The Age of Consent

I’m not the first person to note that certain topics or controversies come in waves. Last week I wrote about documentary films and recommended several. Since then I’ve seen two more that pose important and complicated questions. Both of these films are essentially biographical but not straight biography. They explore the childhood and early lives of their subjects in order to shine a light on later events and behaviors and help us understand these two controversial personalities. At first they seem dissimilar but on closer inspection they are eerily alike.

One wouldn’t normally link the names of J D Salinger and Roman Polanski. One is a quintessentially American author while the other is a Polish filmmaker and survivor of the Holocaust. The subject matter of their respective arts is dramatically different, from Salinger’s attention to the details of coming of age in Catcher in the Rye to the wanton close-your-eyes scariness of Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. Then there are their dramatically different attitudes about celebrity and privacy. Salinger, widely regarded as a recluse, guarded his privacy like a spy while Polanski openly courts celebrity at film openings, festivals, and in glossy magazine interviews. They seem to have nothing in common.

Mr. Polanski’s sensational life has been a roller coaster of success, tragedy, scandal and flight to avoid prison. From his Krakow Ghetto escape as a child to the grisly Manson Family murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, his well publicized affair with 15 year old Nastassja Kinski, to his prosecution for the rape of a 13 year old LA girl and his flight to Europe in order to avoid prison time, his life has been a turbulent and controversial one played out on television and movie screens around the world. His encounter with the 13 year old happened 37 years ago but he is still a fugitive and a recurring news item, most recently with the release of the, now 50-year-old woman’s, book The Girl: A Life In The Shadow Of Roman Polanski.


Salinger’s life, on the other hand, was shrouded in mystery. After exploding onto the literary scene with the publication of Catcher in the Rye, becoming a regular contributor to The New Yorker and being featured on the cover of Time Magazine he mysteriously moved up to a forested compounded near Cornish, New Hampshire, where he went to great lengths to maintain his privacy and anonymity. He died in 2010, almost 50 years after the publication of Franny and Zooey, his last published work.

JD Salinger billboard

So what is the connecting tissue for these two artistic giants of our time? Both were immensely successful and Polanski’s interest in young girls is well documented – from his affair with 15 year old Nastassja Kinski to the guilty plea for “unlawful sexual intercourse” with 13 year old aspiring model Samantha Gailey (now Geimer). What is less well known is Salinger’s interest in young girls – from Oona O’Neil (18 he was 25) to Jean Miller (14/30) to Claire Douglas (16/36) to Joyce Maynard (18/53) to Colleen O’Neill (30/70). His attraction to young girls was a constant throughout his life. His attraction and interest seems to me more complicated but no less questionable than Polanski’s.

I’m not qualified to make a judgment on Salinger’s psychological state but he, unlike Polanski, exercised some self control with these young women, at least in the early days of the relationships. If you read about Salinger and Jean Miller in Daytona Beach (1949) and then read A Perfect Day for Bananafish (1948) you might think he was researching the scene with Seymour and Sybil on the beach (also in Daytona), except that the story preceded the real life event. Was he working it out in prose in order to perfect the technique?

The subject never fails to elicit controversy and outrage, whether it happens in fiction or in real life. Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) was 12 in the novel. Stanley Kubrick raised her age to 14 for the film, but both the novel and the film had the country in an uproar and was (and still is) banned in some libraries.

What is the age of consent? I’m not trying to be provocative, but sexual mores, customs and attitudes differ significantly even among “developed” societies. In much of the world girls are considered women when they begin to menstruate. In Europe the age of consent varies from 13 in Spain, 14 in Germany and Austria, 15 in France, to 16 in Finland. In the North America it varies from 16 and 18. Polanski might not have been a felon with Samantha in Spain and was not a felon with Nastassja in France, though he would have been anyplace in North America. Salinger, on the other hand, who did not have sex with his young girls until they were older, would not have committed a crime anywhere.

But in these cases there is also a creep factor. I think I understand Polanski’s behavior better than I do Salinger’s. Polanski was a predator with Samantha. Salinger’s motivation, especially with Jean Miller and Claire Douglas, is creepier. Polanski’s behavior was criminal – drugs and alcohol were used to seduce a 13-year-old girl – no matter how mature, provocative or sexually active she was with her own age group. Salinger’s behavior is more complicated and looks to me like suppressed desire and a yearning for both innocence and sexual connection.

Montana Judge

Age, maturity, provocation, sexual experience and judicial action were thrust into the news in a recent Montana case involving a 54-year-old teacher convicted of raping his 14-year-old student. The student later committed suicide and the teacher was sentenced to 30 days in jail by a Montana judge who remarked that the girl was “older than her chronological age” and “as much in control of the situation as the defendant.” Most of America was outraged at the sentence and the judge’s comment. He later apologized, but the outrage continues. What about women teachers like Mary Kay Letourneau who had sex with her 12 year old student and Debra Lafave the Florida teacher who did the same with a 14 year old student.

The lines are not always clear; lovers don’t always look at birth certificates and physical attraction is not always high minded and rational. Are young girls more vulnerable to coercion than boys? Are boys more complicit when they are seduced? Should they be treated differently? Whatever the answers are, the questions will continue to present themselves, and we will continue to question the circumstances and make judgments about the behaviors when they do.

Montana Rape Case

Salinger, the documentary film (2013) by Shane Solerno is in theaters now.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, the documentary film (2008) is available for streaming on Netflix or on DVD from Amazon.

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