is not what we have been taught looks like rape. It is only after time that we do see that rape is not the stranger in the dark alley, but something much more normal in its violation, much more about entitlement and expectations of how women are to give their bodies over, and then should serve as the collective scapegoat for all our fears, all our neurosis, all our horrible ways we internalize the idea that rape is somehow a thing that is brought on, not done to someone.

Geimer has forgiven Polanski, and that has brought her a wholeness. Does that mean I need to, too? No. But does it mean that I need to respect Geimer’s wishes for how she wants to be treated? Absolutely. This is the problem of fighting something that seems so innocuous, so pervasive. You want there to be justice. You want there to be hope. But in the rush for these things that are denied on a regular basis, you forget that there is one person who should only decide how that happens: the victim. It’s in all of our best interest if we listen to them.

The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski by Samantha Geimer
Atria Books
ISBN: 978-1476716831
272 Pages