Lynnwood, Washington, 2008: a young woman named Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) awakes to find an intruder in her apartment. The masked man ties her up and rapes her. The next morning Marie reports her assault to the police. After submitting to a physical examination, and repeating an account of her sexual assault several times, the investigating police officers become suspicious. Under pressure, she retracts her statement, telling the police officers that she lied about the assault. She is later charged with making a false statement to police.
Golden, Colorado, 2011: Detective Karen Duvall begins investigating the rape of a college student. Duvall soon discovers that another detective in a nearby district named Grace Rasmussen is investigating a similar crime. The two women realise that they are looking for a serial rapist, and during their investigation, they learn about other victims.
In a January 2018 article entitled “Five Daughters and Murdered By My Boyfriend: Giving a human face to the victims of crime”, I looked at the how two BBC productions focus on the perspective and experiences of the female victims of violent crimes. Netflix’s Unbelievable, a dramatisation of the 2008-2011 Washington and Colorado serial rape case, follows this procedure. The eight-part series is careful in its treatment of its difficult and disturbing subject matter. Given that there has been much debate in recent years about graphic and often exploitative portrayals of violence, particularly sexual violence, against women on screen, Unbelievable stands out as an example of a visual text that treats the issue of sexual assault in a serious, sensitive manner. The series achieves this by focusing on the victims, emphasising their deep emotional and physical trauma in the aftermath of their assaults. The violence on screen is kept to a minimum, with the sexual assaults being glimpsed in brief flashbacks. Most importantly, the assaults are shown from the perspective of the victims, which avoids the violence being portrayed in a voyeuristic or exploitative way.
Unbelievable explores the various factors that can affect how we react to individuals who come forward with allegations of sexual assault. In Marie’s story, we see how her personal history and behaviour in the aftermath of her assault leads to the people around her, including the police, becoming sceptical of her story. It is Marie’s former foster mother Judith, who is initially doubtful of her story. Judith, who was also sexually assaulted as a younger woman, is perplexed by Marie’s seemingly calm demeanour in the aftermath of her rape. Marie’s troubled childhood and history of erratic, attention-seeking behaviour also makes Judith suspicious of her accusations and leads to her confiding in one of the investigating officers about her concerns.
One of the most powerful aspects of Unbelievable is how the show captures the way that allegations of sexual assault can be mishandled. Detectives Parker and Pruitt, the police officers who initially question Marie and later dismiss her accusations, are not portrayed as villains. On the surface, the two men appear to be good, well-intentioned police officers who are sympathetic towards Marie on account of her difficult, abusive childhood. However, early on we see the mistakes they make in how they approach Marie’s case. They are stern and brusque with Marie, asking her to repeat her account of the assault multiple times. When they learn about Judith’s suspicions, they become increasingly impatient with her, picking out the inconsistencies in her story and pushing her to tell them every detail of what happened to her. Once they become convinced that she is lying, they dismiss her story completely, pressuring her into officially retracting her statement. Parker, in particular, becomes convinced that Marie’s story was completely made up. When a police officer from another district contacts him about a possibly related assault, he immediately tells the officer that there couldn’t be a link between the cases because he is certain that Marie was never assaulted.
The audience can fully understand how badly Parker and Pruitt mishandled Marie’s case when we see how Detectives Duvall and Rasmussen approach their victims. When we are first introduced to Det. Karen Duvall, she is arriving at a crime scene where Amber (Danielle Macdonald), a young college student, was raped a few hours before. We immediately see how different Duvall’s approach to questioning a victim of sexual assault is to the two male officers in Marie’s case. Duvall is calm and patient with Amber, allowing her to take her time giving a statement. Actress Merritt Wever effectively conveys Duvall’s compassion towards Amber and shows how important it is for investigating officers to approach the victims of sexual violence with care and empathy.
We also see how Rasmussen, played by Toni Collette, places great importance in building a rapport with the victims in the cases that she is investigating. When Rasmussen brings Duvall to visit Sarah, another victim of the serial rapist, she becomes angry with Karen for asking Sarah a question. Rasmussen understands how important it is for investigators to create a sense of mutual respect and understanding with their victims. If victims feel that they are being distrusted or treated in a hostile manner, it could easily lead to them becoming uncooperative and even antagonistic towards the investigating officers. This is shown in the case of Lily (Annaleigh Ashford), a young woman who sustained serious injuries while fleeing from her attacker. Duvall and Rasmussen have great difficultly getting Lily to cooperate with their investigation as she had felt that the previous detective had mishandled her case and been openly dismissive and patronising towards her. Lily’s case also highlights how a police officer’s attitude towards the victim can impact on how effectively they investigate a case. Lily is furious when, months after the assault took place, she finds the knife used in her attack abandoned in her back garden. This shows how sloppy and ineffective the police officers who first handled her case were, as they neglected to properly search the crime scene.
Duvall and Rasmussen are unaware of Marie’s existence for most of their investigation. They only find out about the other victim after they had already arrested the perpetrator. After the local police are given definitive proof that Marie wasn’t lying about the assault, and admitted that they had made a mistake, Marie sues the city for damages. However, no amount of money could compensate Marie for the trauma of being labelled a liar by the police. For almost three years, Marie had to deal with the fallout from everyone around her believing that she made a false rape claim. She was rejected by most of her friends and felt compelled to quit her job due to pressure from management and harassment by co-workers. She also had to face the legal repercussions of confessing to making a false statement, which resulted in legal fees and her losing the apartment in the facility for former foster children.
Marie was so traumatised by being pressured into retracting her allegations that even when Colleen, another former foster mother, starts to believe her story, Marie is too scared to approach the police again. When Det. Parker learns that Marie was telling the truth all along he is immediately overcome with remorse, regretting the mistakes he made in the investigation. He is later approached by Marie, who simply tells him that he needs to “do better” in the future, reminding him of the responsibility he bears towards the victims who come to him for help. Ultimately, the stories of Marie and the other victims in Unbelievable show the importance of treating the victims of sexual violence with compassion and understanding and show how vital it is that the police, and wider society, take allegations of sexual assault seriously.
Credit for cover photo to newsweek.com.
Other images to cosmopolitan.com, digitalspy.com, glamour.com.