Rebecca Newlands is impressed by the Netflix drama’s handling of its difficult subject matter.
Content Warning: Contains discussion of sexual assault
“I actually didn’t drink that much last night, I just had a light dinner.” “I didn’t see your message, I’ve just been so busy!” “I haven’t cheated on my diet all week; how can the scales say I’ve gained two pounds?” There are some things that people just don’t believe, no matter what you say. You got drunk because you were drinking. If it’s been three days, you’re just ignoring someone. If you had been strict on your diet, you would have lost weight.
But when someone decides to confide that they have been assaulted or raped, it is – or should be – a different story.
I recently watched the Netflix series Unbelievable, a moving crime drama about several rape investigations which took place in the United States. It leaps from the story of Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) who reported being raped in Washington in 2008, to other investigations by two detectives, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Colette) and Karen Duvall (Merritt Weaver) three years later.
In the first episode we meet 18-year-old Marie, timid and traumatised after she has been raped in her own apartment. Marie lives in a community village specially designed to help kids from foster care, but her fresh start is ruptured by a masked intruder. Marie reports the rape. She is then examined, questioned, and questioned again. At one stage Marie explains that her attacker placed something on her stomach and took a picture of it. But after being asked repeatedly what it was, she responds that she does not know, because she was blindfolded and could only make out the flash of a camera. Washington detectives Parker and Pruitt insensitively insinuate that they do not believe her, and Marie eventually retracts her statement. She confesses to lying about the rape. Case closed.
Rasmussen and Duvall are two detectives working on rape cases in different areas of Colorado, but collaborate when they realise that they could be looking for the same rapist. After an intense investigation, they narrow in on their prime suspect, and after searching his property they discover a stash of personal items and photographs he took from and of his victims. Rasmussen contacts Parker to inform him that she has found a photograph that could be linked to one of their unsolved cases: Marie Adler. Parker shuns Rasmussen, declaring the case closed, not unsolved, as “she made it all up”. He is then sent the photograph of an unseen girl. But placed in the centre of her bare stomach is her driver’s licence.
Unbelievable was a story of rape with powerful acting performances, a challenging depiction of unchallenged determination by two detectives, graphic flickers of violent attacks, and the devastating-turned-hopeful journey of one of the victims. It was so inconceivable that you will be googling it afterwards to check if all that is in it is true. But what is perhaps just as unbelievable as the connection between these two time frames and groups of individuals is the fact that Marie Adler was raped, and no one believed her. Their first instinct was to doubt her.
While set in the US, this programme highlighted a universal problem that we need to bear in mind when it comes to reporting and prosecuting rape. There are statistics on sexual violence all over the internet, and there is a striking difference in numbers between rapes that occur, those that are reported, and then those that are actually prosecuted. But the stats and sources provide information without actually addressing the many possible reasons for these lows. As the title of the show suggests, and its content proves, one reason is simply fearing that no one will believe you. As well as Marie, we were introduced to other victims, including Lily who was attacked in her own home and forced to jump onto her patio to escape. In one scene she storms into the police station carrying a knife – the knife the police did not manage to retrieve during an “intense” search of her property. She managed to find it in her garden in minutes. This was just one example in the programme of blatant reluctance by police to help victims, forcing Duvall and Rasmussen to step in as seemingly the only defenders of these women.
This is not just sentiment expressed by police. In a Scottish Social Attitudes Survey from 2019, 23% of respondents believed that women often lie about being raped. It is Marie’s former foster mother who first places doubt in Detective Parker’s mind, explaining that Marie liked to act out for attention as a child and she would compulsively lie. “Would shoelaces even hold her down?” she ponders over at a chat at her dining table as they discuss Marie’s testimony. Marie hits the nail on the head during a court-ordered therapy session in episode seven: “Even with people you can trust: if the truth is inconvenient, they don’t believe it.” It seemed that for the people in Marie’s life, the circumstances and gravity of the situation were so much to handle that they preferred to think she was just making it all up. There are false accusations, but this statistic declaring that women often lie about rape and assault is a frightening insight to public perception of the few women who do report rape. Nearly a quarter of society thinks you’re probably lying.
Unbelievable is not an easy watch. But the anger, isolation, confusion and fear acted wonderfully in the series offers a powerful insight to the struggles and difficulties of not only dealing with being raped but reporting it despite the possibility that someone might not believe you. No one doubted that quiet college student Amber was telling the truth, but it only took a few anecdotes of Marie’s troubled childhood to convince Parker that she was lying about her attack. Furthermore, it shows that there is not one type of victim, and no correct way for a victim to deal with their rape. This series highlighted a tragic reality that persists with how both the police and society can write off possible cries for help, purely because it just seems unbelievable.