Speaking up for herself

Samantha Geimer, director Roman Polanski's rape victim 36 years ago, finally tells her side of the story

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 5:47pm

The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski
by Samantha Geimer
3.5 stars

It's a line Roman Polanski used in his 1974 film Chinatown, screenplay by Robert Towne: "You see, Mr Gittes, most men never have to face the fact that in the right time, the right place, they're capable of anything."

That line became the story of Samantha Geimer's life. Just shy of her 14th birthday, Geimer found herself posing naked in Jack Nicholson's jacuzzi, modelling for photographs Polanski claimed he was taking for a glossy magazine. The year was 1977, and the situation must have made Polanski indeed feel capable of anything.

This is not a simple story. It unfolded in a Hollywood era of situational ethics, when not many parents would object to a child's brush with fame

Under the influence of alcohol and quaaludes provided by the director, Geimer submitted to what her family, the Los Angeles Police Department and her lawyer called rape, though she took a more innocent view of the goings-on.

But was she ever really heard? Fame being fame, the sordid mess became Polanski's story, not hers.

As the title, The Girl, indicates, even when the violation of Geimer attracted enormous media attention, few Americans knew or mentioned her name. The European press identified her clearly enough for photographers to stake out her house and take pictures of her at school. But the news was all about Polanski's crime and, to some, his martyrdom at the hands of the US judicial system. "The girl" was collateral damage, nothing more.

Polanski is now 80, Geimer a 50-year-old wife and mother who lives in Hawaii and Nevada, and the incident is still not fully behind them. (Polanski is a French citizen who might face more prosecution if he returned to the US, which he fled in 1978.) Geimer is laying claim to her share of the encounter. With the help of her lawyer and a co-writer, she channels the bewilderment she felt while in Polanski's company, and the terror that came later. She has also become his vehement defender, on the theory that these bygones really are bygones, and that they occurred in a culture with very different values about sex and love.

Yet her story is told entirely on the surface, unlike that of kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard, whose memoir, A Stolen Life, has much more depth and shock value.

Geimer contradicts stories that she was a tramp, a climber or the daughter of a pushy stage mother. She also brings readers back to the fact that she came of age when exploiting the sexuality of young girls - Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby - was considered less transgressive than it is now. She was a more or less willing participant, she admits.

"Now listen: I am not naive," Geimer writes. "If you write a book, you're not asking to be left alone. You're inviting people into your life. I know that. Welcome."

Welcome to the world of a girl who got in over her head, told a couple of stupid lies and was willing to do whatever it took to win favour with a famous man.

Geimer mostly writes in the past tense, but she switches to the present for chapter four, the account of exactly how Polanski had his way with her. But if that is all her memoir leaves with its readers, Geimer will once again be just "the girl".

She describes a degree of courtesy perhaps unusual in a man looking to coax her into anal sex. But according to Geimer, Polanski was solicitous of her feelings throughout, and seemed genuinely to want her to enjoy the sexual experience with him. Then came the strange part: he escorted her home and insisted on showing her family the pictures he had taken. Her mother, an aspiring actress, and her stepfather, who worked for Marijuana Monthly, might have been more receptive. But what angered them was that the photos weren't of professional quality. And that Geimer was topless. Didn't models wear clothes in photos for fashion magazines?

The Girl makes clear, perhaps even clearer than Geimer realises, that this is not a simple story. It unfolded in a Hollywood era of situational ethics, when not many parents would object to a child's brush with fame. It pitted Polanski, a great director and victim of extreme adversity (especially after his wife, Sharon Tate, was killed by followers of Charles Manson), against a nobody perhaps eager to use him.

It also pushed Geimer into a cone of silence, forced to witness the most humiliating courtroom revelations. She later learned it had taken a roomful of legal talent to decide how to cut up her underwear so each team's pathology experts got a fair semen sample.

The later portions of The Girl are much less interesting. Geimer describes drug use, promiscuity, bad-boy suitors and the otherwise unremarkable life she might have had, if she hadn't once caught a famous director's eye.

The Girl would have been a very short book if it were only about Geimer's life and if the rape case did not flare up from time to time, drawing her back into the public eye. In 1988, she won a civil suit against Polanski. By then she had come out of hiding. And in 2003, with Polanski nominated for the best director Oscar for The Pianist, she wrote an article in the Los Angeles Times headlined, "Judge the Movie, Not the Man".

The book does not delve deeply into Polanski's 2009 arrest in Switzerland as he headed for a film festival to receive an award. Geimer surfaced very publicly then. She was outspoken with her "enough is enough" message of healing.

But there may have been more forces behind this ambush than those involving a scandal-tainted movie director and a teenage girl. Polanski's arrest prompted US calls for extradition at a time when the Swiss bank UBS was fighting to protect its clients' anonymity from the US government. It also came at a time when Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, then running for state attorney general, found it expedient to campaign on the extradition issue. There is much more to Polanski's history, legal and otherwise, than "the girl" ever knew.

The New York Times