Memoir by Polanski Rape Survivor Getting the Silencing Treatment
Earlier this week it was reported that Samantha Geimer, the sexual assault survivor at the center of the 1977 Roman Polanski rape case, is writing a memoir on the assault and its ongoing effects on her life. At the time of the assault, Geimer was thirteen years old. Now she is 47, decades removed from the initial trauma, and ready to put her story on paper. So why, instead of celebrating Geimer for having the bravery to share her experience, are we so intent on silencing her?
Despite Geimer being thirteen years old at the time of the rape, well under the California age of consent, and despite Polanski being 43 years old at the time of the rape, despite the fact the Geimer repeatedly said “no” and resisted Polanski, and despite the fact that Polanski provided underage Geimer with not only alcohol but also drugs, Geimer continues to be portrayed as a teen at the center of a sex scandal. In dozens of articles reporting on Geimer’s memoir, the words “rape” or “assault” are carefully avoided in headlines. Rape turns into a “sexual encounter” or “teen sex.” Her memoir, which does not even yet exist, has already become a “tell-all”–a phrase typically reserved for memoirs and autobiographies written by sexualized women (see Monica Lewinsky’s reported memoir).
The phrase “tell-all” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a written account (as a biography) that contains revealing and often scandalous information.” There’s that word again–”scandalous.” Here’s the thing: there is nothing scandalous about a rape survivor sharing her story. To call something a sex scandal implies a lot of things–secrets, disgrace, ruined reputations, but something else it implies is consent. To call what happened to Samantha Geimer a sex scandal is media manipulation.
Geimer is a survivor of severe sexual and psychological trauma. Not only did she survive a horrific rape at the age of thirteen, for the past three and a half decades, she has continued to be defined by that rape. She has been hounded by the media, as have her children, to the point where she has pleaded for the charges against Polanski to be dropped–not as a reflection of his innocence (because he’s guilty), but because, as Geimer’s lawyers reported in 2009, she wants to be left alone.
For Geimer now to write a memoir now may seem counterproductive, but the difference between Geimer writing a memoir and Geimer being hounded by the media and dragged through endless court cases is this: in writing a memoir, Geimer is able to tell her story on her own terms. She regains some control over a part of her life that, for decades, has been uncontrollable. Having a platform in which a survivor of sexual assault can voice her story can be incredibly empowering and help propel the ongoing recovery process. It’s why writing therapy is so often used for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder–not to assume Geimer suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, as that is not for me, or anyone else in the media to say, but it’s important to remember that virtually all forms of trauma therapy involve some voicing of traumatic memories (Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, Principles of Trauma Therapy, Catherine V. Scott & John Briere). To assume that we know whether or not writing a memoir might do any good for Geimer is, frankly, absurd.
All too often, when a survivor of sexual abuse comes forward with a written account of her experience, the media asks, “Why write this?” Already critics are reporting that they wish Geimer wouldn’t write this memoir because “there is no way that this story will end well for her” and that “Polanski himself has clearly moved on” so Geimer should, too. Besides those assumptions being pretty upsetting and utterly asinine (we have no way of knowing how writing this memoir will aide in Geimer’s recovery, and if we’re going to use the behavior of a rapist as a template for how the victim should behave, then put me on a spaceship and launch me off because I do not want to be on this planet anymore), they operate on the belief that a survivor of sexual abuse should both suffer and recover quietly, and that the survivor’s story does not possess worth.
This treatment isn’t reserved for memoirs of sexual trauma rooted in celebrity–even established literary writers face the same question of “why?” When Tiger, Tiger, Margaux Fragoso’s harrowing memoir of the childhood sexual abuse she endured from age 7 to 22, was published last year, reviews of the memoir repeatedly questioned the value of the book. It took Kathryn Harrison, author of an equally harrowing memoir, The Kiss, that recounted the incestuous relationship she had with her father from age 20 to 24 (to which some critics responded with words like “slimy” and “repellant” and insightful questions like, “Did she call him ‘Dad’ in bed?”), to point out the obvious in her own review of Tiger, Tiger–that to read a memoir written by a survivor of abuse might help us look at the atrocities of life head on, “to open our eyes and redeem ourselves.”
Whether or not Geimer’s memoir will have literary value on par with Harrison’s and Fragoso’s is not yet for us to say, but to frame a memoir that has yet to be published as something it is not, label its author as someone she never was, and to wish Geimer would just be quiet and move on is the worst sort of silencing. At its best, literature is meant to enlighten us and enrich our lives, to give us insight into experiences far removed from our own. To view a memoir of sexual abuse as simply too “repellant” to teach us anything about the world we live in does an incredible disservice both to the survivor and to ourselves.
Written by Kate Russell
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