sexual assault

Unbelievable Is Hard to Watch But Easy to Believe

Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix

When Marie*, an 18-year-old woman living in Lynnwood, Washington, said that a masked man had broken into her apartment in the middle of the night and raped her at knifepoint, even those close to her found the story hard to believe. Marie’s demeanor was surprisingly calm and unruffled, and little details of her account kept changing. “I’m a big Law & Order fan, and I just got this really weird feeling,” explains her foster mom, Peggy, in a Marshall Project and ProPublica story about Marie’s case, which has now been adapted into a new Netflix series, Unbelievable. “I felt like she was telling me the script of a Law & Order story.”

The fact that Peggy would try to metabolize Marie’s trauma through Dick Wolf’s iconic crime procedural speaks volumes. In its 20 seasons on air, Law & Order: SVU raised awareness about sexual assault long before #MeToo became a trending topic. Yet it also perpetuated dangerous myths. There are few more risible sentences on TV than the show’s introductory voice-over, which claims that “in the criminal-justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous.” Then again, “in the criminal-justice system, sexually based offenses are rarely reported and even more rarely investigated thoroughly” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Unbelievable, which airs on Netflix this Friday, is a show about sexual assault that assumes the latter. The show — which is led by showrunner Susannah Grant and based on the Marshall Project–ProPublica story and a This American Life episode — is the first of the #MeToo era to focus not just on the moment of violation but also on all the ways our system revictimizes women who are brave enough to come forward.

The show is divided into two story lines. One follows Marie, played by Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever, living in Lynnwood back in 2008. Marie has spent her life in foster care; now 18, she is living in a community designed to help young adults transition into independent living. She’s looking forward to getting her driver’s license and has been saving up her Costco wages to buy a car. But then one night, a man breaks into her apartment and rapes her repeatedly. While police initially believe Marie, they soon grow skeptical, especially when her foster mom starts expressing doubts about the credibility of her allegation. During a grueling interrogation, they coerce her into retracting her statement. Then they move to charge her for making a fake rape claim. She loses her job, friends abandon her, and her hopes for the future begin to fall apart.

The second story line, set in Colorado in 2011, features a more familiar true-crime trope: two crusading lady detectives, Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), team up to investigate a string of rapes that they believe are being perpetrated by a single offender. Duvall and Rasmussen are based on the real detectives who solved Marie’s case, Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot. Unlike many of their male colleagues, these two detectives are calm, patient, and compassionate with their victims, and the moment they come onscreen, you feel soothed knowing that in their steady hands, Marie will soon get the care she deserves. Who could blame you? For years, SVU reassured us that detective work was swift and effective and that in the wake of horrific crimes, Detective Olivia Benson would swoop in to comfort victims and hold the bad guys to account.

“One of the major things I’ve heard [from viewers] over the 20 years is
‘I wish you were the detective on my case,’” actress Mariska Hargitay said recently. “I think our show in many ways is an ideal unit of how we wish sexual assault and domestic violence was met in the world. Survivors are believed. Period.” But this is what makes Unbelievable unique. You wait and you wait for the detectives to learn about Marie’s case and put the pieces together, and yet the two threads of the plot remain separate. Episode after episode, we toggle back and forth from Duvall and Rasmussen’s investigation in 2011 to Marie’s life in 2008, where there are no hero cops in sight.

Unbelievable is the first show I have seen that captures the slow grind of the system, the torturous waiting period between reporting an assault and seeing justice — if one ever does. The public tends to hear only the headlines: the crime and then the sentence handed down. But victims have to live in that in-between, waiting as their lives become a barrage of depositions and intrusive media requests, having their memories and credibility dissected by high-paid professionals, while their trauma remains theirs to bear alone. Every time the show switched back to Marie’s story line, I became racked with anxiety as I watched the authorities make misstep after misstep. At one point, a detective in another district reaches out to the Lynnwood cops to tell them about a rape that sounds very similar to Marie’s. They shut him down, telling him the connection is not worth investigating because Marie is a liar.

In devoting as much attention to the minutiae of Marie’s life as it does to Duvall and Rasmussen’s detective work, Unbelievable never lets viewers get comfortable. We are denied the reassuring march toward closure that tends to accompany onscreen crime-solving. Even when the detectives’ investigation begins moving along, the show keeps pushing us back into limbo with Marie, whose story won’t be believed for another three years. We watch her linger outside a convenience store, trying to get someone to buy her beer; we see her fail her driving test because she suffers a debilitating flashback in the middle of the exam. Our time spent with Marie in 2008 serves only to heighten the emotional stakes of the 2011 plotline. Unbelievable is a procedural, but one that does not exploit procedure as a way to increase narrative momentum. Rather, it highlights the relentless tedium and countless false starts that come with doing good detective work, as well as exposing the flaws baked into the system.

How did everything go so wrong with Marie’s case? Unbelievable lays it all out in painstaking detail. In a scene from the first episode, a detective interrogates Marie about what she remembers. His expression is unsympathetic and matter-of-fact, as if he’s asking someone what they ordered for lunch, not rehashing the worst night of her life. “So did he penetrate you anally or vaginally,” he says, looking bored. As Marie tries to answer his questions, we experience the questioning through her eyes: We hear the sound of static, see flashbacks to her violent assault, and see moments of escape as she pictures herself on a sandy beach. It’s a disorienting way of illustrating the effects of PTSD and dissociation that many victims experience.

After Marie’s foster mom phones the detectives to express her doubts about Marie’s calm demeanor, it plants a seed of skepticism in their minds. The detective presses her on small details: Was he wearing a hoodie or sweater? Did she untie herself before or after calling for help? She is forced to repeat her statement again and again, even though she is exhausted and still processing the shock of the assault. He brings her in for questioning again and begins forming a new narrative. “I’m gonna tell you a version that does fit together,” he muses. “A young woman, been through a ton of bad stuff … feeling isolated, lonely, might on the spur of the moment come up with something without thinking it through that could get her the attention she needs.” He continues to barrage her, until, exhausted, confused, and desperate to go home, she recants her story. (Though not without a fight — at one point, she suggests taking a lie-detector test, and another detective threatens that she could go to jail if she lies, and she backs down.)

“When you see Marie’s experience, it’s easy to understand why someone might recant, even in a case where she actually was assaulted,” said reporter Ken Armstrong, who co-wrote the original story along with T. Christian Miller. “For her, that was the easiest way out of a situation that had become untenable. She was being confronted, and she just buckled under pressure. And they gave her an opportunity to go home, if she would say what they wanted her to say, so that’s what she did.”

As Armstrong tells me, the detectives in Lynnwood used the Reid technique, a criminal-interrogation technique that has been criticized for its propensity to elicit false confessions. It is excruciating to watch the detectives bluff and manipulate Marie, yet it doesn’t paint them as one-note villains; rather, it shows how poorly the criminal-justice system is equipped to deal with sexual-assault victims, and how easy it is to make catastrophic mistakes if you don’t have the right training. Many police still don’t have adequate education in how to deal with sexual-assault cases, although some advocates are working to change that.

Marie’s case is not a one-off. There have been similar cases in Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and New York, in which rape victims have been erroneously charged with false reporting. But even when victims are believed, they face countless obstacles in choosing to come forward. According to RAINN, and based only on its best estimates, less than a third of rapes are reported to the police. Out of a thousand sexual assaults, only 46 will lead to an arrest and fewer than five will result in incarceration. And for those whose cases do enter the criminal-justice system, it’s hardly smooth sailing. Rape cases are some of the most difficult cases to prosecute, based on the fact that they rely so centrally on the victim’s testimony being believed. Unbelievable demonstrates the many preconceptions people have about rape victims, such as the fact that Marie’s foster mom and the police both find her behavior inconsistent with how they believe a victim “should” act. (There is no one way.) It shows the devastating effects of our nationwide rape-kit backlog; after her “confession,” Marie’s rape kit is never analyzed, even though we learn that the DNA evidence in it could have helped the police catch her assailant years before they did. And it shows how someone like Marie, who has been in and out of the system her entire life, might easily buckle under police pressure. Research indicates that abusers often target victims who are less likely to report their assault, such as women in low-income communities.

Unbelievable is not just a portrait of institutional failure; it’s also a portrait of institutional success. “When you see the mistakes made in Washington and the things that go right in Colorado, you have this cumulative power from seeing them side by side,” explains Armstrong. He suggests to me that, much as the movie Spotlight’s shots of reporters filling out spreadsheets deglamorized the journalistic process, Duvall and Rasmussen’s story line highlights the necessary tedium of police work. We get to see the hours spent poring over surveillance footage in order to chase down a single lead as well as the countless dead ends that they are forced to run down. As Armstrong and Miller detail in the book they wrote about the case, the real detectives in Colorado succeeded because they teamed across jurisdictional lines, something detectives (such as the ones in Lynnwood) often fail to do. They also made use of underutilized police resources such as ViCap, an FBI database used to catch repeat offenders. On the show, Duvall and Rasmussen listen to victims without judgment, and they are insistent that their teams rush to process DNA evidence. Basically, it shows how important it is that they believe in what they are doing and take pains to get it right.

The beginning of the #MeToo movement overflowed with shocking stories of women detailing the horrific things that powerful men had done to them. But in the two years since the Weinstein story broke, we have also seen how rare it is to get a conviction and how ugly the legal system can be. Unbelievable grapples with this less sensational part of the process — not merely the horror of a violent crime but the pain and drudgery that follow — and demonstrates that listening to women means caring about their stories long after the first headline breaks.

*Her middle name.

Unbelievable Is Hard to Watch But Easy to Believe