There are some things that happen to us that will forever change our lives and may even effectively destroy them: the death of a child, a false accusation of a serious crime, an injury so grave we can no longer function without assistance. Such adverse life events are tragedies that haunt us until the end of our days. Then there are the tragedies that befall us that are truly painful, sometimes even horrific, but their power to destroy our lives is matched by the power of our lives themselves.
In a recent conversation with Sam Geimer, who was raped by director Roman Polanski when she was 13-years-old, it was clear that she has chosen to relegate the damaging encounter to the past, an act of psychological courage that each of us might well consider when up against our own injuries and injustices.
In her recent memoir, The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski (Simon and Shuster 2013), Geimer tells the story of modeling for Polanski as a teenager when he allegedly encouraged her to drink Champagne and take Quaaludes, take off her clothes and get in the hot tub, and then submit to sex she told him she didn't want.
The entire story of the rape reads less like a horrifying attack -- she had, she explains, had a friend who was violently raped by a stranger not long before, and she did not find the two acts comparable -- but it does dispel the myth that she had wanted to have sex, that she was sexually experienced (she'd had sex once before with a teenage boyfriend), or that her mother had encouraged anything other than a professional relationship -- all rumors that swirled in the media for decades after her mother went to the police.
The sensationalized prosecution that followed turned her life upside down, ended her mother's career as a working actress, and followed Geimer throughout her life, leading her to write her memoir. The memoir centers not so much on Polanski, as on the persecution she and her mother endured in the media, on the madness of the court system over which she had no control, and on the near forty-years of stories in the press declaring that Polanski had destroyed her life. He did not, she says loudly and clearly, destroy her life. She is happy, healthy and normal.
"Some people think I must be mentally damaged since I refuse to be emotionally damaged. But what's made me happiest about writing the book has been I really just wrote it to tell the story when I wanted to, on my own terms."
Central to her story is putting the rape in context. It was a different time, with different attitudes toward sexuality. In the 1970s, it was not uncommon for young teenagers to experiment sexually. Polanski was European, where the age of consent ranges from 13 to 16. And the rape may have been coercive and unwanted, but it was not violent. Yet that context, she suggests, gets lost in the current dialogue that demonizes Polanski for his actions -- for which Geimer points out, he has not only apologized, but has paid a heavy price. That dialogue also demands that Geimer be permanently damaged as a result -- a dialogue we all might reflect upon in casting credit and blame for the injustices we each have suffered as a consequence of someone else's wrongdoing.
"I'm not damaged, and he's not a monster," she says, noting that as bad as it was, others have suffered far greater damage in their lives.
He's just a man, who made a mistake. People make mistakes, they do bad things. If I've done something bad and I've hurt somebody, I certainly hope that they would forgive me. And that just gets lost in this talk of 'he's a horrible monster, and you have to stay damaged because this terrible thing happened to you and if you're not damaged or you're forgiving or you're not damaged, then you're just encouraging people to do bad things. That's not true. Being able to recover from being sexually assaulted does not mean that it's okay. You're not condoning sexual assault. I'm not going to be all torn up inside just because people want me to be.
Yet that is precisely what some people want her to be. Just days after our conversation, she received a series of comments on her blog, reflecting a persistent message she has received throughout the decades that have passed:
Your claims others abused you more than paedophile Polanski did is vile. Every child that has been raped myself included thinks you try to minimize the effects paedophiles have on their victims.
In response to the comment on her blog, Geimer replied, "I am sorry that you wish I was more harmed, but I wasn't, and that's just the truth. You can't substitute your feelings for my actual experience, and why would you want too?" But that was still unacceptable to her reader.
People like you are dangerous. You are the sort that wants to make adults having sex with children normal and acceptable. A 13 year old is a child. Experienced sexually at that age is appalling. It's your utterly immoral attitude that encourages paedophilia and child rape.
The comment struck another note that Geimer had sounded in our conversation -- the insistence that what had happened to her was comparable to raping a small child.
I don't feel like I was a child; I was a teenager. I push back against how terrible people want to make it sound; I always push back. When I was writing the book, I wondered, 'why are we calling me a child?' I don't feel like I was a child...I feel this resistance to not only forgiving him, but to just being able to view what he did the way I saw it and the way I experienced it. People can't understand that it wasn't worse.
It isn't that Ms. Geimer has no concern about sexual abuse of any form, or that she doesn't respect those who do help. But she indicates that it is not at all helpful to insist people be more damaged than they actually are, in order to condemn an abusive act. Moreover, she suggests that trends in the media that sensationalize crime are a form of "victim entertainment," in which the audience is encouraged to view the suffering of victims as a measure of morality. That is, the more someone is made out to be a victim, the greater the sense of outrage and morality the viewer comes to feel. And it is this demand that the victim be as damaged as possible that Geimer finds perpetuates the victim role.
"How can you make a profit off of re-victimizing victims and continuing to harm people that have already been hurt and using that for your own notoriety or paycheck?" she asks rhetorically, taking aim at Nancy Grace, whom she describes in her book as, "A blond vampire who eats misery for breakfast," and who had described Geimer as, "A weak victim who couldn't stand up for herself."
"I am, and always will be, a rape victim," Geimer writes in her book. "But I'm not a victim as a person. I'm a strong person who chooses to identify herself by her strengths, her interests, her family, and her loathing of gadflies who want to appropriate her life for their purposes."
Dr. Phil also chimed in, Geimer writes, suggesting she suffered from "victim's guilt," and he wanted to help her. It is that constant theme that what she suffered was so bad that her only option is to be destroyed, that Geimer resists -- and it is that message that she indicates has done her more harm than the ten minute rape by Polanski.
"There is this judgment that you're injured and you remain damaged and it has to keep affecting you," she said. "Bad things happen to everybody and we all have to try our best to move on." And to do that, Geimer forgave Polanski for what he did -- not to let him off the hook, but to unhook herself from the past. But why forgive a rapist?
You do it for yourself; unless someone's asking you for forgiveness, you do it for yourself. Forgiveness is to make yourself a more healthy, happy person. When something happens you can't undo it, so to hold on to anger and resentment is just hurting yourself. I had a lot of people who were causing me harm so I certainly didn't want to add to that by holding on to anger and resentment toward him. Plus, we've both been through a lot because of this, so it's not like he hasn't paid the price for what happened. So forgiving him was perhaps the easiest part. Recovering from everything that went on with the courts and the press and the things people said -- that was the hard part.
In my work with targets of workplace mobbing, I find that the greatest obstacle to healing has been the unwillingness to let the anger go. People who have been abused have a legitimate right to be angry, but unfortunately, that right may well become a rock that anchors the angered to their wounds. Only by moving past the anger and into a space of compassion that views each of us, wrong-doers and wronged, as fallible humans struggling to survive can we begin to view the wrongs we've suffered as surmountable.
Samantha Geimer's story matters to the public not because the man who raped her was famous, but for the lessons it has to teach us about recovering from abuse, the perceptions and expectations we have of those who are abused, and the liberating power of forgiveness -- even when others say it's the last thing we should do.