Sunday, September 29, 2013

Who does nuance belong to?

In Roman Polanski and the sin of simplification our beloved Victoria Coren Mitchell discusses a new book by Samantha Geimer (the woman that Polanski drugged and raped as a thirteen year old girl). Much as I adore VCM, she confuses a fact about child sex abuse, and abuse generally, and a despicable lie that regularly gets in the way of reporting and justice:

  Fact: Abusers are human beings and thus are very complex, possibly with talents, virtues, their own pain, strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us. Victims are often well aware of this.

  Lie: If someone has talents, or has suffered in some way, the wrongness of their crimes somehow becomes more complicated.

Child abusers are rarely terrible people in every aspect of their lives. Victims will be particularly aware of this because usually, a victim knows their abuser; these are their parents, their family friends, their priests, teachers and mentors. What's more, victims are heavily invested in the idea that their abusers were not monsters because, from their point of view;
  • If he were a monster, I wouldn't have liked or trusted him. 
  • If he were a monster, other people who cared for me would not have let him alone with me. 
  • If he were a monster, what he did to me is without meaning or explanation.
None of this is irrational.  Abusers are human beings. Victims (and the people who care for them) are not stupid, careless creatures who wander naked into caves past signs reading, "Rapist Troll Lives Here". Unless you look at the fundamental humanity of abusers, then you can't understand why this happens or how this happens. The idea that rapists and sexual abusers are monsters is one of the chief reasons that victims are so often met with disbelief; this nice family man has no horns, this talented sportsmen has no forked tail.  

And VCM would have done very well to write an article about that - to say that Roman Polanski is a man who has suffered in his life and he is very talented (though honestly, he's no Kubrick) and yet he still committed this monstrous crime. We need to see that and take note; people who are virtuous in some respects are monstrous in others. But she loses her way. Any article which discusses a rape and has the line 
"A second complicating factor is that Polanski's work is filled with beauty and humanity."
is going to boil a lot of blood. Gandhi beat his wife at least once - we don't think that was okay, and he was Gandhi, for goodness' sake. Polanski is just a film director, whose reputation has been elevated beyond his talent by his history of personal suffering. I think story-telling is nearly the most important thing on Earth, but there's nothing he could ever do in the creation of a movie that would somehow mitigate the rape of a child. VCM talks about Geimer's book:
"She says that the police investigation, hospital exams and reporting of the case were more traumatic than the attack itself. She says: "I did something wrong, I was stupid… To pose topless, and to drink and to take the [sleeping] pill." 
"It is so easy and tempting to knock this into a pigeonhole: the misguided self-blame and denial of the victim."
Only, this is not self-blame or denial.  I was abused as a young adult, so I can tell you about all kinds of foolish things I did, positions I put myself in, misplaced trust and loyalty, and I don't get to wipe that all away with, but I was a child; children are daft and don't know any better. However, none of those things make me responsible for what was done to me. None of those things make what my abuser did less serious because I made a few bad choices.

Geimer was a thirteen year old girl, who chose to pose topless, drink and take a pill she was offered. Some might judge that as stupid (I have very little context). But to think that could be read as self-blame suggests that a thirteen year old girl can do stupid things that make her to blame for her rape. She can't. Rape just isn't that complicated.
"It is the complication that we need. People have become desperate to reduce everything, including each other, to mindless categories of good and bad, as if the world can be divided into Facebook likes and dislikes."
But deeds can and should be divided in this way. I like yarn-bombing. I dislike child-rape. For all I know some yarn-bombers are complete bastards and I'm sure that there are some lovely child-rapists. Except for, you know, the raping children thing, which I struggled to see past.
"So what is to be done with Samantha Geimer's story? She does not condemn Polanski nor exonerate him. She does not blame herself nor refuse to examine herself. Her voice is strong and complicated. You cannot simplify her, or him."
No we can't. But we can simplify the crime he committed towards her - which Geimer does herself. She describes it as "rape, in every sense of the word" because that's what it was. Roman Polanski is a rapist. However complicated he is as a human being, this crime was not and our response to that needs no nuance whatsoever.

Geimer's reaction is nuanced. Like all victims, Geimer is a human being who has reacted, coped with and confronted her experience in a unique and personal way. She's done it bravely, and has written a book that people say is well-written.

But the nuance of what happened to her belongs entirely to Geimer.  It doesn't belong to anyone else. 


Katja said...

The link at the beginning of the post is to something entirely different. The correct link: Roman Polanski and the sin of simplification.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Katja - I've updated it now. I can't even remember seeing or reading the link that was there - quite odd.

UntrustUs said...

I really like this post. I don't get why it's so hard to understand that people are really complex, and not just the famous, admirable art-creating kind, everybody is really complex. And most people looking critically at this don't say "his art isn't good because he raped someone." they're saying "his art is good but he also raped someone." I mean these things aren't even comparable in any possible way! It's like saying "oranges taste good, but people also die of cancer." He isn't anymore complex or otherworldly than the rest of us just because we like the things he produces. And hey, what about Samantha Geimer? Would she be more complex as a victim if she made beautiful art too? (hint: no) Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, but who really knows what happened at those sleepovers? And there was plenty of 'but he had a really hard life' argument going on there too.