03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Roman Polanski, And The Making Of A Legend

In 1977, Roman Polanski offered to take pictures of a 13-year-old girl for French Vogue. He then gave her champagne and drugs, insisted she remove her clothes, and raped her. He has been carefully tending to his alternative mythology of that night ever since.

The victim's grand jury testimony is not under dispute and it is arguably on the basis of that testimony that Roman Polanski and his lawyer agreed to a plea agreement at all. Plea agreements are not uncommon in sexual assault cases where victims are loathe to testify despite recent laws to supposedly disallow victims to be challenged about their prior sexual history. Polanski accepted his and repeatedly acknowledged that he understood the plea meant he could be thrown into jail or forced to register as a sex offender, but the victim wasn't spared her slut-shaming: the judge read into the record her completely irrelevant sexual history anyway, as though having consented to sex once mitigated Polanski's rape of her.

As part of the pre-sentencing period after his plea agreement, Polanski was allowed to fly to Europe to complete a movie, where he was photographed with another underage lover, Nastassja Kinski, who was 15. There is some evidence that the judge in the case might have found too much to bear the difference between Polanski's lawyer's argument that his child rape was a one-time event and the photographic evidence that Polanski's urges to copulate (consensually or otherwise) with women under the legal age of consent were ongoing. Polanski then declined to return to the United States for sentencing, the likely result of which--even if the judge threw the book at him--would have been a year or less of actual time in jail. He'd expected to get off scot-free.

Thereafter, Polanski gave an interview in which he excused his behavior by saying that his ephebophilic urges were universal to men: "Everyone wants to fuck young girls," he told his interviewer, probably adding to the court's concern that his behavior was continuing and would continue. Obviously, a legal system designed to protect women from rapists and sexual predators shouldn't be keen to show leniency to a rapist as unrepentant and unapologetic as Polanski.

Polanski's apologists have many reasons among them, from excusing his behavior as a result of his wife's brutal murder to his history as a Holocaust survivor to blaming the victim, her mother, or a legal system that left something to be desired. All of these stories start and end with Roman Polanski, who has been mythologizing his legal travails as though he's the modern Humbert Humbert, seduced by a too-young girl whose charms and stage mother left him, a broken, traumatized man, unable to resist the allure of sex (with a girl too drugged to fight back but not so drugged she could withhold consent). He claims he's a man subjected to a thorny legal system that brought back long-suppressed memories of Nazi Germany so disturbing he couldn't help but flea its judgment (and spend decades and untold thousands of dollars trying to subvert what little justice it offered his victim). He wants people to believe that he's a man of unsurpassed intellectual and artistic vision that modern mores (about things like sexual consent and rape) are too philistine to be applied to him.

And it is hard, I suppose, for some people to take the mythological Rapist archetype and apply it to Polanski. In modern America, The Rapist is still the disgusting, knife-wielding alley-dweller, the man who can only get "sex" one way, the criminal, the man from whom children and women would shy away. Maybe, in the corners of our collective consciousness, we can believe that The Rapist the lewd guy at the party, the perv, the one who doesn't want to have to put the effort into seduction, the one rejected one too many times to try his hand at obtaining consent. These archetypes, seared into our conscious, ignore one thing: rape isn't about sex, at least insofar as most (normal) people understand sex.

Who would want to perform sexual acts on a crying, protesting, resisting woman? One rendered unconscious or semi-conscious? It's grotesque to think about what rape is: a crying, fearful, unresponsive, protesting woman in pain, or one that simply lies there, unconscious, and must be moved like a rag doll to achieve her rapist's ends. It's not sex as much as its an assault, a penetration with a painful but non-deadly weapon. And people don't want to think about Polanski in that way, for their own reasons--but that doesn't mean it's not exactly what he did to his victim.

And why would someone resort to it, we ask ourselves, when the alternative is better? The fact is that rapists don't resort to rape: they choose it. Given all the women in the world who would have willingly had sex with Roman Polanski in 1977, he chose to rape an unwilling 13-year-old girl. He preferred it. Maybe he always preferred it, and this was the only child who ever came forward and called her rape by its name (a common occurrence among sex offenders: witness how long some Catholic priests continued to rape children without being caught).

But having though about the reality of rape, and caught in the social archetype of The Rapist, many people choose to believe that Roman Polanski isn't among their numbers. And so they've championed the mythology Polanski fashioned for himself, allowed him to clad himself in the guise once thoroughly skewered by Nabakov, to charm his audiences as he once charmed his victim's mother and his victim herself, and cheered his attempts to evade the processes intended to put an end--at least temporarily--to his predation.

Polanski, the master story-teller, has been refining his story for 30 years, weaving his little lies one by one into a cloak intended to shield him from both moral judgment and the legal system. The reality is, as it always is, that the Emperor has no clothes. The sicker reality is that the Emperor knew it, but wanted your 13-year-old to see.