The Straddler review

Roman Polanski and the Existence of God


Bad Things Happen

Roman Polanski’s life is a famous tragedy.

In 1943, a nine-year old Polanski fled the Krakow ghetto after his parents were taken to concentration camps during the Nazi invasion of Poland—his mother to Auschwitz, where she was killed; his father to Mauthausen-Gusen, whence he returned estranged and traumatized. Polanski’s early accomplishments as a performer and director were many: his takeover of London in the swinging sixties has been sufficiently glorified; his marriage to the striking actor and model, Sharon Tate, memorialized. The 1969 murder of Tate and their unborn child by Manson followers seemed a capstone of catastrophe, winning public sympathy for the man who in life escaped no instance of misfortune.  What’s more, the media followed the celebrity murder story with the kind of brutal attention that only intensified the trauma of Polanski’s loss.

A decade later, in 1970, Martin Amis was the first to interview the filmmaker following his plea to the lesser of six charges of sexual assault against a thirteen-year-old girl. Perhaps not surprisingly, Polanski said he knew, at the moment of his arrest, that this was going to be “another big, big thing.”[1]

To follow his arc, from early success to tragic undoing, one has difficulty pinpointing the first big, big thing.

“No one does it to you like Roman Polanski”

On March 11, 1977, Polanski was arrested in Los Angeles for the alleged sexual assault of thirteen-year-old Samantha Gailey (now Geimer).  The day before, Polanski had photographed Gailey, with her mother’s consent, for an upcoming issue of Vogue Hommes—a photo spread that was intended to fascinate readers with images of young girls.  In the course of the photo shoot, he gave her champagne and Quaaludes, photographed her in the nude, and, despite her resistance, had sex with her. A grand jury charged Polanski with rape by use of drugs, among other charges. But in an unsuccessful effort to protect the girl’s anonymity, Geimer’s attorney arranged a plea bargain, dismissing five of the charges, and gave Polanski the opportunity, which he took, to plead guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. The presiding Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, notorious for his preoccupation with trying celebrities, held a personal grudge against Polanski, and eventually made it known that he intended a sentence of serious jail time and possible deportation. Polanski fled to London the next day and then to France the day after that; he has not returned to the United States since, fearing the likelihood of facing original six charges still pending.

However, Swiss authorities arrested the now 77-year-old filmmaker last fall, intercepting him on his way to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival.

The life and times of Roman Polanski are once again of interest.

Recently, the novelist Robert Harris described Polanski as “a walking microcosm of history. There’s nothing about human nature that wouldn’t surprise him.”[2] Harris’ remark does more than embellish.  It perpetuates a grander narrative, too easily prescribed in Polanski’s case, and in others’.

Much like Polanski’s first “big thing,” it is difficult to identify the origins of a narrative. For our purposes here, we will begin with the explanation given by the psychiatrist who evaluated Polanski on Judge Rittenband’s orders. Thirty years later, Maria Zenovich interviewed Dr. Ronald Markman for her 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired:

As experiences go, Roman Polanski has had more than what would impact on a dozen people, in terms of his life as a child, confusion [...] and, ultimately, he gets what he feels is a stable relationship [in his marriage to Tate], and that's taken away from him at the snap of a finger. He had difficulty in developing relationships with women after that [...] maybe out of fear.[3]

In the context of Wanted and Desired, whose focus is the trial pertaining to the rape charges against Polanski, the psychiatrist’s remarks are transparently exculpatory. He leaps from cause to effect with startling ease, rudimentary psychology excusing Polanski’s behavior as if it were merely a symptom of his loss, his “difficulty in developing relationships with women.” By this analysis, Polanski is not merely a victim, but the victim—of his wife’s murder, and by suggestion, of his harmful encounter with an underaged girl.

From pop psychology to pop mythology, excuses for conduct like Polanski’s abound. When Harris refers to Polanski as a “walking microcosm,” he invents a living archetype. If we accept such pretense, we can also easily accept the filmmaker’s fate.  His journey becomes a heroic journey, not unlike that of Odysseus, in which trials are faced and overcomeor in which trials undo him, like Oedipus—though the hero has a miraculous capacity for self-reconstruction.

But Polanski has not been a passive player in his life. On the contrary, his relations with Gailey were very much under his control. The shoddy application of a microcosmic schema may well give an intelligible structure in a life as complex as Polanski’s. But to tell that story means to welcome its omissions, and their consequences.

“Out, damn spot—”

As Pauline Kael once wrote in response to heavy-handed reviewers, “One sees the Manson murders in this ‘Macbeth’ because the director put them there”—a reminder that the artist Polanski maintained more than the semblance of control over his production. But Kael’s is also a chilling reminder that, despite our readiness to interpret scenarios by applying a familiar story—especially when it comes to the assigning of agency—we might as well look to the director.

Neal Gabler argues that “celebrity is the great new art of the 21st Century.”[4]

It is actually a new art form that competes with—and often supersedes—more traditional entertainments like movies, books, plays, and TV shows (and the occasional golf tournament), and that performs, in its own roundabout way, many of the functions those old media performed in their heyday: among them, distracting us, sensitizing us to the human condition, and creating a fund of common experience around which we can form a national community.

It would seem that the mere fact of celebrity (and this is no great surprise) inspires the kind of storytelling that both entertains and informs us.  And it would be worthless to disagree with Gabler that the common experience, the national community formed by the lives and stories of our celebrities, is, in fact, a powerful and binding force. But the romantic appeal of this notion drops off when by mythologizing, our stories eclipse entertainment and become mere blasphemy. The myths spill over into our lives, into our judgments, and soon we are treating celebrities as gods.[5] Likewise, we compare the director’s hand to that of a god, controlling, staging; we liken the celebrity judge, Judge Rittenband, to the omnipotent and unjust decider of Polanski’s fate; we imagine God performing a last judgment.  And as members of the public we judge too; in a sense (and here Gabler would agree) we oversee, and are at the very least complicit in the creation of celebrity.[6]

Hot Irrationality

To claim that having intercourse with a thirteen-year-old girl who is under the effects of alcohol and drugs is not “real rape,” or “rape-rape,”[7] involves raising the bar, a stock example of self-deception.

Self-deception is more widespread than we’d like to admit, and ranges from inferential errors (“cold” irrationality) to biases triggered by emotions (“hot” irrationality). “Hot” biased beliefs are those that can be traced to motivational or emotional causes; “cold” ones, to errors in the more “rational” processing of information. The operation of hot biased beliefs seems more commonsensical, given the spread of pop Freudian psychology: wishful thinking, for instance. The operation and sources of “cold” biased beliefs are not so widespread, but once presented they sound like we knew about them all along. One such source is the vividness of information. Vivid data are more likely to be recognized, attended to, and recalled than “pallid” data, and as a result, vivid data tend to have a disproportionate influence on the formation and retention of beliefs, even when “pallid” or inconspicuous data may be decisive.[8]

If we went over the “explanations” and narratives of Polanski’s advocates, we could find a whole gamut of examples of self-deceptive moves, in all kinds of combinations: taking a “hypercritical stance” toward evidence that goes contrary to one’s desired conclusions or deeply held beliefs; raising—or changing—the standards by which we would accept that a given act falls under a certain category; failing to focus on evidence that counts against one’s desired beliefs…

When people ask: “What was a thirteen-year-old girl doing, naked, in Polanski’s jacuzzi?” they are raising the bar regarding the behavior and agency of a girl—a hypercritical stance on the assessment of the evidence.

In the narrative of Samantha Geimer, constructed by Polanksi’s advocates, we usually see these three facts highlighted: at the time of the Polanski episode, 1) she wasn’t a virgin; 2) it wasn’t the first time she had taken Quaaludes; 3) she wanted to be a movie star. Conclusion: She had it coming.

This crippled narrative obviously picks out the pieces of information that confirm a desired conclusion: exculpating Polanski. Maybe there was something wrong in the whole episode. But if there was, our tragic hero had little to do with it. The suspicious person in this story is Geimer.

“I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me,” said Humbert Humbert about his first sexual encounter with Lolita.[9]

Good God

The simple truth that bad things do happen gives rise to one of the prevailing arguments against the existence of a god.[10] But if Polanski’s life were to offer a theological perspective, it would be that a good god could not possibly exist. By our insistence on telling (and retelling) his story, the details of his life and trial have taken on the grandest proportions. The revelations of the mainstream media would have us believe that trouble has befallen him in biblical proportions, or that his life has somehow adapted to the scope of a Hollywood production.[11]

Corruption meets innocence over water

But we are so used to imposing (and superimposing) our narrative devices onto the subjects of celebrity. Take the recent Nike ad campaign aimed at saving the reputation of Tiger Woods—or, more accurately, the reputation of his sponsor—in which Woods stares pathetically into the camera, the voice of his deceased father playing over his image, imploring him to learn from his actions. The story at play is a family story, a story about roots, reminding us that he had a father, and that he lost a father, inspiring not just our sympathies, but our convictions. Woods is a fallen idol, an Icarus crashed after flying too high, his father’s son—all rife with whatever meaning we may derive from or attach to such stories. But as illuminating and exhilarating as a story or well-chosen metaphor can be, like any model, it has its limitations. If we are all just characters in a story, for instance, then don’t we forfeit free will, or, more importantly, the freedom to imagine that things could have been otherwise?

And what of instances of misplaced metaphors, or poorly chosen narratives? In an interview for Zenovich's film, the prosecutor, the court-appointed attorney Robert Gunson, somewhat proudly describes his erroneous pre-trial research.

I wanted to find out more about Mr. Polanski, and luck have it, The Nuart Theater right down the street on Santa Monica Boulevard had a Polanski film festival right after the indictment and before trial. [...] Every Roman Polanski movie has a theme, corruption meeting innocence over water. I says, Oh, well, that's sort of what we have here, corruption, Roman Polanski, meeting innocence, a thirteen-year-old girl, over water, meaning the Jacuzzi. I felt I was gonna be able to pretty well convey to some jurors that this happened and he had directed a scene very similar to this in his real life.

Zenovich’s film is flawed on many counts, but perhaps most detrimentally by its implication of a grander narrative at play. More bluntly put, it participates in the calculated mythologizing of talking heads. Mia Farrow is one such myth-maker when she coolly tells the camera that Polanski possesses a “devilishness” that many women have found, and do find, sexy. But do we really buy into the significance of Gunson’s pathetic poetry, insofar as it serves the defense of the young Gailey? Can Farrow’s explanation actually distract us from the egregious implications of her reverie? Zenovich’s documentary neither succeeds as an imaginative rethinking of Polanski’s circumstances, nor as a vehicle for reclaiming some form of justice. 

And Polanski is not the only character in this morality play: the prosecutor Robert Gunson is “cast” as a likeness of Robert Redford, “clean-cut” and “sparkling”; the defense attorney, of Abraham Lincoln—serious and fair-minded.  And Judge Rittenband is the villain, whose influence is closer to that of a director of films than a judge charged with upholding the law. Even the film’s title, Wanted and Desired, plays into our feelings for the anti-hero, our peculiar and somewhat predictable attraction to the victimizer.  The wanted man is often an object of desire—and the word alone, “wanted,” comes with its own measure of innuendo.

The Plot

In 1979, Polanski defended himself to Amis’ readers by advancing the thesis that “everyone wants to fuck young girls.” 1979 was also the year that Joan Didion published her seminal collection The White Album. Didion’s title essay gives a mostly personal account of the late 1960s and the events that would dispel the writer’s trust in, and identification with what she’d formerly known as the narrative of her experience.

I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in no variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience. In what would probably be the middle of my life I wanted still to believe in the narrative and in the narrative’s intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical.

Her lists of symptoms (vertigo, nausea, emotional deterioration) and descriptions of reactions, physical and emotional, to the events that took place in, say, 1968, resemble the symptoms and reactions of a person experiencing a nervous breakdown. This is no coincidence, of course. Her description of a shift in sense experience, from ethical to electrical, was and is worth our examination.

I watched Robert Kennedy’s funeral on a verandah at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, and also the first reports of My Lai. I reread all of George Orwell on the Royal Hawaiian Beach, and I also read, in the papers that came one day late from the mainland, the story of Betty Landsdown Fouquet, a 26-year-old woman with faded blond hair who put her five-year-old daughter out to die on the center divider of Interstate five some miles south of the last Bakersfield exit. The child, whose fingers had to be pried loose from the Cyclone fence when she was rescued twelve hours later by the California Highway Patrol, reported that she had run after the car carrying her mother and stepfather and brother and sister for “a long time.” Certain of these images did not fit into any narrative I knew. [12]

Such a shift in perception could be said to mark the difference between the passive understanding of one’s place in the world (i.e. knowing it in terms of an already defined narrative, or a built-in ethical experience), to an active understanding, the building of a new, and perhaps more fluid, or electrical, ethical code. Each has its own set of dangers, its threats to the world as we now know it.

But in Didion’s ’60s, such a shift seemed inevitable. And we can’t help but wonder whether another such re-evaluation is, if not inevitable, then rightly called for in light of the reintroduction of Polanski’s case into the public’s consciousness.  In other words, if the old narratives no longer suffice, as Didion warns, we must be willing to find our adaptations, or risk disintegration, dissolution.  Of course, this would require not merely willingness, but imagination, openness to ambiguity, and empathy.

Who are we to say?

Reliable or not—and Didion’s reservations are to be taken seriously—narratives shape our understanding of virtually everything. Mythical and tragic narratives color our understanding of a life story like Polanski’s—and therefore, our understanding of his actions.

That understanding and explanation are so often couched in narratives, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that we don’t always need an elaborate narrative to understand all aspects of human life. Consider the inarticulate but strong and central love that, under ordinary circumstances, infants feel for their caretakers; this love is just a brute, basic fact of life that doesn’t require a narrative.

The understanding of basic causal relations need not involve a narrative, either. “X causes Y” could be expressed via symbolic logic, without appeal to a narrative. Human matters, on the other hand, seem to call for narrative particulars—and there arises the problem of interpretation. One aspect of this problem is the tension, within a narrative explanation, between the causal elements, which we use to ascribe actions to persons, and the narrative elements. The causal pulls us in the direction of a single explanation, of ascribing the action to this or that cause; the narrative, in the direction of more open and competing interpretations, which may put the causal “pull” into question.[13]

On the interpretive or narrative side of the spectrum, the problems are no less vexing, if perhaps more obvious. If a given action or event is open to different interpretations, how do we adjudicate among them? Moreover, if we add a grain of poorly understood politically correct tolerance, and a grain of (perhaps not so fashionable but still prevalent) “postmodernism,” it won’t be difficult to arrive at the conclusion that all interpretations are on equal footing: “That’s your interpretation, and I respect it; but as I see things…” This spurious sense of tolerance—whether it be an honest mistake or an expression of self-indulgence and intellectual sloth—treats all discussions as if they were matters of taste, about which there is no possible agreement or resolution. De gustibus non est disputandum! But perhaps even more irritating is this other hackneyed formulation of the same “tolerant,” “humble” (and, at heart, skeptical) move: “Who are we to say…?”

Still, the tension between the aim to reach a single, unifying explanation (“the definitive history/biography of;” “the” explanation; in sum, a master narrative) and the conviction that narratives are inherently open to interpretation—and that disputes are perhaps irresolvable—remains operative in popular culture. Thus, in many “debates” about the lives of celebrities, people waver happily from one end of the spectrum to the other: the preferred move seems to be to try to impose a master narrative (the “real” story, or the “real” account of…). If and when someone objects to this master story, one can either explain away these objections (“What was a thirteen-year-old doing in a Jacuzzi anyway?”) or fall back on the other end of the spectrum: the dead-ends of either interpretive relativism (“Your objection doesn’t hold, because, actually, my interpretation is as good as yours”) or interpretive skepticism. “Who are we to say?!”

True, stories (and explanations couched in those stories) are contingent, amenable to different interpretations. True, as Didion pointed out, narratives don’t always capture “the whole story.” It’s important to bear this in mind because the belief that narratives exhaust an issue may make us oblivious to blind-spots, and may even lead us to leave aside important facets of the situation we are trying to understand.[14] But, in absence of further argumentation, there is no reason to believe that posing the possibility of different interpretations is tantamount to interpretive relativism or skepticism. Even when there’s room for competing narrative accounts, it’s not the case that anything goes: we can still (and, often, we do) authoritatively rule out some accounts.[15] It’s hard to say what makes a story (or an explanation) sound, but it’s not so hard to tell when a story or account is definitely off target: What would we say of an “interpretation” of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex that claimed Oedipus ends a happy man when the tragedy is over? Whoever endorses this interpretation is simply failing to understand the actions and events in question.

“Lack of imagination moves them to cruelty”[16]

“You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go,” says Humbert Humbert upon Lolita’s return to his bed, after he told her that her mother had died—one of the few instances in which H. H. acknowledges that she was helpless, not him.[17]

“She wasn’t unresponsive,” says R.P. instead, during the trial. More informally, on different interviews: “I am reckless, but I don’t tell people about it,”[18] and the more straightforward, matter-of-fact, “Everyone wants to fuck young girls.”

But then again, Lolita, too, was considered a “little vixen” by some early reviews. Both Samantha Geimer and Dolores Haze were suspect: neither was a virgin, and both wished for Hollywood stardom.

A minimal exercise of imagination should make it clear that, prima facie, a scenario in which any drugged thirteen-year-old is found in any adult’s Jacuzzi entails that the thirteen-year-old is, to say the least, in a weak and vulnerable situation—in any case, a situation in which, in all possible worlds, the adult is the one who has a wider range of action: what is the agency of that thirteen-year-old, drugged and drunk? Could she have consented to anything? Could she have forcefully refused to anything? “She wasn’t unresponsive.” And many people believed it.

Failing to imagine carefully the situation of a girl in a grownup’s Jacuzzi is a failure in understanding that situation. We shouldn’t think of the imagination in the way the Romantics did—the imagination is not arbitrary fancy, but a cognitive faculty. As Ruth Byrne, among others, has shown, rational thought and imaginative thought operate together. They are more poles in a continuum than opposite faculties. An essential part of logical-inferential reasoning involves the use of counterfactual scenarios—alternatives to reality; Leibniz’s possible worlds.[19]

Leibniz, and some contemporary theorists who reappropriated the idea of possible worlds, used this notion to discuss counterfactual reasoning, essential to good moral judgment. But a painful dearth of (or inability to engage in) counterfactual reasoning is what many Polanski advocates seem to be suffering from. This, in at least two ways: first, by regarding Polanski’s life as a tragedy, they are denying that he had access to alternative possibilities of action—to alternative “worlds” in which he didn’t rape Geimer; he couldn’t do otherwise, like tragic heroes; his actions were, then, necessary, not contingent. Second, blaming the victim shows an inability to imagine her circumstances with a minimum of detail and precision—and this failure in imagination is connected to counterfactual reasoning.

This capacity to imagine alternative scenarios is crucial to sound thinking. We use this kind of counterfactual reasoning all the time, with varying degrees of sophistication, from the simple “What would have happened if I had done X instead of Y?” to highly theoretical explanations.[20] Likewise, we use counterfactual reasoning when we deliberate about the future: we think of the different alternatives that our different courses of action would or could bring about.

Imaginative dexterity also makes it easier to take the standpoint of others. The more detailed our imaginative counterfactual standpoint, the better we will understand the position of others. A failure in understanding, then, is often caused by a failure of the imagination; and this failure of the imagination may also enhance self-deception.[21]

The extents to which we resort to storytelling to explain the events of Polanski’s life are discoverable in any review, scholarly article, or interview on the subject.  Each has had its hand at linking the themes of his films with those of his life. And like Diane Sawyer’s remark, noted above, the result reflects a limited recourse of imagination, and so also a limited ethical scope. 

Still, we tend to cling to explanations and narratives that are implausible. Self-deception is perverse and pervasive, and one of its ways involves bypassing, neglecting, or obliterating distinctions that we should be very wary of dispensing with. For instance, certain narratives, certain “explanations,” attempt to blur the distinction between understanding and justifying.

True, we often use “understand” loosely, as if it had a condoning element. But, strictly speaking, understanding an action doesn’t entail justifying it. This distinction will sound obvious to many, but it would seem that when it comes to Polanski, and cases like his, even intelligent, lucid people suffer from sudden bouts of cognitive amnesia. Upon Polanksi’s detention in 2009, the French culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, said he was “dumbfounded” by such an “absolutely dreadful” detention. To him, it made “no sense” for the director to be “thrown to the lions for an ancient story, imprisoned while traveling to an event that was intending to honor him: caught, in short, in a trap.” The compassionate minister added that Polanski has “had a difficult life.”[22]

Thirty years earlier, his interview with Martin Amis already shows subtler but equally distorting and distracting “descriptions” of Polanski and Polanski’s situation. Amis gives ample physical and personal description of the director, which, in almost every instance, acts as an excuse for his behavior, if not the foundation for his innocence: his short stature; his desire for a racing bike; his gait, like that of a sixteen-year-old; his penchant for young girls. In other words, boys will be boys. The interviewer goes so far as to put rape between inverted commas that stand like raised eyebrows above the word.

Certainly, understanding is necessary for judging whether an action is justified. And in some cases, understanding might lead us to mitigate the blameworthiness of the person we are judging, or even to excuse said person altogether.  If it is our understanding that a morally or legally reprehensible act has been performed under coercion, for instance, blameworthiness will be mitigated. Insanity, in turn, is regarded as an excusing condition in both moral and legal contexts. Just what could count as mitigating or excusing conditions might be a subject of debate, but the very existence of these conditions presupposes that, at least prima facie, there is an important difference between understanding (and/or explaining) an action and justifying it.

In Hannah Arendt’s discussion on political violence, she appeals to the concepts of legitimacy and justification. Although she uses the latter in a sense that is different from the moral and legal senses we’ve just mentioned (Arendt’s notion of “justification” has forward-looking connotations), her general point applies to our case: “Legitimacy, when challenged, bases itself on an appeal to the past, while justification relies on an end that lies in the future. Violence can be justifiable, but it never will be legitimate.”[23]

At some point in the more widespread discussions of the Polanski affair, “understanding” Polanski’s actions becomes tantamount to justifying them—or, in Arendt’s terminology, tantamount to legitimating them. These concepts have been conflated; the distinctions, obliterated.

Alternatively, in some discussions these distinctions remain in place, but the “understanding” of Polanski’s actions is framed in such a way as to count as a formidable set of mitigating or excusing conditions. One such way of conflating these notions, or of “understanding” Polanski’s life as such, involves, as we’ve seen earlier, the use of (or the meshing of) mythical and tragic narratives; another one, raising the standards (or distorting the standards) of what would count as a morally unjustifiable action—an example of self-deception. As when Whoopi Goldberg, by some divine right, ups the standards by introducing “rape-rape” to our terminology for forced sex.

Luckily, unlike the ways of God, those of self-deception are not inscrutable.

Pain-related areas

“The best stories,” writes George Saunders, “proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people.”[24]

Empathy, like imagination, shouldn’t be construed like a mysterious immersion in another person’s “soul.” In its minimal and broadest sense, empathy is imagination of another person accompanied by some degree of emotional resonance, which ranges from a loose notion of emotional congruence or symmetry, to identity between the affective items (i.e., emotions) of empathizer and observed person.[25]

Recent experimental work has focused on this last pole of the range, namely, on cases in which empathy elicits qualitatively identical emotions on the observer or empathizer. Thus, Tania Singer, for instance, characterizes empathy more narrowly as “the process that allows us to feel for others, that is, to share the feelings and emotions of others.”[26]

Now, can we really “share” the emotions of others? With all the caveats that one might easily conceive, mostly regarding the culturally dependent nature of emotions, it is still worth noting that brain activity and reports by persons exposed to empathy-inducing situations match. That is, when asked to watch a scene of physical pain, subjects of experimental research reported experiencing pain-like feelings, and their brains registered activity in pain-related areas.[27]

More interesting for our purposes, related studies show that imagining the situation in question, and not merely witnessing it, can, and often does, trigger the emotions in question. And then again, so does narrative. The more detailed the narrative, the more accurate the empathetic reaction.

A narrative that reduces Samantha Geimer to a thirteen-year-old “vixen” involves a failure to imagine that thirteen-year-old properly—and therefore a failure to empathize with her. Consciously or not, the data-gathering mechanisms and inferential processes of the Polanski advocates pick out data selectively in order to reach the desired conclusion and the desired narrative: Polanski had a tough, tragic life; he’s a victim; he couldn’t do otherwise; his actions were necessary, not contingent.

Still, our Polanski advocate needs to accommodate data that points at something shoddy, wrong, or seedy: alcohol, drugs, sex, a thirteen-year-old girl. We’ve seen one way out: If Polanski did something wrong, it wasn’t so wrong: it wasn’t “rape-rape.” We’ve also seen that we could go further: sure, someone somewhere messed up. But then again, the girl was no saint: she wasn’t a virgin; she had done Quaaludes before; she got what was coming to her. If there was some pain or wrongdoing, it was deserved. The already cited studies show that interpreting pain as deserved inhibits empathy, and this, in turn, reinforces the selective acquisition of evidence that will buttress the Polanski’s advocate’s conclusion.[28]

Thus, to the initial failure to imagine the girl’s situation carefully, we have to add now this further failure. If we tell a story in which the girl deserves whatever “pain” she may have suffered, we miss, again, the opportunity to imagine her situation and to empathize with her, which would have given us a better grasp on (and understanding of) her situation.

The empathy/fairness relationship goes both ways. Empathy is inhibited because the observed person is perceived to have behaved unfairly. In other cases, it is the ability to empathize that improves the ability to make assessments of fairness.[29] Likewise, the inability to empathize often hinders the ability to make assessments of fairness. As the narrator of Borges’s “Brodie’s Report” says of Swift’s brutal yahoos, “Lack of imagination moves them to cruelty.”

One may ask what’s going on in episodes in which we blame the victim. Is the thought that the victim is blameworthy what inhibits empathy, or is the inability to empathize that leads people to make the erroneous judgment that the victim is to blame? In any case, these two processes reinforce each other. And, in the case of the Polanski advocates, the inhibition of empathy seems to go both ways.

Now, just as lack of (or insufficient) empathy leads us astray, research shows that excessive empathy tends to make observers justify the actions of whoever they are overempathizing with. And this is one of the things that Polanski advocates seem to be doing.

What empathy does do—or, rather, what we should allow empathy to do—is enable us to share relevant aspects of the situation, thereby enabling us to understand, as Martha Nussbaum says, “what it is like to be each of the persons whose situation she [the moral agent] imagines and assesses.”[30] This is exactly what the Polanski advocates seem unable to do: by suspecting Geimer, they are failing to individualize her, to think of her, to imagine her, as an actual, flesh-and-blood thirteen-year-old girl.

Perhaps this helps to account for the lack of interviews with her, and the overabundance of those with Polanski. Interestingly, photographs of Geimer during the period following the assault are abundant, as the media stormed her private space, followed her to school and home again, with their cameras.  But these photographs are neither individualizing nor are they effective vehicles for empathy—they are the continuations of the story that began with Polanski’s first click of the shutter.

Though the format of the interview is a limited prospect, its range of question and answer, its overall potential for painting a portrait and generating empathy, or at least a nuanced perspective, stacks high in comparison to a courtroom testimony—not the testimony given, or written rather, for a Hollywood production, but the one given by a thirteen-year-old girl who in court is asked, once more, to answer simply “yes or no.”


But still, why over-empathize with Polanski and not at all with Geimer? The idea that artists are special, beyond good and evil, is old, hackneyed, certainly mistaken—and still perversely prevalent. Under the guise of a seemingly more refined argument, the same idea underlies the claim that aesthetic value sometimes trumps moral demands. However, just as the aesthetic value of Polanski’s work is untouched by the moral value of his actions, the moral value of his actions is, or should be, untouched by the aesthetic value of his work.

Perhaps there are other causes for over-empathizing. Perhaps it is a question of who (or what) we prefer to identify with—power and control, or weakness and lack of control. Or perhaps it’s the attraction to celebrities—our gods, in either the Olympian or Judeo-Christian versions. (Zeus was, after all, a most lecherous guy, and no one ever seemed to mind—except Hera, his wife). And in any case, killing our gods, or even demoting them, is not easy.

First, it might be safer to attempt a theodicy, with the aim to accommodate the existence of evil under the assumption of an omnipotent, omniscient, supremely good God. This attempt generates intellectually fascinating (if failing) tours de force; the Polanski theodicy is equally failing, and less than intellectually fascinating. The end is the same, though: there is evil; however, not only does this fact not disprove God’s existence, but we can rest assured that it’s not His fault that there is evil in this world. Polanski is innocent, therefore God exists.

Paraphrasing Dr. Johnson’s rejoinder to Berkeley, we can say that a theodicy, at most, admits of no refutation, but produces no conviction. Polanski’s theodicy doesn’t even get us that far. It does admit of refutation, and it should generate no conviction. But, alas, Polanski’s theodicy does seem to generate conviction. People still believe in God. Should we be surprised that they still believe in Polanski?

Or, we can take a less extreme route that will allow us to salvage both God and Polanski’s evil. And the Gnostics may come to our help: our God is just a minor, imperfect deity in a long descending chain of defective gods; our world, just a minor, imperfect result of an inept artificer.

[1] Martin Amis. “Interview: Roman Polanski.” Reprinted in full in The Observer. (Sunday 6 December 2009).[http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/dec/06/roman-polanski-martin-amis-interview]

[2] Quoted in Dennis Lim. “Polanski’s Visions of Victimhood,” New York Times (14 February 2010). http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/movies/14polanski.html

[3] Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

[4] Neal Gabler. “Tiger Stalking: In Defense of Our Tabloid Culture.” Newsweek. (12 December 2009). [http://www.newsweek.com/id/226457]

[5] By this logic, God is a celebrity.

[6] In each instance: God exists!

[7] Whoopi Goldberg heatedly defended Polanski following his arrest, arguing on The View that his actions against Geimer were not categorizable as “rape-rape,” her own term.

[8] See Alfred Mele, Autonomous Agents: From Self-Control to Autonomy. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 1995.

[9] Vladimir Nabokov. The Annotated Lolita. New York: Vintage, 1991. 132.

[10] The existence of evil (i.e. “bad things”) gives rise to the famous “argument from evil:” If 1. God is omnipotent; 2. God is omniscient; 3. God is supremely good, then evil could not exist. If evil exists (and it’s certain that it does) then one or more of the three claims above cannot be true. Therefore, either there is no God or God is not what we think it is: for he’s either impotent against evil, or he couldn’t predict there would be evil (i.e. he’s not omniscient), or he’s not supremely good (for, why would he allow suffering to be?), or, worse, a combination of the above possibilities. Either way, God as Christianity conceives of it cannot exist. There’ve been several theodices—attempts to accommodate the fact of evil while keeping claims 1–3 above. Leibniz’s is one of them—one of the most famous.  Another says that God gave us free will, and therefore we are responsible for the evil in this world. 

[11] In an interview with Polanski, Diane Sawyer drew a not-so-subtle comparison between his early life experiences in the Krakow ghetto and an episode in Schindler’s List. Sawyer’s comparison marks a tendency, not specific to mainstream media, though certainly supported by it, to view real-life Holocaust narratives through the lens of an overarching popular, and often fictional narrative, like Spielberg’s film. Our hope here is to dispel at least some portion of this tendency—or at the very least to note its dangers.

[12] Joan Didion. “The White Album.” The White Album. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979. 13.

[13] Things can, and often do, become more complicated when there’s more than one cause in the picture. For instance, the question of how to determine the weight of different causes raises problems of its own, by either bringing up interpretive issues (e.g., under certain descriptions, it’s plausible to believe that cause X had much more weight than cause Z) or by bringing up the boogey man of epistemologists: skepticism (“We cannot know exactly—in a quantifiable manner or otherwise—what precise role cause X had”).

[14] But perhaps the problem here is to presuppose something like exhaustive knowledge—a supposed point at which we will have captured all there is. And there is no such thing. The most “exhaustive” knowledge and understanding of, say, World War I, which we had circa 1935 is “incomplete” in the sense that future events—World War II—will change and reconfigure that understanding. Still, it doesn’t follow that all possible interpretations of WWI held circa 1935 were wrong, or thoroughly misguided. Not just any internally consistent interpretation will be on equal footing with other interpretations. In time we may come to see that some interpretations are preferable to others. After some amount of interpretive discussion, we can acquire a set of acceptable, reasonable interpretations. Of course, at a later time we may find that some of the interpretations we deemed acceptable are not so; we might work out better interpretations, refine the existing ones, and so on.

[15] The distinction of fields of inquiry which admit of demonstrative reasoning and fields which do not, is important in itself, and crucial when it comes to certain practical issues. If one mistakenly thinks that a given issue is amenable to demonstrative reasoning, one has to conclude that, if our premises are sound and the argument is valid, our conclusion is the only correct one, and therefore whoever opposes our conclusion is being irrational. In the arena of morality, politics, social policy, and even personal relationships, this mistake (i.e., to believe mistakenly that a topic admits of demonstrative reasoning) can be disastrous.  However, just as this “interpretive authoritarianism”—the belief that all issues are amenable to demonstrative reasoning—is pernicious, interpretive relativism and interpretive skepticism are equally pernicious. A consequent relativist or skeptic would have to remain agnostic as to the “right account” and the “right judgment” of a life like Hitler’s, for instance.

[16] Jorge Luis Borges. “Brodie’s Report.” New York: Penguin, 2005.

[17] Nabokov, 142.

[18] Polanski quoted in Wanted and Desired.

[19] Leibniz poses the existence of an indefinite number of possible worlds. This world we inhabit is simply the one God chose to actualize among all the worlds He “sees” in eternity. In the last 30 years of the 20th century, David Lewis advanced arguments to defend his own version of Leibniz’s metaphysical postulate (also related, as in Leibniz, to a theory of personal identity). See Lewis’s Counterfactuals (1973) and On the Plurality of Worlds (1986).

[20] See Ruth Byrne (2005) The Rational Imagination. Cambridge: The MIT Press. Consider the following (admittedly simple and simplified) example: the forensic explains that it was substance X that killed the victim, because there is substance Y in her bloodstream, and we know that substance Y is found only when substance X enters the bloodstream. If there hadn’t been substance Y in the bloodstream of the victim, the hypothesis that it was X that killed her would not be sound. In sum, our tendencies to imagine alternatives to actions, controllable events, socially unacceptable actions, causal and enabling relations, and so on, are the basis for, and provide clues to, the cognitive and imaginative processes upon which counterfactual reasoning depends.

[21] Research in psychology  shows that through the narrative they were told, children encodesuch things as characters’ emotions, which were later transferred to perspective-taking in non-narrative contexts. These empirical results are consistent with findings in developmental psychology according to which the interrelated abilities to imagine being in someone else’s situation, take their perspective, and empathize with them are enhanced in children when these are exposed to narratives. The children in these studies were at a developmental stage in which perspective-taking and empathy-related abilities weren’t completely developed. Researchers found that children managed to adopt the point of view of the protagonist in a story, even when—given the developmental stage at which they were—they were still having trouble adopting another’s perspective in certain real-life, perceptually based tasks. Narrative, the researchers concluded, cues children in perspective taking in ways that are more effective than the mere directions they received during perceptually based tasks. Imagination, rational assessment, and narrative are intertwined. Readers or listeners of a narrative switch from an “internal” perspective (i.e., the perspective of the characters in the narrative) to an “external” one (i.e., the perspective of observers of the events depicted in the narrative). When they occupy the “internal” perspective, readers tend to imagine being in the position of the protagonist, and not merely being in some close spatiotemporal relation to them. (See G. Currie, “Characters and Contingency,” Dialectica 57, 2003, and F. Ziegler, P. Mitchell, and G. Currie, “How does Narrative Cue Children’s Perspective-Taking?” Developmental Psychology, Vol. 41, No1, 2005)

[22] Jon Henley. “Should Roman Polanski be Above the Law.” The Guardian. 28 September 2009) [http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/sep/28/roman-polanski-french-government]

[23] Hannah Arendt. On Violence. Harcourt Brace Jonavich, 1970.52

[24] George Saunders. “The Braindead Megaphone.” The Braindead Megaphone. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.

[25] See Nancy Sherman. “Empathy and Imagination.” in P.A. French & H.K. Wettstein, eds. Midwest Studies in Philosophy. Vol XXII. The Philosophy of Emotions. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.

[26] Tania Singer. “The Neuronal Basis of Empathy and Fairness.” G. Bock and J. Goode, eds. Empathy and Fairness. London: Novartis/Wiley & Sons, 2006. 20. There are three kinds of conditions that affect the triggering of empathy: conditions related to the kind of emotion at play (e.g., sadness, but not jealousy, tends to trigger empathy); conditions related to the context of the person who experiences the emotion (e.g., if a person experiencing pain is perceived as being “fairly” subjected to pain, empathy tends to be inhibited); and, lastly, conditions related to the context of the empathizer. An instance of this last kind is familiarity between observer (or “empathizer”) and the person who is displaying the emotion (i.e., the person with whom the observer can empathize).

[27] “When I watch someone being hurt by a needle, I feel almost as if that was happening to me,” de Devignemont writes to emphasize this first-personal dimension of empathy (F. de Devignemont, “When Do We Empathize?”, in G. Bock and J. Good eds. Empathy and Fairness. London: Novartis/Wiley & Sons, 2006, p. 185). The qualifier “almost as if” obeys to the fact that it has been shown that parts, but not the whole, of the “pain matrix” of the brain, are activated when empathizing with the pain of others. Yet, important parts of the pain matrix (e.g., the cerebellum), which are recruited when one is directly subjected to physical pain, are activated both when one experiences pain and when one empathizes with somebody else experiencing pain. Affective, if not always somatic or sensory, components of pain are recruited during these empathetic processes.

[28] There’s also a grimmer possibility: like Borges’s yahoos, our Polanski yahoos are in the habit of not using their imaginations and cognitive resources much—or of using them lazily. We reduce Geimer’s narrative to her being an opportunistic vixen. Alternatively, we blame the child’s proxy: her mother. A personal friend of Polanski’s: “It was well-known that Roman was a womanizer; how could the mother leave her daughter with him?”  

[29] See Tania Singer, Op. cit., loc. cit. S The discussion on imagination and empathy in this essay leans on Gustavo Llarull, “Narrative Self-Conceptions, Ethics, and Literature” (dissertation in philosophy, University of California-Riverside, 2007).

[30] Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice: the Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston. Beacon Press, 1998, p. 73.


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