Sometimes fiction can't improve on life.
Case in point: The unfolding saga of the immigrant hotel housekeeper allegedly raped by the wealthy French international banker and politician. Throw in a few drug transactions, several large, unexplained bank deposits, a dubious phone conversation with an incarcerated drug dealer and, voila, you have a summer blockbuster.
The drugs, deposits and phone call are but the latest developments in the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), former managing director of the International Monetary Fund. All that's missing is a car chase. Or a shark.
So familiar are we with the plot twists of such stories that one can anticipate the soundtrack, see the play of light and shadow, the turned-up collar, the dark glances across a crowded courtroom.
And then ...
There's the trouble. We have no tolerance for "and then ..." Our obsession with knowing, acknowledged by previous generations as gossiping, compels us against the will of our better angels to rush -- nay, sprint -- to judgment. That we know better, and often are remorseful in the end, is apparently insufficient to cause pause.
Who other than a few close friends and family members didn't "know" that DSK raped that poor woman in the hotel room? Her story was compelling, we were told, if perhaps too strange to be true. He allegedly came out of his bathroom naked and forced the housekeeper to have sex? Really?
Well, perhaps, but a good writer would come up with something more credible than an overweight man of a certain age barreling out of the loo buck-naked. Somewhere in the back of one's mind is the notion that a naked man is more comical than terrifying. Then again, one recalls that the Irish once upon a time fought in their birthday suits, figuring that they were more intimidating. Do you suppose their wives didn't tell them?
Alas, the DSK case is neither fictional nor funny, but this recent exercise in judgment before facts offers yet another opportunity to reconsider our approach. We seem to have learned nothing from the Duke lacrosse/alleged rape scandal, the response to which ruined the lives of three young men falsely accused and presumed guilty.
That said, it is entirely possible that the New York housekeeper was, in fact, raped as she has charged. We may never know what transpired beyond that they did, apparently, engage in sexual behavior. Otherwise, it's his word against hers -- and hers isn't very good at the moment.
Prosecutors have made several discoveries that potentially impugn her character and therefore her credibility. She has lied repeatedly, according to one law enforcement official. Her asylum application, which included a claim of previous rape and genital mutilation, had some problems. And, prosecutors have raised the possibility that she may have been involved with drug dealing and money laundering.
Suddenly, DSK's luck and his profile have changed -- from a rape suspect under house arrest to a sympathetic protagonist whose character was assassinated. Meanwhile, the housekeeper, a 32-year-old single mother from Guinea, is now suspect.
Now it is the woman whose fate lies in the minefield of conjecture. Is she a drug dealer? Was she trying to extort money from DSK? Did she seduce him in order to invent a rape charge? Where would the novelist go? Was DSK set up by political foes intent on blocking his expected rise to the French presidency? It is almost too rich to resist, no?
And then ... there are the multiple layers of subtext. Without knowing what happened or who did what to whom, our assumption that DSK was guilty led to reflections on American and French attitudes toward sex. Are the French too passive toward sexist attitudes? Are Americans too prudish? Are Americans too quick to judge? To the last question, yes.
For all the novelesque appeal of the true-life but perhaps-false story, the tale of the housekeeper and the politician is a tragedy that makes life more difficult for the innocent and easier for the guilty.
Women already struggle enough to find the courage to report rape and then to be believed. Good men struggle to prove their innocence when falsely accused. And bad actors get a pass. It's a nasty business.
At least we might postpone a verdict until after the trial. Or better yet, wait for the movie.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group