You're Right, Victoria Coren, Rapists are People Too
Yesterday, Victoria Coren published an article on The Guardian's website entitled “Roman Polanski and the Sin of Simplification”, looking at the case of the celebrated rapist and filmmaker. In 1977, Polanski drugged and anally raped thirteen year old Samantha Geimer and has subsequently spent decades avoiding answering for his crime. Coren does not dispute this and admits to thoughts of violence and anger when thinking about the heinous act. Then, in a somewhat bizarre twist, she starts into a series of non-sequiturs to help us see that Polanski was so much more than a rapist.
Coren recounts the tragedies of his life; Polanski's mother died in Auschwitz, his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family. Then she speaks of “a second complicating factor”, being that Polanski's work is “filled with beauty and humanity”.
The point she is trying to make is the importance of avoiding reductive simplification, that we should look at both Geimer and Polanski as nuanced people, not just a child and her rapist. Unfortunately, she does such a spectacularly poor job of explaining this point, she just comes across as an apologist for Polanski. When you start an article describing, in relatively clear detail, the rape of a thirteen year old girl, that is how you frame the rest of what you will write. So once you start talking about “complicating factors”, don't be surprised when people take it to mean you think these factors should be taken into consideration when examining the rape.
Furthermore, to choose this particular example to make the point is so spectacularly egregious that it is insulting in itself. Polanski has spent nearly four decades continuing and being celebrated for his work, enjoying what can only be described as a free and pleasant life in France and Switzerland, whilst being defended on all sides by Hollywood friends who think he has suffered enough. With the exception of being unable to travel to America without fear of being arrested, his life has been unaffected by his crime. There has been no reductive simplification. He hasn't been vilified because of it, he has been celebrated despite it.
Personally, I believe that the biggest legacy Polanski has is that he drugged and raped a thirteen year old girl and not only got away with it, but had people defending him over it. No beautiful works will surpass that. No nuance to his character changes that. I can feel great sorrow for the man for the horrific things that happened in his life, I can love the work he produced, but it in no way changes what I consider to be the defining act of his existence.
There is a kernel of truth to this article though. An important one, far beyond the pseudo-intellectual, liberal naval-gazing Coren descends into. It recognises that rapists are real people, with real lives. Casting them as monsters and strangers in dark alleys allows us to marginalise them, pretend they could never be people we know, people we respect, perhaps even like. When over 90% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, we must face the fact that they are real people with real lives. Recognising this to be the case, we can start to challenge our preconceptions of what a rapist looks like. Too often, we hear “he couldn’t be a rapist, he’s too nice” and from that flows a river of victim blaming and marginalising. We claim that there was a “misunderstanding” or even worse that the claims are false, all because we are too uncomfortable to face the truth that the real men in our lives are the ones who rape women. There is no nuance required.