Crime and punishment, Hollywood style

Polanski and Van Houten

Polanski and Van Houten

In late 1998, President Bill Clinton’s political credibility was in jeopardy when it became evident the hillbilly in chief was not only the sort of guy who routinely cheats on his wife and child, but also was inclined to lie whenever his sins of the flesh threatened his political credibility.  The many affairs dating back to his days as attorney general of Arkansas had been widely documented, but ignored with a wink and a not by the same members of the media who would later question George W. Bush’s fitness for the presidency because of a DUI that occurred around the same time Clinton allegedly raped Juanita Broaddrick in an Arkansas hotel.  Broaddrick’s recounting of the event, from her description of the buildings outside her hotel window to Clinton’s campaign schedule, was more than credible.  Journalist Lisa Myers confirmed that the view from the hotel had indeed changed — to it’s current incarnation from the very one Broaddrick remembered.  And rape allegations had followed Clinton since his days as a Rhodes Scholar, when he abruptly left England in the wake of an unprosecuted rape that never warranted media scrutiny.  And surely the rumors about a certain politician with national ambitions raping a former Miss Arkansas were part of a vast right wing conspiracy, just like the pile of complaints from women who hadn’t asked to see his small, curved penis.  When confronted about the probability that their golden boy was a serial rapist, Clinton’s supporters inevitably issued some retort along the lines of, “He may be a rapist, but he’s our rapist!”

Prisons are full of people whose earlier lives were rife with tragedy.  Parental addiction and abandonment?  Check!  Physical and sexual abuse?  Check!  Household violence?  Check!  No one (well, no one other than a Muslim) would deny that Roman Polanski’s childhood in war-torn Poland and his mother’s death in a Nazi concentration camp are tragic on a grand scale.  And if those events weren’t enough, Polanski’s eight-months-pregnant wife was murdered in 1969 by minions of cult leader Charles Manson.  All of the film industry grieved with the promising film director who seemed to face devastation at every turn.  And they tightened their security, since nothing so terrible was supposed to breach the imaginary barrier that separates Hollywood types from ordinary people.

Eight years later, a fortysomething Polanski drugged and sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl in what Whoopi Goldberg described as “not a  rape rape.”  Since his middle school-aged victim wasn’t on birth control, Polanski figured he’d better use the rear entrance.  The girl, a model who was in Polanski’s company for a photo shoot, told her mother about the rape when she returned home.  The police were called, charges were filed, Polanski was arrested, and the brilliant director didn’t even deny the allegations, though he did admit he struggled to understand what he’d done wrong.  When it became apparent he’d receive a substantial prison sentence, Polanski fled the US for Europe, where he remained for the next thirty years.  With his arrest this week and his impending extradition from Switzerland, Hollywood’s elite have found a new rapist to replace their former bad boy. 

Chief among the arguments for releasing Polanski from police custody and granting him absolution are the victim’s statement that she long ago forgave her attacker and the three decades that have passed since Polanski sought refuge in Europe, presumably because he didn’t savor the promise of anal rape at the penises hands of fellow convicts.  What’s good for the goose is apparently not so good for the gander.  And while it’s great that his victim sees no reason to relive that chapter of her life after so many years, her unwillingness to take part in the legal proceedings does nothing to absolve Polanski from prosecution.  Unless California is operating under one of the interpretations of Sharia law in which the accused must face his victim in order to be prosecuted (which ironically means murderers cannot be charged, as their victims have no voice), the courts are duty-bound to pursue Polanski’s case, regardless of his advancing age.  Perhaps especially so, since Polanski has never expressed a word of remorse, despite having decades to establish some connection with his conscience.  There’s no magical age at which prior bad acts magically vanish.  If you don’t believe me, talk to a Nazi concentration camp survivor. 

Leslie Van Houten, one of Charles Manson’s former followers, has served forty years in California prisons for her role in the stabbing death of Rosemary LaBianca on the second night of the Manson Family killing spree.  Absent the drugs Manson used to manipulate his young charges, Van Houten renounced her affiliation with Manson, earned two college degrees, tutored other prisoners, and became involved in prison-based charitable programs.  Considered the most likely candidate for parole, since her participation was limited to the LaBianca house, Van Houten has been in prison twenty years more than prosecutors expected her to serve at the time of her conviction.  Manson Family member Susan Atkins, who until her death last week had been the longest-serving female prisoner in the California system, was denied compassionate release to die at home even after brain cancer had paralyzed her body and limited her speech to a few prayerful words.  Until she was restricted to bed by her terminal disease, the born-again Christian worked with at-risk kids, helping them to avoid the mistakes she had made.  The parole board, citing the horrific nature of the crimes for which Atkins was convicted, said the sixtysomething-year-old woman who slept through most of the hearing was still too much of a danger to society.  Charles “Tex” Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel, like Atkins, found the Biblical Jesus — not the Jesus Charles Manson claimed to be — early in their prison careers.  Watson became an ordained minister in the ’80s and founded his own outreach ministry from behind prison walls.  Krenwinkel trains service dogs for the disabled, which she hopes will help offset the carnage of her youth.  Despite nearly 40 years of demonstrated remorse, efforts at restitution they know will always fall short of the mark, and glowing psychiatric reports, none of the key players in the Tate/LaBianca killings has generated any sympathy from the same Hollywood people who want the public to ignore the rape of a child by a man who still doesn’t see anything wrong with raping a child.  Apparently, redemption in Hollywood is reserved for the unrepentant, so long as the guilty party is part of the in crowd.

I’m neither advocating for the release of the Manson killers nor calling for Polanski’s crucifixion, but rather observing human hypocrisy at its most base and vile.  Should Polanski serve a prison sentence?  Hell, yes.  A man who tells his underage rape victim to keep the assault a secret must have a vague notion that his actions are not entirely kosher.  And being good at one’s job, last time I checked, doesn’t serve as a shield against prosecution.  I’m sure Jeff Dahmer made some delicious chocolates back in the day, but in the wake of the cannibalism, nobody remembers that he was Employee of the Month.  Frankly, I loved “Death and the Maiden” and thought Polanski’s direction was beautiful.  However…

I’m a big believer in redemption, but the first step toward receiving it is to accept responsibility for one’s actions.  And all things considered, I’d rather borrow a cup of sugar from next door neighbor Leslie Van Houten than Roman Polanski.  Statistically, we know a certain percentage of women will be raped during their lifetimes.  It is my sincere hope that those who comprise that unfortunate statistic are the same ones who excuse rapists they consider their rapists.  Because for those of us who still consider rape a crime, being a victim might seem like kind of a big deal.


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