Books of The Times: In ‘The Girl,’ Samantha Geimer Revisits the Polanski Case

Roman Polanski leaving a court in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1977 during his prosecution for sex with 13-year-old Samantha Geimer.

It’s a line that Roman Polanski used so memorably in his 1974 “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, Ms. Geimer found herself posing naked in Jack Nicholson’s Jacuzzi, modeling for photographs that Mr. Polanski, the director of “Chinatown,” claimed he was taking for a glossy magazine. The year was 1977, and the situation must have made Mr. Polanski indeed feel capable of anything. Under the influence of Champagne and quaalude provided by him, Ms. 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 whole sordid mess became Mr. Polanski’s story, not hers.

As the title, “The Girl,” indicates, even when the violation of Ms. 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, even though she was not yet out of the ninth grade. But the news was all about Mr. Polanski’s crime and, to some, his martyrdom at the hands of the American judicial system. “The girl” was collateral damage, nothing more.

Mr. Polanski is now 80, Ms. Geimer a 50-year-old wife and mother, who lives in Hawaii and Nevada, and the incident is still not fully behind them. (Mr. Polanski is a French citizen who might face more prosecution if he returns to the United States, which he fled in 1978.) Ms. Geimer is laying claim to her share of the encounter. With the help of her lawyer and a co-writer, she is able to channel the bewilderment she felt while in Mr. 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 the kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard, whose memoir, “A Stolen Life,” has much more depth and shock value.

Wanting to clear the air of malicious gossip, Ms. Geimer contradicts stories that she was a tramp, a climber or the daughter of a very 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 a little later 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 naïve,” Ms. 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 kid who got in over her head, told a couple of stupid lies and was willing to do whatever it took to win favor with a famous man. (“Give me what I want, or someone else will,” she imagined Mr. Polanski thinking.)

Ms. Geimer mostly writes in the past tense, but she switches to the present for Chapter 4, the step-by-step account of exactly how Mr. Polanski had his way with her. But if that is all her memoir leaves with its readers, Ms. Geimer will once again be “the girl” and nothing more.

She describes a degree of courtesy perhaps unusual in a man looking to coax her into anal sex. But according to Ms. Geimer, Mr. 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 Samantha was topless. Didn’t models wear clothes in photos for fashion magazines?

“The Girl” makes clear, perhaps even clearer than Ms. Geimer realizes, that this is not a simple story. It unfolded in the midst of a Hollywood era of situational ethics, when not many parents would object to a child’s brush with fame. It also pitted the powerful Mr. Polanski, a great director and lifelong 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. And it pushed Ms. Geimer into a cone of silence, forced to witness the most humiliating courtroom revelations with nobody in whom she could confide. She later learned that it had taken a roomful of legal talent to decide exactly how to cut up her underwear so that each team’s pathology experts got a fair semen sample. Even now, these stories sound hard for her to tell.

The later portions of “The Girl” are much less interesting. Ms. Geimer describes drug use, promiscuity, a string of bad-boy suitors and the otherwise unremarkable life she might have had, if she hadn’t once caught a famous movie director’s eye. (The book includes a few photographs by Mr. Polanski that make it clear why he was drawn to her.)

“The Girl” would have been a very short book if were only about Ms. Geimer’s life and if the case did not flare up from time to time, drawing her back into the public eye.

In 1988, she filed and won a civil suit against Mr. Polanski. By then she had come out of hiding. And in 2003, with Mr. Polanski nominated for the best director Oscar for “The Pianist,” she wrote a an article in The Los Angeles Times headlined, “Judge the Movie, Not the Man.”

Unfortunately, her book does not delve deeply into Mr. Polanski’s 2009 arrest in Switzerland as he headed for a film festival to receive an award. Ms. 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. Mr. Polanski’s arrest prompted American calls for extradition at a time when the Swiss bank UBS was fighting to protect its clients’ anonymity from the United States government. It also came at a time when the 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 Mr. Polanski’s history, legal and otherwise, than “the girl” ever knew.

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