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Samantha Geimer and Emmanuelle Seigner in Conversation

The two women most directly affected by the 1977 Polanski scandal discuss guilt, shame, feminism, #MeToo, the media, and the search for truth and understanding.

· 29 min read
Samantha Geimer and Emmanuelle Seigner in Conversation
Emmanuelle Seigner (Left) and Samantha Geimer. Photo credit: Carole Bellaïche (Le Point)

When Roman Polanski was arrested in Zurich in 2009, I was convinced that I had it all figured out. He had raped a 13-year-old girl during a photo shoot in Los Angeles on March 10th, 1977. He had given her champagne and quaaludes and then sodomized her. All of this information can be found in the victim’s Los Angeles County Grand Jury testimony from March 24th, 1977. I had read it and I had counted: the girl, named Samantha Gailey at the time, seemed to have said “no” 17 times, and Roman Polanski seemed to have ignored her throughout. I also knew that a trial had begun because Samantha’s mother had been wise enough to call the police that same night, but that it had never reached its conclusion because Polanski had skipped to Europe before the verdict. As I saw it, the American justice system was only trying to get the Swiss justice system to return a fugitive 32 years after he had fled.

So I was appalled when a bunch of noisy fat cats decided to defend Polanski. It may seem unreal in our post-#MeToo world, but at the time, hundreds of personalities of all stripes spoke out in the media in support of the filmmaker’s immediate release. This was the dominant discourse back then, at least in France: Samantha Gailey had not really been “raped,” the story was not that serious, and Polanski was too great an artist to be a criminal. In a vain attempt to balance the scales, I co-authored an article with Lola Lafon, which was published in Slate and Libération in June 2010. There had been a few waves, but I still thought I knew the basic facts.

Then, a few months later, I came across Wanted and Desired, Marina Zenovich’s 2008 documentary (produced by the BBC) about the Polanski affair. Zenovich takes no side other than that of the truth. The film is hardly a defense of Polanski—the contrast between the description of his “encounter” with Samantha Gailey in his autobiography and the latter’s deposition is particularly overwhelming. But the film also exposes the monstrous media and judicial fiasco in which the defendant and the plaintiff both became entangled.

As is so often the case, the truth turns out to be far more messy than the headlines would have us believe. Zenovich’s work helped me to realize that Samantha Gailey had indeed been raped, but that the law had considered the event null and void, ruling it an “unlawful sexual intercourse.” This was partly to spare the young victim the ordeal of a trial. As Lawrence Silver, the lawyer for Samantha Gailey and her family, remarked when he discussed the decision to drop the most serious charges, including rape, to protect his client: “A stigma would attach to her for a lifetime and justice is not made of such stuff.”

That story found an echo in my own life. A little over a decade earlier, I had been raped and decided not to press charges. Why not? Because I did not want to give anyone, least of all my rapist, the power to destroy me for something that meant so little to me. According to a now-outdated notion, the only power the wicked have over us is the power we give them. This had been my rapid point of entry into orthodox feminism—and I left just as quickly. During a group discussion intended to support victims of sexual violence, I had found myself in the defendant’s dock. I kept repeating that my rape had done nothing to me, that I had not been harmed by it, and that once I understood that the guy had not heard my protests and that resistance would only put me in physical danger, I simply waited for it to end.

For this, I was told that I was “in denial”—that I needed to “let go” and express my anger, my rage, and my pain, all of which I was pathologically “repressing.” During the few sessions I was able to tolerate, my contrarian mind reinforced and cemented my apathy. One of the other women in our circle experienced exactly the opposite. She too told the group about a rape she had brushed off immediately after it happened. But in response to the urging of the group, she had provided the emotional release they expected of her and gradually disintegrated into explosive sobs and shivers. On the face of the group moderator, I saw the triumphant smirk of someone who had managed to create a malleable new victim. It was the smile of a fanatic, deaf and blind to the interests of anyone crushed by her relentless pursuit of what she thought was justice.

The second echo came when I read The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Polanski, the memoir that Samantha Gailey—now Geimer, a 60-year-old married mother—wrote in collaboration with her lawyer and the writer Judith Newman. I engrossed myself in this book in 2017. Online, I saw Geimer express the same reservations about the #MeToo movement that I harbored and receive the same accusations of betrayal that I had. In her book, she explains that Polanski’s 2009 arrest in Switzerland had triggered a desire to tell her story. She says that the civil suit filed against the filmmaker for sexual assault in 1988—and won in 1993—was motivated by his account of the rape in his autobiography and by a comment he made to Lawrence Silver in Paris when the lawyer came to question him: “You know, if you had seen her naked, she was so beautiful, you would have wanted to fuck her too.” But she also reveals, without ambiguity, her decision to forgive Polanski—“not for him … I did it for me.” Hatred, she explains, is the poison we swallow in the belief that it will kill someone else. As soon as I closed the book, I wrote to Samantha to tell her of the strange feeling it had evoked in me—of having found in her a combination of soulmate and mother from a parallel universe (her oldest son is a year younger than me). As the closing line of Casablanca has it, this marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

And what of Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner? Her own account, published last fall in Une Vie Incendiée (L'Observatoire), has created a third echo—that of the collateral damage that virtuous vigilantes inflict and then sweep under the rug. The actress and singer recounts the months following her husband’s arrest in 2009, and her anger at the injustice of seeing her family and career destroyed by opprobrium. This is the impossible life of a woman whose only crime is a refusal to leave her husband. She is yet another noncompliant feminist, and the other woman caught in the shadow of the Polanski scandal. Her account convinced me that this story is much bigger than the man who had, and has, so far, played the title role.

This introduction was originally published in Le Point here. The interview that follows was originally published in Le Point here. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

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