Dankprofessor’s Weblog

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Roman Polanski in his own words, pt. 1

October 7, 2009 Posted by | film, rape, Roman Polanski, sex, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On Roman Polanski

On Roman Polanski


Barry M. Dank*

There is no question that what Roman Polanski did to a 13 year old girl in 1977 was wrong, and illegal. But it is also wrong to drag Polanski back to the US 31 years after the crime and have him spend an unspecified amount of time in prison. What possible good would come about by Polanski doing time for the crime? Obviously, it would not function to rehabilitate him or change him in some way. The fact that Polanski has had a stellar film career and apparently lived a law abiding life for 32 years after the crime is indicative that the case for changing Polanski is simply irrelevant.

Then there is a case for punishment. Polanski did something illegal and he should be punished. Of course, Polanski has been punished. He did 42 days at the Chino Men’s prison under the legal guise of being psychologically evaluated; his stay at Chino was for the purpose of punishment as viewed by the presiding judge. He has been socially stigmatized as a child rapist and has lived in a self-imposed exile. Just as in the cchild sex situation Polanski’s decision making was screwed up when he decided to flee from a possible 16 month sentence and ended up living for 31 years in a situation in which he could be arrested and extradited back to Los Angeles .

But the 42 days and a 31 year exile as punishment dwells into insignificance as compared to the trauma and punishment he experienced as a child surviving the mass murders of the Holocaust while losing his mother to the Nazi murderers in Poland and to the trauma and punishment he endured when his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and his baby to be and his two friends were barbarized and murdered by the Manson gang.

But  many have argued that this insanity Polanski went thru simply had nothing to do with his illegal sex with a 13 year old girl. For example, Ellen Snortland in an open letter to Roman Polanski states: “I assert that the statutory rape in 1977 will plague you until you make some type of sincere public amends. Backing an ‘end violence against women and girls’ film would be an astonishing act of atonement. Consider it. Talk to the lawyers.” Somehow Snortland avoids dealing with the fact that Polanski was intimately familiar with violence against women, that both his mother and wife were murdered, such is simply of no relevance to her.

To argue that his past traumas have relevance to Polanski’s illicit sex with a 13 year old girl in 1977 does not mean that I am excusing Polanski or condoning child abuse of any sort.

What I do argue with is the notion that Polanski’s criminal act should be fragmented off from the rest of his prior life.  To advocate that one should not look at Polanski past as it related to his actions in 1977 is a form of know nothingness.   Being horrified by what Polanski did in 1977 should not close us off from the horrors experienced by Polanski.

I think it is a safe to assume that very few persons would not be adversely affected by the killings of their mother, their wife and their unborn child, as well as being at the scene of mass murder as a child. In fact, some who have been through such extreme situations become psychologically numbed and live a robotic life. Others may be plagued by depression, feelings of alienation and aloneness and anger.

As a person who has worked with Holocaust survivors and Parents of Murdered Children, I know that almost always survivors go thru periods of tortuous survivor guilt. No matter that they are morally and legally innocent, they all too often experience the burden of feeling- ‘I should have been able to do something’, or as Polanski stated in 1985- “Sharon’s death is the only watershed in my life that really matters. Before she died, I sailed a boundless, untroubled sea of expectations and optimism. Afterward, whenever conscious of enjoying myself, I felt guilty. A psychiatrist I met shortly after her death warned me that it would take me “four years of mourning” to overcome this feeling. It has taken far longer than that”.

Polanski’s filmmaking demonstrates that he was intimately familiar with the nature of survivor guilt. Such was quite apparent in his 1976 film THE TENANT, a film which he both directed and starred. This was the last film he made prior to his involvement in the child rape. I believe that this film can provide a partial understanding of Polanski’s psychological state around the time of the crime.

For this film Polanski insisted that he play the role of the protagonist. The viewer saw Polanski playing the role of a French citizen of Polish background (Trelkovsky) living alone in Paris gradually descend into madness. The Polanski character was plagued with feelings of survival guilt, and a complete ungluing of a sense of self as he gave full vent to his feelings of paranoia. Ultimately he buys a gun, has fantasies of killing others but eventually he commits suicide by jumping out of his apartment window. He ends up killing himself in the same manner that the prior tenant of the apartment had killed herself.

Viewers who understood this film and were aware of Polanski’s history “knew” that Polanski chose not only to direct the film but to play the major role because to a significant degree he was playing himself. Polanski and Trelkovsky both had lived alone in Paris, both were French citizens of Polish background; and both felt alienated and alone in their immediate environments. Both had gone thru experiences that separated them off from others, from others who could not possibly understand them and the horrors they had gone thru.

One of the most jolting scenes in the film is when Trelkovsy is sitting in a park looking quite morose and viewing a child playing. He stands up, walks over to the child and slugs the child in the face and then walks way. This image of Trelkovsky sitting in the park came to visually represent Polanski; it was used as the cover photo for his 1985 autobiography and as the photo for the DVD jacket of the documentary, ROMAN POLANSKI; WANTED AND DESIRED.  The usages of this photo by Polanski illustrates the blurring of Polanski’s identity with that of Trelkovsy’s.


On the other hand, some people believe that all we need to know about Polanski is that he is a pedophile, his sexual preference being children and adolescents.  However, looking at Polanski’s life then and now one can immediately discern Polanski’s attraction.  His present wife, Emmanuelle Seigner is 33 years younger than himself; Samantha Geimer at the time of her victimage was 31 years younger than Polanski.  So Polanski’s ongoing sexual preference is for those who are significantly younger than himself.  Maybe this preference is a defense mechanism used by some who have experienced catastrophic loss.  Such a preference could function to diminish feelings of powerlessness and helplessness in “intimate” relationships; of course, such feelings are illusionary. But for Polanski whose specialty is illusions he could see this as simply being an extension of his role of Director.

Polanski in the 1970s was a man on the fringe; his art saved him for a time but not all the time as evidenced by the rape in 1977. But also during his entire adulthood, Polanski has engaged in extraordinarily creative filmmaking. And his filmmaking may be viewed in part as representing a survivor mission, as a way of his expiating his guilt and his creation of a “monument” to those he loved and to those whose deaths he could not prevent.

In his autobiography Polanski stated: “In moments of unbearable personal tragedy some people find solace in religion.  In my case the opposite happened. Any religious faith I had was shattered by Sharon’s murder.  It reinforced my faith in the absurd.”

To now drag Polanski back in, to put him into a prison is absurd. Over the last 31 years Roman Polanski has freed himself from his psychological prison as evidenced by his devotion to his wife and 2 children.  I fear that Polanski may see his only way out as being the same way out he created in THE TENANT- suicide.

Barry M. Dank is an emeritus professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach.  He lives in Tubac, Arizona.

© Copyright 2009 by Barry M. Dank

October 7, 2009 Posted by | rape, Roman Polanski, sex, The Tenant, violence | 43 Comments

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