“Unbelievable” reflects a gravely believable reality

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“Unbelievable” reflects a gravely believable reality

Marie, a rape victim, is treated with disrespect and disbelief at the beginning of the Netflix show, Unbelievable.

Marie, a rape victim, is treated with disrespect and disbelief at the beginning of the Netflix show, Unbelievable.

Photo from Netflix

Marie, a rape victim, is treated with disrespect and disbelief at the beginning of the Netflix show, Unbelievable.

Photo from Netflix

Photo from Netflix

Marie, a rape victim, is treated with disrespect and disbelief at the beginning of the Netflix show, Unbelievable.

By Grace Burwell, Richard Montgomery High School

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“Unbelievable,” which was released on Sept. 13 on Netflix, is a show based on “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” a true story published by ProPublica and The Marshall Project. The show follows a young woman who is raped but accused by many as a liar until two detectives discover the truth.

The show begins with the rape of 18-year-old Marie Adler from Lynnwood, Wash., in 2008. Marie, who was part of a housing assistance program for teens in foster care, was sleeping in her apartment at the time when a man wearing a mask broke in and assaulted her. Marie recounted her experience to the local police repeatedly, but the details of the event sparked doubt, like how she was tied up by her own shoelaces.

The detectives on Marie’s case badgered her about inconsistencies in her story and treated her without any compassion or respect. Instead of listening to what happened, they forced her to repeat herself multiple times so that she was bound to make a mistake. Marie was pressured into saying that she was lying about the events—even though she was telling the truth—and was charged with the crime of false reporting. The detectives on Marie’s case exemplify the bias rooted in society to instantly doubt someone who has been raped or make excuses to lessen their pain or the impact of their experience.

A noticeable jump from the first episode to the second reveals that Marie’s assault was a small piece in a much larger puzzle. Years after Marie’s rape, the focus shifts. In 2011, Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen, two detectives from Colorado (whose names in real life are Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot), join forces to investigate a handful of sexual assault cases in the area and end up piecing together the truth: a serial rapist had been methodically attacking women in different police districts across the United States, knowing that the likelihood of being caught was very slim.

Over the course of eight episodes, the plot jumps back and forth from Marie’s story to Duvall and Rasmussen’s investigating. The show reaches a satisfying conclusion when the two detectives finally catch and arrest the rapist, who is sentenced to 300 years in prison, and Marie and numerous other women finally get the justice they deserve.

The most gratifying moment of the show is not when many of the survivors confront their rapist at his trial, nor when the detectives originally on Marie’s case apologize for their mistreatment, but when Marie herself calls Duvall to say thank you. The conversation, which is filled with gratitude, shows how much of an impact Duvall and Rasmussen had on Marie, even though they never actually met. The two detectives tirelessly fought to solve the case, moving forward despite dead ends and pushback from other detectives. Duvall and Rasmussen are the true heroes of “Unbelievable”—they demonstrate how law enforcement should behave, treating survivors with empathy and support.

The way the Lynnwood detectives handled Marie’s case was completely insensible from the get-go. They asked Marie if she had been drinking or on drugs, or if she had been with a boy. By jumping to those conclusions, the actual issue of the rape is minimized. “[Shows] can present sexual assault in a sensationalist, provocative way, and it can kind of communicate norms like the person was drinking, so they wanted it, or they were dressed provocatively so it was their fault,” school psychologist Lisa Nesson said.

“What I really like about the show is that it brings to light the sexual assault that happens to regular girls and that no one talks about, but also the fact that a lot of people, even the police who are meant to do [their job] diminish it without even trying to,” junior Angela Orantes said. “Unbelievable” accurately portrays this issue but also presents a positive counter experience in Duvall’s treatment of Amber, another survivor of sexual assault. Completely opposite from how the Lynnwood detectives treated Marie, Duvall talks to Amber without asking targeted or unnecessary questions and lets Amber share her story when she is comfortable.

Additionally, the show avoids the common trope of glamorizing rape. “One big criticism of how [sexual assault] is portrayed in TV and movies is that it really focuses on the event itself and how terrible it is for the person, and it doesn’t always show the person’s journey to recovery and their life after the assault,” Nesson said.

A show that comes to mind is “13 Reasons Why,” which has been widely criticized for its graphic depictions of suicide and rape. Many viewers also pointed out that its recent third season redeems the actions of a serial rapist, shifting focus from the survivors. “Unbelievable” does neither of those things— while there are a few flashes of Marie’s rape scene, and a brief scene where Marie almost jumps off of a bridge—it is not unnecessarily graphic. Instead, the key focus of the series is to show the process of bringing justice to Marie and other women who were victimized.

“Unbelievable” is hard to watch at times—it deals with intense, upsetting topics, such as rape, mental illness and the harrowing reality that more often than not, our justice system insensitively mishandles cases of sexual assault. But instead of sensationalizing the event itself or only placing focus on the rapist, “Unbelievable” tackles these issues in an appropriate, ethical way and actually ends positively for the survivors.

If you or someone you know is struggling with sexual assault, consult one of these resources: the  Montgomery County Victim Assistance and Sexual Assault Program (VASAP) or the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).

This story was originally published on The Tide on November 19, 2019.