6 Realities Of Life When You're Raped By A Celebrity
In 1977, when Samantha was 13, acclaimed film director Roman Polanski invited her to be the subject of a photo shoot. During the shoot, he gave Sam alcohol and a Quaalude, then raped her. He fled to Europe during the subsequent trial, where he still lives today.
Because there was never closure to the case -- there's still talk of extraditing Polanski for the crime nearly 40 years later -- Sam has had to watch as the bullshit rears its ugly head again and again. We talked to her about what it's like to live life as a prop in a celebrity's rape scandal in a country that still has no goddamned idea what to think about sexual assault victims. She says ...
The Media Was Against Her From The Start
Roman Polanski was not only at the height of his fame in 1977, but also had a sympathetic backstory worthy of its own movie. He'd lost his family in the Holocaust, and his pregnant wife had recently been murdered by the Manson Family. So when a random 13-year-old accused him of rape, the media was not sympathetic to her.
"The sentiment at the time was that either my mom and I were gold-digging liars, or that [my mom] was terrible, perhaps neglectful, perhaps had sent me knowing [what would happen], or was somehow okay with it. There was no 'poor victim' aspect." Even the judge in the case described Sam as a girl who "looks older than her years," while Polanski's probation report suggested that "the victim was not only physically mature, but willing," presumably because it's okay to rape 13-year-olds as long as they're sufficiently attractive.
Sure, she looks like the sort of mature woman whom 44-year-old men should be hitting on.
But at least they admitted that it was a crime, which is more than many observers did. "They were saying I was a drug user [and] dealer. People called the house and asked if we were prostitutes. What little mercy I got for being 13, they just loaded all of that onto my mother. She was the 'worst mom in the world.'"
The irony is that, while Sam's mom was judged for letting her be alone with a celebrity, the fact that Polanski was famous is what made them feel safe. If the offer of a photo shoot had come from some dude they ran into in a parking garage, it would have raised more red flags than the 2008 Olympics. But, they figured, why would a beloved, career-driven millionaire who had no trouble getting women risk everything on some random teen?
Yes, what celebrity has ever been accused of such a horrible crime?
"As far as we knew, he was a well-respected artist. You wouldn't think someone with that much to lose ... it just wouldn't cross your mind that he would do something that inappropriate. I don't think my mother gave it a second thought. [It wasn't] unusual to be unchaperoned in the '70s."
Keep in mind that in 1978, a 12-year-old Brooke Shields starred in Pretty Baby, a movie about a seductive child prostitute with gratuitous nude scenes. There was also a line of perfume with ads about how sexy kids are.
We may have mentioned before that the late '70s were quite a good time for child predators.
So the '70s were, uh, a different time. Sam pointed out that it wasn't unusual to see a 20-something guy dating a teenager, nor was it unusual for 13-year-olds to be experimenting with drugs and alcohol. So when a rumor got started that Sam had voluntarily attended a big Hollywood party, it didn't sound implausible. It was also completely wrong, but the idea stuck around anyway.
"I saw someone post only last week that I was at a party with Roman when that happened. There's this lingering idea that I was a party girl, I was sexually experienced, I did drugs ... all of that. I think the repetition made that stick a little bit ... I can't stress enough that I had no help, nobody on my side, no one saying, 'Hey, this guy did a shitty thing.' Not in 1977."
And Yet, The Court Case Was Even Worse
Sam and her family had to testify in front of a grand jury, who immediately made it clear that, at least at that stage, she was the one on trial. Remember, in the '70s, a guide for police investigating rape included the helpful tip: "Women and children complainants in sexual matters are notorious for embroidery or complete fabrication of complaints ... It is always advisable if there is any doubt of the truthfulness of her allegations to call her an outright liar."
You know, just in case.
Now think about what this is like for a 13-year-old, when you're already sure that everything you're doing is wrong and that everything is your fault. Sam became terrified that she would get prosecuted for lying to Polanksi (at the photo shoot, he creepily asked her if she'd had sex before, and she told him she'd done it twice, when in reality she'd only done it once with her boyfriend).
"[Testifying] was one of the worst, scariest things that I ever went through. My mom, my sister, my boyfriend, everyone got to go in ... to sit in front of 26 adults, and have to answer all those questions, and I worried that if they found out that I lied, then it's over for me ... it was a giant weight for me at that age."
It would be one thing if it was all a matter of a stressful afternoon ... but the process took weeks. Weeks of stress, anticipation, and waking up every day to see the media trashing you and your family. Weeks of having to talk to countless middle-aged men in the police and legal system about sex and the panties she had been wearing. It wouldn't take much of that bullshit before you'd want to move on with your life.
"They're sneaking me in and out of the court [to protect my identity]. It's an all-day thing, just sitting and waiting and waiting. From the minute the cops came, [they separated] me from my mom, they wouldn't let her into the emergency room, they wouldn't let her into the grand jury room. Like, from the beginning, they thought she was telling me to lie. You're 13, you go in there all by yourself. It feels like you're under a spotlight. The chairs in the grand jury room, it's like [they're looming over you]. They keep talking about your panties, about where he touched you. It was worse than what happened, having to describe every minute detail to a roomful of strangers."
Strangers who might have been happy to see this uppity teenager jailed while a beloved celebrity went free, facts be damned.
At every stage, it was clear that their primary goal was to find out if she was lying. Add to that the growing media circus, and the prospect of several more months -- or years -- of it became unbearable. "The consequences, the publicity, having to leave the state because people were sitting outside of our house with cameras -- that all happened really fast, and no one expected it. It was a shock, and we were frightened ... suddenly there's worldwide coverage ... suddenly we're just fighting for our lives and trying not to drown."
That's why Sam and her family pushed for a plea bargain, whereby Polanski would plead guilty to a single lesser charge and spend 90 days in prison. That spared Sam and her family the exhaustion of a trial, and would still leave Polanski with the reputation of a man who admitted to raping a child. There was even concern that, because Sam had turned 14 and was rapidly maturing, she would look "too old" to convince the court that the sex wasn't consensual.
Because you can apparently "age out" of photographing a half-naked seventh-grader.
Polanski accepted the plea deal, pleaded guilty to sexual intercourse with a minor, and was released to await sentencing. He then got word that the judge was considering retracting the deal. He fled to France (he couldn't be extradited back, since he was a French citizen) and never returned to the United States. He continued making movies and winning awards, and every time his name hit headlines, the controversy revived with it. Sam's hopes of putting it all behind her were dashed, and then all the pieces were gathered up and shot into fucking space.
The Media Was Relentless
Sam's identity was protected as a child, but it became public when she turned 18. So whenever Polanski was in the news -- when he was up for an award, when there were rumors of his return to America -- the media wanted Sam's thoughts. And when we say "wanted," we mean "demanded in the most assholish ways possible." They weren't out to give her a voice; they were out to get ratings and sell papers. She wasn't a victim or a human being to them -- she was a flashpoint for controversy.
"When there were rumors that he might be coming back, we had some guy sitting out front. He brought flowers. And all of a sudden, we realized that there's another guy with a camera in his car, and he's been there for three days. It was, 'We'll give you $5,000, but if you don't talk to us, then we're going to write terrible things about you.' It turned quickly from, 'Oh, we need your story, here are some gifts for your kids' to, 'Fuck you, we're going to screw you over if you don't give us what we want.'"
Meanwhile, Polanski was getting cover stories like this in Rolling Stone.
That makes Sam nervous for women she sees taking their accusations public. "When I see women in the press, I think, 'They told you they needed you, that you're important,' but nobody cares about you. They're using you, and as soon as they're done with you, you're never going to hear from them again ... Nancy Grace will be off to the next victim [in] two minutes. Not one person who begged you to be on their show gives a crap about you."
This doesn't mean that rape victims should all go into hiding; Sam wrote an entire book about her experience! But if you're going public with an accusation against a beloved celebrity, you'd better goddamned well know what exactly you're in for. Sam certainly had no idea what was coming.
Harassment Comes From Sides You'd Never Expect
All of this happened in 1977. Sam has long since felt that efforts to extradite Polanski to America to face another trial should stop, and that the blow to his public reputation and 39 years of exile are punishment enough. But "Rape victim moves on and is at peace" makes for a boring headline, so one paper offered Sam money to change her mind. "A British paper said, 'We'll give you a good amount of money,' but they didn't want me to say 'the same old thing.' They wanted me to say, 'He's terrible, I've changed my story, I want him prosecuted.' They were basically going to pay me to lie. That was their offer. They weren't ashamed to ask."
And they will keep asking. For a 39-year-old case, opinions can be surprisingly divisive whenever Polanski's name pops up in the media. Here's a blog "dedicated to the greatest man of our time" which hosts fun articles like "The Girl Who Couldn't Say No," and picks apart Sam's memoirs in such pedantic detail that the author must think that the name of Kennedy's true assassin is hidden between the lines. And in most articles about Polanski, you can find comments attacking Sam with made-up nonsense.
That mid-sentence stop isn't our doing, by the way. It seems there weren't enough pro-child-rape materials to fill out a bibliography.
Meanwhile, here is an article arguing for the continued persecution of Polanski, in part because Sam is constantly "forced to relive [her] assault" and because it has "haunted her in the press."
"No, we didn't actually ask her how she felt. Why would we do that?"
As time has passed and attitudes toward sexual assault victims have somewhat changed for the better, public opinion has largely turned against Polanski. But for Sam, that simply means that she gets heat for not joining the chorus. "Suddenly, [Polanski's] a monster, and I take so much heat for standing up and going, 'Listen, I'm okay. I was okay a long time ago.' I've been called a rape apologist, that I've insulted rape victims, by recovering. And man, there's no shame in recovering. You're not doing damage to anyone by getting better. It's so hypocritical. It's impossible to do the right thing. It's like, 'We feel bad that you're damaged, but could you please be a little more damaged to prove the point?' It's nonsense."
Sam isn't "haunted" by her past. She's had four decades to come to terms with it. The people who tell her that she remains damaged want her entire life to be defined by one event which happened before the original Star Wars hit theaters. "If you know someone who's been sexually assaulted, what do you want? Whatever happened, however small or huge it seems to them, you want them to get better." Some women (and men) struggle to get over rape. Others bounce back fairly quickly. There's no "right" way to do it.
But when your assault becomes someone else's moral or political crusade, all that becomes irrelevant. They need you to play a role.
You Will Be Remembered Solely As "The Victim"
Moments of fame are frozen in time. LA County Crime Analyst William Hung will always be famous for his terrible American Idol audition, lawyer Ghyslain Raza will always be the Star Wars Kid, and Sam will always be Roman Polanski's rape victim.
"I think it's always been framed as the idea that I am an accessory to the life of Roman Polanski. 'Is he coming back to the United States? Hey, where's that victim?' 'Did he get an award? Hey, how about that victim?' I understand that he's the celebrity and I'm not. But I never had any control. 'How do you feel that he's getting an Oscar?' Like I give a shit? There's a struggle to keep people from making me a victim when I don't want to be."
If you're expecting a sound bite about the cinematography unlocking some case detail she forgot, fuck right off.
This was especially noticeable when Polanski publicly apologized for the rape in 2011. Reaction was mostly positive, although some comments were ... weird.
We can sense the anger, but who the hell is it directed at?
The media rushed to get Sam's opinion, but it didn't matter to her. Why should she need someone else to make her feel better? "'Has he apologized?' People always ask that. I didn't need an apology! Why are you putting that on me? Like I need his apology to feel better? How about if I'm just fine? What you're really doing is making it so that I need something from him to feel better about myself. And to make me need that, that's ironic. It's the thing our society does to women and girls. There's this facade of empowerment, but they're really cutting your legs out from under you."
When we, the consumers of media, see stories like this, we want to have the "right" reaction. We feel bad for rape victims, but once they stop being victims, they stop being interesting. Even having the thought "The rape victim got over it" feels like a slap in the face to assault survivors everywhere. "You need to protect women without taking away their power and value and acting like they require your protection, like I supposedly required his apology. You're infantilizing women, you're telling them that you can't make any decisions."
Endless Public Outrage Doesn't Fix This Problem
Earlier, we mentioned how the sides in the case had agreed to a plea bargain, but then it looked like the judge decided to throw it out at the last minute. This has been widely criticized -- among other things, there's the fact that the judge was likely discussing the case with journalists throughout the process. He was terrified of the backlash that would come if it was perceived that Polanksi got off easy.
"Our judge was consumed with his public image. In the Stanford case, the opposite is happening. I don't think public opinion and sentiment, and a judge's perception of their image, has any place in our justice system ... I think [Brock Turner] got a light sentence, but having judges that aren't vain and worried about their public image is still a better thing. If the sentence was too short, there are ways to deal with that. But now Twitter's going to sentence people? That's not how our justice system works. And none of those people talking about it were at the trial or understand all the details. It's all based on semi-informed general opinion."
You can't really fit a thoughtful, detailed legal analysis into 140 characters.
It should be common sense that judges are supposed to remain above public opinion, because that's why we have a legal system instead of relying on lynch mobs enraged by half-remembered details from inflammatory headlines glimpsed on Facebook. The prosecutor in the Stanford case, while arguing against the sentence, also argued against attempts to recall the judge. A group of defense attorneys argued that such extreme public pressure on judges could scare them into handing out unfairly harsh sentences.
Remember that public outrage tends to be both highly selective and totally random. We'll ignore 10 defendants who took guilty pleas because they couldn't afford a trial, then get enraged by a single rich douche getting off easy (at least, until we get distracted by, say, somebody shooting a gorilla in a zoo). Ask yourself: How much of the outrage comes from a desire to reform the system, versus people who want some drama to spice up their morning browsing?
Alternate title: "TL;DR."
"Victims get appropriated without their consent," says Sam. "A lot of it's misguided, and a lot of victims aren't getting any attention or any help. Somebody's getting raped right now. Nobody famous did it, so nobody gives a shit. We need to think about jumping on these bandwagons and feeling good about doing nothing."
For more insider perspectives, check out 8 Ways The Legal System Screws Rape Victims (Like Me) and 5 Things I Learned Committing A Campus Sexual Assault.
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