Unbelievable and the Real Cost of Assault

When we first meet Marie Adler (the amazing Kaitlyn Dever), she is sitting on her couch in shock while a cop asks her to recount the sexual assault she just experienced. As she goes through the details, the officer takes notes, failing to keep eye contact as he is more concerned with the facts of the assault than the state of the victim. Later, Marie is at the hospital and the nurse asks her to explain what happened. She replies, “Again? I already told the cop. Two cops.” The nurse seems empathetic, but she has to do her job. At the police station, they make her tell them the story another time and write it all out by hand. Marie is then accused of giving the cops four different versions, which all have slightly different details. The police use this as a way to negate her experience instead of understanding that while in shock, a lack of details of the event is a normal way for the brain to protect itself. While most crime shows focus on the assault alone, Unbelievable (Netflix) takes a different approach. The message is clear: an investigation can be a form of trauma itself. 

In the following episodes, we are introduced to Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Detective Karen Duvall (Meritt Wever) who meet once they start to see similar traits in assaults they are investigating. Detective Duvall, caring and dedicated, is noticeably more gentle towards victim Amber Stevenson (Danielle MacDonald). She does not pressure Amber to remember everything right away, does not ask her to explain herself (ask questions that lead to victim blaming and shame), and she offers to stay with her throughout the hospital visit. The difference between Amber’s experience and Marie’s experience is startling. While the male detective worked from a place of doubt and a desire to close the case, Detective Duvall works from a place of belief and empathy. The dynamic between Rasmussen and Duvall is as interesting as the case they are trying to solve. Detective Rasmussen, very direct and able to let go, helps Detective Duvall slowly feel more comfortable in her role. Toni Collette and Meritt Wever deliver career best performances. Unfortunately, it is rare to see such different, yet equally dynamic women working together and challenging one another. 

The most groundbreaking aspect of Unbelievable is its focus on the victims instead of the rapist. Shows like Mindhunter (Netflix), The Fall (BBC 2), and pretty much every other crime drama follow the detectives and the serial killer in a cat-and-mouse game of one party trying to outsmart the other. While thrilling, these shows elevate the “intelligence” of the person committing the crimes and reduce the victims to dead bodies without personal histories. Unbelievable takes the bold stance to focus on the victims and the female detectives searching for answers. Within this space, the show becomes more focused on the way sexual assault alters the lives of victims after the event itself. This is most present in Marie’s story. We watch her have trouble focusing at work and maintaining relationships, especially with her foster community. For Marie, these troubles arise not just from the assault but also from the way the police treated her. With Amber, we see her struggle to move forward knowing her rapist is still at large, yet Detective Duvall continually checks in and reminds her of the available resources. The daily impact on a victim’s life is best explained in episode eight by Lilly Darrow (an energetic and emotionally honest Annaleigh Ashford), one of the many victims. She explains, 

I have nightmares. I am scared…all of the time. Every minute of every day. My friends try to help me, but I have a hard time trusting people. Uh, I can’t sleep. I’m in pain. I’ve lost weight. I’ve lost work. I’ve lost money. I have violent thoughts. I’ve never had violent thoughts before, ever. You think it’s just one night. Compared to all the other minutes of my life, how could this one short incident make a difference? But…it does. 

This speech not only points to the long term emotional impacts of assault, but practical ones as well. The lost jobs, money, and opportunity. The way a woman who was confident and motivated before may now have trouble speaking up or simply getting out of bed. 

Impressively, Unbelievable refuses to paint anyone in a purely good or bad light. The cops who mishandle Marie’s case are treated with care and nuance. After all, these men are under the impression that they are the “good guys” meant to be arresting the bad ones. By speaking only in extremes, we lose sight of the way many detectives have been incorrectly taught to handle assault cases. They may not be evil, but instead are just men trying to get a job done as quickly as possible. This is not an excuse for their behavior as the show deals directly with the drastic consequences caused by their negligence. Throughout, the idea that the serial rapist may be a cop is brought up several times along with facts about the alarmingly high rates of domestic violence among cops. By not trying to hide these facts, it is evident that a police department can simultaneously have women working day and night to make communities safer, while men in the same office abuse power in order to protect themselves. If we want to solve these problems, we need to reform the institutions and create higher standards for those we trust and pay to protect us.  

Unbelievable is based on a true story. You can check out more information about the real people at the link below.


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