On The Roman Polanski Grandstand

Existential News Psychology Religion
I'm having a tough time with a lot of the grandstanding I've been hearing today about Roman Polanski. Certainly what Polanski did 32 years ago was monstrous, horrible -- he has been suffering for his crime, and he will continue to suffer for it, whether or not he is ever sent to jail. Certainly, also, his talent as a filmmaker and his sad personal history do not excuse his crimes in any way.

So, granted, Roman Polanski will rot in hell -- either in jail or in a fancy French villa. But what about the rest of us? What I'm finding surreal about the media circus following Polanski's arrest is the idea that we need to extradite a Polish/French film director from Switzerland to find a case of child rape to discuss in the United States. Why doesn't Kate Harding's much-praised and much-linked Salon condemnation mention that similar crimes to Polanski's are committed constantly, frequently, unceasingly every day right here in America? Why the sudden intensity of news coverage about this one case? Do we really need a celebrity to be arrested to understand how prevalent sexual abuse is in all our lives?

This is where I'm sensing hypocrisy -- and a disconnection from reality -- in much of this coverage. Think of your loved ones, your friends and family. Look around you on a busy street. It's a good bet that somebody here is a victim of sexual abuse. And here's the harder pill to swallow: it's also a good bet that somebody here is a perpetrator of sexual abuse -- in many cases, unlike Polanski, a perpetrator who will never be caught and stopped. Coercive rape and abuse of children happens all over, from Hollywood to every small town.

What disturbs me about the rabid invective being poured out from all sides about Roman Polanski is the idea that evil is something external, something exotic. "Put him in the cage, lynch him." Point your fingers: there he is, there's the bad man -- over THERE. I'm not buying it.

I am truly at a loss how to think about this. I had a conversation with my wife Caryn about it last night, after I posted a line from the Bible on Twitter:

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

"Do you really have to bring Jesus in to defend Roman Polanski?" Caryn said. She has a good point ... though on the other hand it's a fact that Jesus talked about forgiveness a lot. Again, though, none of us really care very much about Roman Polanski, and it's no big concern of ours whether or not he ever gets forgiven.

Forgiveness may be a difficult step, but beyond forgiveness is an even further goal, something harder to attain: understanding. What is it within human nature that makes presumably decent people like Roman Polanski do evil things? I would really like to understand.

We can lynch this one poor sorry fool, but I don't think that brings us any closer to an answer.
23 Responses to "On The Roman Polanski Grandstand"

by dlt on

Polanski and Michael Jackson. I saw part of a Polanski film, wasn't impressed

The whole child molestation thing is repugnant. For a chilling account of this, something that is almost too painful to read, check out the part of "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace, where Matty Pemulis, Michael Pemulis' brother, is molested by their father.

Levi, I don't know what the answer to this is, but like you say, it is very prevalent in our society. And it breeds in secrecy and denial.

by Bobby Squires on

Unquestionably, Polanski's committed a heinous sex crime. I recognize this but also note that his victim, now in her forties, does not feel that Polanski should be prosecuted. For the most part, the victim's opinion is being discounted. I object to this.

by CharmCity on

Though I found the Salon article visceral - and effective for that reason - I really feel that justice is finally being done. I agree Levi, that this is more about Polanski's celebrity than it should be, but would we ever question this case if it WERE someone we knew? If our friend or cousin or someone we knew evaded justice and lived a relatively privileged life abroad after committing sexual assault, would we fight their extradition? If we refuse to prosecute old men for burning down churches in the 60's after the dead have long been buried, if we refuse to prosecute a man who has flouted his crime in high circles, then who are we serving. Levi, you are right we need to focus more on the problem of contemporary sexual assault, but that doesn't mean a crime - even from the past - should go unpunished. If you were a recent victim, how would that make you feel? Even without an empathetic appeal, is there a shelf date on justice being served?

by Levi Asher on

Well, CharmCity, I don't object to Polanski going to jail, though I do think the damage to his name that happened 3 decades ago harmed him more than jail time ever can. I'm just saying I'm not too impressed by the parade of self-righteousness that has followed this arrest. I don't think the right lessons are being learned -- I don't think we are gaining wisdom. Most importantly, I don't think it's making our own children any safer from possible sexual assault to turn one sexual deviant's arrest into a media circus, or to act as if sexual abuse of young teenagers (almost always by people they know and trust) is an unusual occurrence.

by Phil on

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Graham Greene's novel, The Power and The Glory, in which the protagonist, The Whiskey Priest, tells one of his temporary jail-mates, "Hate is a lack of imagination."

Not sure how much this applies to your point, but it certainly brings to mind forgiveness.


I usually do my evening bike run along Mulholland which leads me right past the front gate where Mr. Polanski's episode took place so many years ago. This evening, strangely enough, I was actually thinking about this post of yours while trying not to ram my front wheel through a groove and go tumbling down an embankment. Strange thoughts for a bike ride, but well, I don't know, I'm just an odd bike rider.

But as I passed the property in question I thought about what makes for all this Polanski confusion. That's what I call it. Polanski confusion. And I boiled it down during a hairpin turn to one main thing: Chinatown.

We all like to play Chinatown. I play Chinatown all the time. I always think Los Angeles should be more like Chinatown. Chinatown was about confusion. It's the Polanski contribution to LA. Confusion.

So we pretend it's Chinatown when we think of Polanski. Is he bad or isn't he? Hmmm. He's so brilliant, but is he bad? Or not? How bad can a brilliant man be? Really bad? Bad by mistake?

You know, those homes along Mulholland. It's hard to hear someone scream. There's no one listening. So how bad do you think Polanski is? When you cut Chinatown out of the picture what are you left with?

Usually the ones who run know just how bad they and their friends really are. In fact they admit it all if you just listen to what they say.

It's not very Chinatown at all, but the answer is clear and simple and has been there for thirty years.

by dlt on

Speaking of Chinatown, Jack Nicholson and Roman Polanski were--buddies. Though it was Nicholson as RP McMurphy who liked "sixteen" year olds.

What happened to Sharon Tate, Polanski's wife at the time, ugly. Some compassion there.

by jamelah on

Aside from the fact that if Roman Polanski had been some janitor who raped a child and somehow managed to evade the sentence for his crime for 30 years, nobody would be debating this or saying "He's probably suffered enough already," the fact of the matter is that he already pled guilty to the crime and then decided that you know, he'd rather just not go to jail. So, what? He'd just sentence himself to staying in Europe and continue to live his life and do his work and be revered as a genius and win Academy Awards? And justify himself by saying "Everyone wants to fuck young girls!" Yeah, that seems fair.

It's not about lynching someone, which is a terrible comparison -- Roman Polanski is no Emmett Till, say -- but about the fact that he is not above the law and it is not his choice. Forgiveness is great and I am a fan of it, however, if you're gonna quote Jesus, then you have to remember that he is also attributed as saying, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's," so like it or not, forgiven or not, you still have to pay what you owe. Polanski's already been convicted; there's no statute of limitations on him serving his sentence.

by Levi Asher on

Jamelah, like I said, I don't care if Roman Polanski goes to jail or not. It's fine with me if he does. But I am honestly disappointed by the reaction to the words I posted here -- I must not be getting my point across, or maybe it's falling on deaf ears for all the noise.

I just googled "statistics on child sexual abuse" and this is the first page I found:


According to this organization:

1 in 4 girls is sexually abused before the age of 18.
1 in 6 boys is sexually abused before the age of 18.
1 in 5 children are solicited sexually while on the internet.
Nearly 70% of all reported sexual assaults (including assaults on adults) occur to children ages 17 and under.
An estimated 39 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse exist in America today.
Even within the walls of their own homes, children are at risk for sexual abuse
30-40% of victims are abused by a family member.
Another 50% are abused by someone outside of the family whom they know and trust.
Approximately 40% are abused by older or larger children whom they know.
Therefore, only 10% are abused by strangers.
Sexual abuse can occur at all ages, probably younger than you think
The median age for reported abuse is 9 years old.
More than 20% of children are sexually abused before the age of 8.
Nearly 50% of all victims of forcible sodomy, sexual assault with an object, and forcible fondling are children under 12.

So ... yeah, we better hurry up and put that awful Roman Polanski in jail!!! Okay, everything's back to normal now, problem solved ...

by Levi Asher on

And Jesus also said this:

"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"

Like it or lump it, sexual misconduct of some degree or another was established as a prerequisite to entering the arts and intellectual communities centuries ago. Before we go rattling on about Polanski--or examining our own dubious behaviour--we have to reconsider the de Sades, Byrons and Wildes of antiquity.

by greg on

Levi asked "Why the sudden intensity of news coverage about this one case?" I suspect it's primarily because of the documentary released last year: Roman Polanski - Wanted and Desired. It was a well-made documentary, though it took an apologist's slant. It does, though, explain how Polanski and his attorney had worked out a plea arrangement that involved a short period in prison for a psych evaluation followed by a sentence of a long period of probation. Polanski completed the evaluation, but learned the judge--under political pressure--had decided to negate the plea arrangement and give him a prison sentence. So he fled the jurisdiction.

That said, Polanski's behavior was criminal by any modern standard. Had he not been a famous director, he wouldn't have received a sweet plea arrangement. On the other hand, had he not been a famous director, the judge wouldn't have felt it necessary to violate that sweet plea arrangement. Had he not been a famous director, no apologist documentary would have been made about him and had he not been a famous director, the case wouldn't have attracted the attention of an ambitious prosecutor.

Polanski's fame has both benefited and harmed him. The victim's lack of fame has only hurt her. The saddest aspect of this case is that Polanski is only in jail now because of some prosecutor's desire for a headline...not because of justice for the victim. That was sacrificed a long time ago.

by Kevin on

Uh oh, I think I see a Jesus Quote-off coming!! Woohoo!!

I am always impressed with Jesus's grammar and sentence structure whenever I hear him quoted. Well, he had great writers.

It is an inherently interesting situation when a magnificent artist is also a criminal. It simply makes us want to discuss its every facet because we simply don't want to believe that our great artists can in fact be horrendous and, well, simply creeps.

The abuse Levi found the data on is widespread. Totally. But that does not stop us from staring is dismay at that one fantastic person who is accused or found guilty of something depraved.

Polanski is a car wreck. And I slow down to look at all car wrecks, not matter what the data says.

by damian on

i can't believe there is a debate about this. he raped a child. prison is almost too good for him. end of.

i mean, c'mon - please tell me that "because these people over here are getting away with terible crimes, should we really worry about this guy here who created a terrible crime" isn't the defense here!

He committed a disgusting crime. His celebrity is a major factor in his avoiding prison until now, that's all. The victim's opinions at this point (long after a settlement payment) about her preferences about what would be just when it comes to law enforcement, at this point, are really not relevant one way or the other.

I am dumbfounded that this is even a question in anyone's mind, though I recognize that many people feel very differently about this. He is a sexual predator who committed a vile crime and avoided punishment for far too long. What he does for a living is not relevant.

Actually, I just read in the NYT that the half million dollar settlement payment, agreed to only a few years ago, has yet to be paid. All the more reason for the victim's opinion to have no bearing on whether Polanksi should no longer be required to serve his sentence for the crime to which he pled guilty.

by Laurie Bond on

Levi, I'm not sure I understand the point you're trying to make.

There is no question that sexual abuse crimes are prevalent, not only in the United States, but in many other societies as well. Sexual abuse of children will probably always be around. We don't condone it; we condemn it. It's a felony and people accused of felonies are pursued until they are brought to justice. We pursue them and bring them to justice whether they are janitors or movie producers, right?

You said you don't object to Polanski going to jail. I can assume that you don't object to his extradition either.

You do seem to object to the media circus and the finger pointing and the way it highlights Polanski as that "bad man" over there, when, as you correctly point out, bad men like him exist everywhere.

The only things I can say in response to your objections:

1) Polanksi is a celebrity. Therefore, a media circus will follow him everywhere.
2) He is one of the rare people who managed to escape justice for a crime of this nature. He fled the country after pleading guilty. It's an unusual situation. No janitor, accused of the same crime, and at that point in the proceedings, would have stood a chance of evading trial. No janitor would have then lived the life of the rich and famous, producing movies and getting awards, living a French chateau for 30 years following escape. It's a very unusual circumstance!
3) The media circus is partly a public debate that's being held about who decides when justice is served. Many people say "he's suffered" and he should be let off. So does the public decide when justice is served? The victim got paid some money a while back, and she wants to close this chapter in her life. So she says we should leave him alone. Does the victim of the crime decide when justice is served? The law says he has been accused of a crime and he should be brought to trial. If guilty, he will be made to pay the penalty. There are strong opinions about this on all sides. This debate is 9/10ths of the media circus you see.

You say we're not learning from this. I think we are, but the lesson may not be about the prevalence of the crime or what can be done to stop it. The lesson may be about what matters more -- popular opinion or justice? Everyone universally agrees that child rape is wrong and that NO child should ever suffer that, no matter what their position. If we all agree on that, and we agree that Polanski committed this crime, then why the debate?

Would we debate about the janitor? No. We'd probably all agree the janitor should go to jail. But Polanski is a likable, interesting and sympathetic figure. He's had tragedy in his own life. He's produced profound and beautiful films. He's a significant contributor to society, and he's committed no crimes of this type (that we know of) for 30 years. Lots of people feel that he should be let alone, excused. Because of that, other people have spoken in support of the American justice system.

With a crime of this nature, justice isn't for the victim alone; it's for all of us. It's to say to people everywhere that we have no tolerance for the rape of a child, no matter who commits it, how long ago it was, or what they may have done since. Does his conviction and punishment make more children safe? It could do exactly that. It could send a message that richness, fame, good works, and even being a really wonderful human being doesn't excuse you from the consequences of your actions. I think that's the right lesson learned.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the response, Laurie. I see what you're saying. The intensity of emotion and anger that this case has brought up has taken me by surprise, and in light of some of the things you and others have said, I do realize that this case has more significance than I originally realized.

When I first heard the news of Polanski's arrest about a week and a half ago, I did not expect that it would become such a big news story. I was already familiar with what Polanski had done 33 years ago, and since I think he must have already suffered greatly for his crime, I couldn't see the point in extraditing him for more punishment today. In fact, I got in a email fight with a friend of a friend about this topic, which ended with us threatening to beat each other up if we ever meet, so I guess I got a taste at this point of the strong anger many people are feeling towards Polanski.

Like I said, I think Polanski's already suffered for his crime -- a lifetime of public humiliation and exile is no easy sentence. Some people are fixated on the fact that he is rich and famous -- well, even so, he has had to live with the shame of his crime. I don't think a typical janitor who commits a similar crime (and many janitors and many schoolteachers and lawyers and US congressmen do commit similar crimes, often) gets worse punishment than Polanski got. In most cases, there will be a plea bargain and the criminal will get little or no jail time. This is the main reason why I don't feel any satisfaction at the thought of Polanski being extradited and further punished today. At the same time, I don't strongly object to this taking place. I think Polanski must be suffering for his crime whether or not he is ever further prosecuted.

It's occurred to me that much of the anger I'm hearing is directed at the letter that many directors and writers and luminaries wrote. This letter was intended to help Polanski, but I think it did him harm by overstating his case. Certainly, it's irrelevant that he is a great talent, and it's irrelevant that he was a Holocaust survivor, and it's irrelevant that the victim is not seeking prosecution.

I wish the letter had just focused on the one point I made above -- that Polanski has already been suffering for his crime.

And, whoever got the idea to have Woody Allen sign this petition should not get a job doing petitions. Polanski's apologists really hurt his case, but I still think it'd be a strange distortion of justice for our courts and our celebrity media to continue to fixate on this 33-year-old crime when there are so many other similar crimes taking place right now today.

Hope this explanation of my position helps -- as your explanation of yours did.

I am interested in this topic because of the strange thinking it seems to bring out of highly intelligent people. I am preparing my own lengthy post on the matter for my own site and will elaborate on my own thinking there.

But I would like to mention that most criminals do suffer some sort of guilt for their crimes. This is not a concern of our system of justice. We don't let people off the hook because they have suffered guilt and humiliation for 30 years after murdering someone.

By the way, what is left out of many discussions of Mr. Polanski and his crime is the simple fact that, by the definition used by many law enforcement agencies, Mr. Polanski is a pedophile. He had sex with a child. He is attracted to children.

Every law enforcement expert I have ever heard talk about this kind of crime has clearly stated that these people repeat and do not get better. So where does that leave us with dear old guilty Mr. Polanski? I would be extremely surprised if the French police were not very carefully examining Mr. Polanski's last thirty years of guilty suffering. How much do you think our child-loving film director has to feel guilty about?

by Laurie Bond on

"But I would like to mention that most criminals do suffer some sort of guilt for their crimes. This is not a concern of our system of justice. We don’t let people off the hook because they have suffered guilt and humiliation for 30 years after murdering someone."

Alessandro Cima

Exactly, Alessandro.

Appropriate punishment for criminal acts is not something to be determined by the feelings of the criminal. The justice systems exacts punishment, and we should let it do its work.

Murderers, child rapists and other violent criminals are appropriately shunned and ostracized by society. We're terrified of them and horrified by them -- if nothing else.

"Poor Frankenstein monster!" my father used to say during the scene in the movie where the villagers tie him down and cart him off to jail. He is pitiable in that scene -- physically powerful, ugly, uncomprehending and completely alone -- but we are too quick to forget that in the preceding scene of the movie this sad hulk murdered a little boy.

I feel some pity for Roman Polanski too. He is a charismatic, brilliant and probably a very moral and sensitive individual. He HAS suffered. He still raped a little girl and he needs to be brought to justice. Justice is depicted wearing her blindfold for a reason.

Add new comment