Netflix’s Unbelievable Explores Trauma in Real-Life Sexual Assault Case
Based on the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning piece from ProPublica and The Marshall Project
Warning: This article contains graphic sexual content.
Honesty hour: When I was 17, a spirited and starry-eyed freshman in university, I received a rape threat. It was the dawn of question-and-answer based social network; anybody could take advantage of anonymity. (How anyone thought such platform was a good idea still baffles me.) This is a memory I’ve buried deep in the recesses of my subconscious—I’ve almost forgotten it, but not quite.
“One of these days, me and my friends will gang rape you in the smocket behind Faura. Then, you can tell the whole world how it feels to have three dicks (one each in your mouth, vagina and butthole) thrusting at you simultaneously. Oh, and you’ll finally be able to give one of your haters his wish ‘cause we’ll be filming the whole thing. See you around.”
I knew nothing then. I was an innocent and chaste girl who believed the best in everyone. Suddenly, I was aware of people’s filth and deviance. The worst part is, I knew whoever sent that was from my school. I could easily pass by the perpetrator day by day, and I could not do anything. I was powerless. These words are ingrained in my system. That’s the thing, if nobody violated me physically but could have provoked such trauma, what more for people who were actually raped?
Unbelievable is a factual retelling of a series of rapes between 2008 to 2011 in Washington and Colorado based on the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning piece from ProPublica and The Marshall Project entitled “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” It was written by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong.
18-year-old Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) is dismissed by the police—and even accused of false reporting—upon narrating an account of sexual assault by a masked intruder in her home. She is forced to articulate her experience repeatedly, even as she faces a whirlwind of emotions. The traumatized young woman then gets increasingly skeptical questions from the police. No one believes her due to “inconsistencies in statements and lack of evidence.” (One cannot help but feel rage for Marie.) She is silenced, until three years after when two female detectives merge their cases upon discovering harrowing similarities. Together, they hunt for the serial rapist.
There is a disparity between how the male and female detectives handle the case. Detective Karen Duvall (Meritt Weaver) comforts Amber (Danielle Macdonald), another survivor in a safe space. She says, “You don’t sound crazy to me. You sound like someone who’s been through a trauma and is looking for a way to feel safe again and in control. And there is nothing crazy about that.” She is gentle, almost motherly. She acknowledges that processing trauma doesn’t look the same for everyone—and this never merits an apology.
In another pivotal scene, upon a male colleague’s underperformance, Duvall becomes undone. She remarks hastily, “When we’re talking about a violent rapist, a guy who, at any minute could break into another woman’s house and scar another woman for life…this is not something people get over. This is something they carry with them forever, like a bullet in the spine. So, given that, yeah, I do expect everyone on my team to give me 100 percent of their effort 100 percent of the time.”
When we’re talking about a violent rapist, a guy who, at any minute could break into another woman’s house and scar another woman for life…this is not something people get over. This is something they carry with them forever, like a bullet in the spine
Meanwhile, the male detectives are callous, insensitive and unrelenting. It is humiliating for trauma to be relived again and again, still they insist. In one scene, Scott Parrish, a suspect in the crime, gives a revolting statement, “It happens all the time, girls making stuff up. There’s a status to be a victim.” This is why, according to alarming statistics, only 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to the police.
The show is a remarkable examination of how sexual assault investigations should be conducted, and how it shouldn’t. In the award-winning report, Miller and Armstrong write, “In that way, rape cases were unlike most other crimes. The credibility of the victim was often on trial as much as the guilt of the accused.”
Unbelievable is a humane and sensitive take on sexual assault, which puts a face on the victim—and the people who are bent on carrying out justice. Beyond that, it is a beacon of hope for survivors, shedding light on life after trauma.
Unbelievable is a limited series available on Netflix.
Art Alexandra Lara