I’m a longtime admirer of Samantha Geimer’s well-spokenness considering she became the victim of what can still be called one of the crimes of the century when Roman Polanski raped her at age thirteen, while on a photo shoot in 1977. I was too young to understand or remember the news coverage at the time, but in the intervening years, whenever interest in Polanski flared, a camera would invariably find its way in front of Ms. Geimer and I would listen as closely as I could trying to make sense of the crime from her perspective, in that she has refused to neatly fit the media-friendly label of sad, destroyed victim. Her memoirs, The Girl: a Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski, paints an interesting picture of a young woman navigating a nascent understanding of her own sexuality and pursuing ambitions of stardom while in a situation that no-one should face, and an aftermath that continues to defy logic over three decades later.
In the usual morning show author interviews, Ms. Geimer has continued to be intelligent and media savvy while facing a new barrage of criticism for wanting to be left alone while putting out a book, but after reading her memoirs her reasons for both wanting to be left alone and for telling her side of the story both seem supremely reasonable. In 2009 a new chapter was added to the Polanski saga when authorities tried to extradite him to the U. S. to stand trial for his crime after fleeing before the formal court proceedings could start in 1978; this time with the added five-thousand channel universe talking head punditry and the 24-hour judgment pipeline that is the Internet. Samantha Geimer has already complained repeatedly of how she had been characterized by the unimaginably slow pre-Internet media as either some sort of vile slut temptress being pushed by a demanding stage mother into entrapping one of Hollywood’s most esteemed directors of the day; or as the weak, helpless, voiceless child victim. Ms. Geimer has made it abundantly clear that the mischaracterization of her mother was particularly hurtful and unfair, and the mass opinion-go-round of Internet commentary still has many things to say on every aspect of the case, whether grounded in fact or not. I can imagine why now it would be more important for Ms. Geimer to add her own voice to the fray than it had seemed before.
Reading the book, some of my own suspicions about Polanski’s crime were confirmed, and other assumptions I had made were handily refuted. Still refusing to fit labels or misrepresent the truth as she saw it, Ms. Geimer bravely makes several admissions that could possibly play into her detractors’ image of her. After she stated that her family did view Polanski as a ticket to stardom she could have told me she went through a brief period in the 1990s where a perfectly-formed second head had sprouted from her shoulder but would only communicate in show tunes and I might have believed it.
With the many other crimes of the century one thing is clear: celebrity changes everything, and Polanski’s case, still unresolved, is easily one of the phenomenon’s most famous case studies. To hear Ms. Geimer and her legal counsel tell it, had Polanski’s case gone to trial it would have made the O. J. Simpson proceedings look like a shining example of American jurisprudence. Polanski’s celebrity and his reputation was obviously a factor in the police’s handling of the case, and the book hints mightily at the idea that bruised sexual egos might have been an added problem for the case and everyone involved. The presiding judge was a man named Rittenband who fancied himself a specialist in celebrity justice and also had a taste for inappropriately younger women, just like Polanski.
Polanski did serve forty-two days in prison while undergoing a psychiatric evaluation for the rape of Samatha Geimer, and his lawyer had arranged had a plea deal with the judge and Ms. Geimer’s family which was famously broken. One of the most stunning yet overlooked aspects of the Polanski case is the extent of the judge’s malfeasance, including taking public and press opinion into account for sentencing, granting an interview about an ongoing case to People magazine, and giving the prosecuting and defending lawyers stage directions at what ended up being the final hearing of the case; stage directions which were followed. After reneging on the plea deal, the sentencing scheme that Rittenband proposed would have resulted in an indefinite sentence wherein Polanski would have been detained at the judge’s and his image consultants’ pleasure, up to a theoretical maximum of fifty years. In the three decades since Polanski fled, a victim’s bill of rights has been passed into law in California, but these rights will not apply to Samantha Geimer because the still-dangling cap feather of being the one who finally jailed Polanski still has the magic power to grant its wearer fame, prestige, and possibly public office.
Throughout her memoirs, Ms. Geimer describes her early teenage looks in less than glowing terms, but the question left unanswered is whether or not she thought the photos Polanski took of her, featured throughout the book, revealed a girl of determined poise who would become the woman she now is, despite and because of the events of that day with Polanski and the occasional madness of the decades following.