For International Women’s Day, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Director, Sarah Guerra, pens a blog about the Netflix series, Unbelievable, and the way it navigates sexual assault and related traumas.
CW: sexual violence, suicide
One of the areas of work facing me when I first arrived at King’s was to tackle sexual misconduct effectively. As a rape and multiple sexual assault victim/survivor, this issue is something I personally know the importance of and take very seriously.
A principle of our work in the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion team has been to center victim/survivors and to take a trauma–informed approach to tackling sexual misconduct. This approach recognises the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved in the system; it fully integrates knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices, and, most importantly, actively seeks to resist re-traumatisation. The act of reporting shouldn’t be worse or as bad as the original experience.
Watching the recent Netflix series Unbelievable was difficult but ultimately very affirming. The series dramatises the real life story of Marie Adler and other victim-survivors of a serial rapist. Unlike many dramas examining this subject, Unbelievable doesn’t glorify or dwell on explicit scenes of violence or victims’ suffering during the crimes. Much of the misery is instead relayed in flashbacks and tiny excerpts, most clearly showing how the horror and violation that victims feel impacts on their day–to–day lives after the assault.
A major narrative arc in Unbelievable examines the way ‘the system’ works: how the (mostly male) police, press, courts, social services all interact (or not as the case may be) to meet or fail to meet women’s needs. There are many heart-breaking aspects to the story. Some made me cry and others made me scream and shout with anger and frustration: seeing a vulnerable 18-year-old woman who has been raped face suspicion from the (male) detectives who are supposed to be helping her; watching the hours after Marie’s rape where she is forced to recount the attack repeatedly in cold, harsh environments totally lacking in comfort; watching the male, and clearly untrained, police detectives find minor inconsistencies in her story, leading them to suggest that she made the whole thing up; ultimately, leading the traumatised young woman to question herself and lose faith in the idea that she is worthy of support, and to feel life would be easier if she just acquiesced and withdrew her claim.
Unbelievable clearly contrasts Marie’s experience with the trained, empathetic approach used by the women detectives. These detectives sensitively, patiently and carefully engage with the victim/survivors, weigh each interaction for necessity and at every juncture seek to prioritise sensitivity over speed. It was a stark demonstration of how important it is to understand the issues facing victim/survivors and their potential reactions. It reinforced to me why a trauma–informed approach is so important: the victim/survivor’s welfare must always be a paramount consideration.
“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.”
The series puts the impact on Marie of being disbelieved and, as a result, recanting her statement into crushing focus. She loses friends, risks losing her sheltered housing, is vilified in news reports and can no longer count on the few adults she trusts. She attempts suicide. She is even charged and convicted of filing a false report and has to borrow money to pay the fine. Meanwhile, the rapist is shown to be free and raping other women, ruining more lives.
As the story unfolds, we find Marie’s initial account had been devastatingly true. I found myself furious that she couldn’t receive the due care and attention every human being in distress and pain deserves, and incensed that more women were raped because of the inherent sexism and incompetence of the first police team and the overall system. I hope that other viewers felt the same.
The producers of Unbelievable have performed a public service: vividly bringing to life what is expected of victim/survivors of sexual assault and the long term impact it has on their lives.
One rape victim-survivor says “They say that routine makes you vulnerable, so anything routine, I just stopped doing.”
The portrayal is unflinching in its examination of how badly things can go, how poor criminal justice systems and processes are and how easy it is to be unsympathetic to victim/survivors. The original police officer’s devastation and personal questioning when he realises his mistakes is palpable.
Detective Parker : I mean, I’ve been trying to figure out how I could have been so off. I wish I had an answer. I don’t. I’d do anything to go back and redo the whole thing. To just start all over and do right by you. I really would.
I take heart in this production relating this awful story in a sensitive and informed way and really showing the difference that can be made when people understand the core issues related to a subject, choose to empathise and are willing to put in the effort to work something out properly. The two lead female investigators, Detective Stacy Galbraith and Sergeant Edna Hendershot, have gone firmly into my hero bank. Every so often when my own resilience is low, I will bring them to mind and re-energise myself.