"The Girl" Reflects on Roman, Rape, and Media
The title of Samantha Geimer's memoir The Girl feels both cynical and right. For the past 35 years, we've known Geimer as "the girl" in the internationally infamous Roman Polanski rape case. She was "the girl" the film director got drunk and assaulted when she was 13, "the girl" who was alternately shamed in headlines for being promiscuous or held up as a powerless victim. Finally, decades after the 1977 assault, Geimer has published her own take on the incident and ensuing media and legal firestorm.
Rather than being a salacious retelling of events or a crass attempt to turn infamy into a book deal—as some critics will certainly allege—The Girl is a genuine and astute look at cultural conceptions of rape and victimhood from Geimer's intimate viewpoint. She explains her decision to finally write her side of the story in the book's introduction:
We have what I like to think of as a Victim Industry in this country, an industry populated by Nancy Grace and Dr. Phil and Gloria Allred and all those who make money by manufacturing outrage. I've been a part of it. If you spent years reading about yourself in the papers with the moniker "Sex Victim Girl," you'd have a lot to say about this issue, too.
I spoke with Geimer about media, her treatment by police and attorneys, and her own feelings about being a "bad victim."
SARAH MIRK: You talk a lot in the book about being angry at media and gossip around your case. Did you think about this at the time or is if only in retrospect that you get angry about how you were expected to be a "good victim"?
SAMANTHA GEIMER: It's two separate things. At the time, everybody was saying that I was a liar, I was a slut, that my mom set it up and, poor Roman, we were these awful people. I was very aware of the negative portrayals of me. But I was also protected, I was in private. In 1977, we really didn't have the media we have now.
Things have shifted now. It's not "Samantha: the little slut," it's "Roman: the horrible monster." I started noticing that people can't understand why I'm not angry or upset, they think that I'm damaged and I must need help. It's not interesting enough if I'm not vengeful. I'm just practical about it and don't have a lot of crazy things to say.
So people have different expectations for you now than they did in the seventies but it still feels like you're being squeezed into a box?
For me, some old guy molested me. In the experience of life, you understand that this is really not an uncommon thing and lots of more awful things happen to people. Other people get through it. But the trauma of the police, the publicity, the media, to have everyone say I was lying and to have my whole family involved, I felt a little responsible. We couldn't leave the house, my phone wouldn't stop ringing. That 10 minutes of my life with him, I didn't get to look back on it that much because I had worse things to deal with every day.
How do you think media coverage of rape has changed since you were 13?
There's definitely a shift in culture from 1977 to now. It's worse now, because there's a 24 hour news cycle. But back then, media was male-dominated and people didn't think of sex as the worst thing someone could do to you. Now it's shifted, it's swung toward, instead of going after the victim, going after the perpetrator. I think if you're in a small town and this happens to you, I bet people still get the personal treatment of, "This is your fault and you're damaged." Maybe not as much in the media, but I think that victims still get a lot of that blame and shame.
There's a real expectation and pressure and judgement on victims now. People are expecting you to act a certain way and they feel like you owe them a performance. There's kind of a need to over-blow and sensationalize it. For everyone's personal goals, you're like a thing. I don't think I'm going to change that, but I'm going to talk about it.
You write in the book that you're publishing this memoir to reshape the narrative around the trial and get your side of the story out. Do you think the book has been successful at that or will people continue to ignore how you actually feel?
It did just come out, but it's a different experience of coming out and trying to tell the truth after 36 years of trying to hear things that aren't true. TO be not reacting, to he got an Oscar or he got arrested, I've always been reacting to something I didn't expect. It's like I get jumped, oh, time to not answer the phone or go outside. It's better to be able to do this on my own terms, when I choose to. I feel like I'm able to make my own point rather than answering for someone else.
His arrest in 2009 was a big upset in my world and in my family's world. I didn't ever expect it to get quite that bad again, almost like it was in 1977. I realized I was so tired about not hearing the truth, and I felt like I had some valuable points to make. I'm not sure if anyone is super interested in them, but I'd like to make them.
What's it like being the one pursuing media on your own terms rather than the one who's forced to react?
I like it a lot better. People don't always ask you the questions you want to answer and you can only try to make the point you want to make, but it seems like some people are interested in what really happened and not just the sensational side about it. Some of the points I'm trying to make about rape and the courts and media—not talking about it doesn't help. Some of that's being heard, and that's kind of nice.
What was your process for actually writing the book? Was it traumatizing to look back over the old case files again?
It's my life, it's all in my brain. I was young and sheltered and a lot of it was kept from me. But my attorney—who's still my attorney—and my mom really helped with filling in things. I also had a wonderful co-wrier Judith Newman, who helped me get it all down, and an editor. I learned that writing a book is a team project.
The reason I didn't think of doing this before is because it's so painful to my friends and family, it's really hard for them. Even though I can tell them, "I'm fine," and plenty of them have had worse things happen to them, I didm't want to cause them pain. But now seemed like it would be a good time.
What do you want people who read the book to take away?
First, I wanted to go, this is the truth. I wanted to tell the truth about it on my own terms. And I wanted to talk about the misconduct of the court, the way the media treats victims and perpetrators of high-profile crimes—they're just props to be used for profit and ratings. You shouldn't just use people like that. I know I'm not going to change the world, but I want to say it and maybe someone will hear it. A lot of victims feel a little guilty after, like, "I shouldn't have been there, I shouldn't have done that." If we never talk about it, how are we going to teach people to be safe and protect themselves? This shame and silence and stigma doesn't help. It would be good to talk about it to prevent it from happening and to be more open about it. So I'm hoping some discussion gets started.
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