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“Netflix’s Unbelievable shows that society still struggles with the portrayal of imperfect rape victims – such as myself”

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Alicia Lutes
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As the much-anticipated TV series about Marie Adler starring Kaitlyn Dever, Toni Collette, Danielle Macdonald debuts this week on Netflix, writer and rape survivor Alicia Lutes asks why imperfect women aren’t treated with the same as empathy as male anti-heroes and villains. 

Like the heart of the series itself, Unbelievable is imperfect. The new Netflix series that everyone is talking about tackles the true-life tale of rape and its victims as told through the framework of the Pulitzer Prize-winning expose, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” that went viral in 2015. At their core, both the series and the article detail the far more nuanced, complicated, and harrowing realities of rape cases in America.

In 2009, Unbelievable’s central figure Marie (played by Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever) reports being raped by a masked intruder in her own home but her allegations are greeted with scepticism by her foster mothers and the detectives. The 18-year-old then retracted the allegation, saying she made them up, and was charged with the gross misdemeanor of making a false report. 

Two years later, her case resurfaces. Marie is re-victimized by both the process and the inherent disbelief of women that is apparent throughout society and other high-profile cases prior to her case and since—like Chanel Miller, the victim of Stanford University student and Olympic swim team hopeful Brock Turner, who has spoken out in her upcoming memoir Know My Name and during a special interview on 60 Minutes this month.

But unlike the story on which it’s based, Unbelievable is so by-the-book, the framing so literal from the piece of journalism on which it was based, it doesn’t fully convey the plight—and realities—of being an imperfect victim. And that imperfection is part of what abusers of all stripes (but especially rapists) are banking on to steer clear of justice and consequence. That we are still debating a person’s role in “asking” for such violence in 2019 means we still don’t understand how to have empathy for imperfect people who end up victims. Which is supremely messed up considering that, under most bright lights, we’re all inherently imperfect people. We’re human beings: perfection is impossible.

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The real-life rape case of Marie Adler

The series absolutely has the chops with which to succeed in telling this tale. And it is understandable why the focus is on the two cops Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) who solve the case, as their insight and care is so clearly unprecedented. 

Staying mostly only surface-level with Marie in order to keep the audience guessing and grappling with our own biases is part of the point: what does it say about us when we ask ourselves, “Is she really telling the truth? Did this happen? Is she just an attention-seeking liar?” This is achieved particularly well when Marie is juxtaposed to Danielle Macdonald’s Amber, a “gold-star” victim who kept cool-headed, engaged, and deeply detail-oriented when it came to surviving her own encounter with the same rapist. But Wever and Collette’s detectives are also unlike the (male) cops overseeing Marie’s case, in that they care, they understand every person’s reaction to these experiences are different (and molded by your own life), and do everything so by-the-book they insert an intern character who seemingly only exists to express just how perfect and capable these two women are compared to everyone else. 

The empathy and concern these powerhouse performers show is not often seen in crime television and movies for a variety of reasons—to say nothing of inside the justice system itself. And keeping Marie as a wildcard mystery certainly adds some much-needed tension to an otherwise straightforward story. But it’s also the thing that would benefit the most from a good ol’ fashioned discourse and dissection in the context of our modern culture and ideas.

Toni Collette and Merritt Wever as detectives in Unbelievable

Marie’s case, though extreme, has aspects of it that echo across every case of rape or abuse. Just look at the sort of questions we put to victims, from Chanel Miller’s own letter that she read in court to her rapist Brock Turner, and also in her 60 Minutes interview:

“Instead of taking time to heal, I was taking time to recall the night in excruciating detail, in order to prepare for the attorney’s questions that would be invasive, aggressive, and designed to steer me off course, to contradict myself, my sister, phrased in ways to manipulate my answers. Instead of his attorney saying, Did you notice any abrasions? He said, You didn’t notice any abrasions, right? This was a game of strategy, as if I could be tricked out of my own worth. The sexual assault had been so clear, but instead, here I was at the trial, answering questions like:

How old are you? How much do you weigh? What did you eat that day? Well what did you have for dinner? Who made dinner? Did you drink with dinner? No, not even water? When did you drink? How much did you drink? What container did you drink out of? Who gave you the drink? How much do you usually drink? Who dropped you off at this party? At what time? But where exactly? What were you wearing? Why were you going to this party? What’ d you do when you got there? Are you sure you did that? But what time did you do that? What does this text mean? Who were you texting? When did you urinate? Where did you urinate? With whom did you urinate outside? Was your phone on silent when your sister called? Do you remember silencing it? Really because on page 53 I’d like to point out that you said it was set to ring. Did you drink in college? You said you were a party animal? How many times did you black out? Did you party at frats? Are you serious with your boyfriend? Are you sexually active with him? When did you start dating? Would you ever cheat? Do you have a history of cheating? What do you mean when you said you wanted to reward him? Do you remember what time you woke up? Were you wearing your cardigan? What color was your cardigan? Do you remember any more from that night? No? Okay, well, we’ll let Brock fill it in.

This sort of thing is a standard, exacting depersonalization of a victim. It is revictimizing, retraumatizing, and exhausting. This is done NOT to exact truth, but to look for loopholes and “gotcha!” a victim who was drugged and drunk, in order to ensure consequences are never faced.

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The ‘imperfect victim’ 

Why are we so afraid of imperfect victims? Why are we so hesitant to give justice and respect to these people who may not be straight-laced Good Girls And Boys, of which there are so few (if any) in actuality? Are those the only people worthy of our sympathy? When we allow this sort of binary to exist with victims we don’t know or like for personal reasons, we are condoning a societal standard that some people should simply be more tolerant of suffering and personal loss. 

There are many answers here as to why this continues on—patriarchy, racism, sexism, classism, self-hatred: truly, pick your poison—but until we can show sympathy and compassion for the imperfect among us, all victims will continue to suffer more for simply being a human being.

Why victims are chosen and their perceived unreliability in the public eye is a major reason why perpetrators choose who they choose. It’s why hundreds of rapes like Miller’s get pushed aside on college campuses every year. Victims are groomed; their humanness and imperfection are exactly what catches an abuser’s eye. Vulnerability, a tendency to self-blame, womanhood: these things actively work against victims when seeds of doubt need to be planted.

It’s why, even at eight years old, I felt what had happened to me was a secret to keep in: no one would believe the little girl who ran around creating stories on the fly, playing, acting, and singing with big emotions, because I’d already been shown as much by my family through words and violence and actions they’d unfurled already, confirmed by the stories I’d read and watched on TV or in movies, or witnessed play out in real life. 

I’d been dismissed by alcoholics who had a hard time remembering stuff. I was a child, but I knew my words and thoughts and feelings inherently held less merit. And, I had long been told this was a by-product of my being “unique” and “creative” and “an artist” in a family full of cops and mailmen and nurses. 

Gaslighting came easy to them, and I learned very quickly that I couldn’t trust myself, what I was seeing or experiencing, and/or how I felt. After all, I wanted the cool, cute, slightly older boy who hung around the bowling alley where my father worked to be my boyfriend, so I felt responsible. After all, I’d asked him to be my boyfriend—so confident and mature I felt I was—so I should have known what asking someone to be your boyfriend entailed. I was embarrassed because I didn’t know what had happened, and I should have. Instead, it was a flash of pain, a dizzied sense of being outside of myself. Mostly I remember staring up at the ceiling and the shelves that were above and to the right of us. The toys strewn about because we were in the daycare room, locked in by my father who was working at the time. 

Netflix's Unbelievable: Kaitlyn Dever plays rape victim Marie Adler in the new true crime series
Netflix's Unbelievable: Kaitlyn Dever plays rape victim Marie Adler in the new true crime series

It all coalesced in my head as the same shame, one I knew I had to push down if I didn’t want everything ruined. If I was honest and open about everything else in my life, maybe it would be okay to keep this one secret. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt me. But as I got older and had more experiences with sexual assault (though less severe), I realized it didn’t matter if I was perfect, it didn’t matter if I was prudish, if I was fat, if I was anything. Certain markers of humanity can always be twisted into, “well, you were probably asking for it,” alongside pleas to not ruin some poor man’s life. Look at how, despite everything Chanel Miller went through, Brock Turner was still more cared for by our society, more coddled, his future more secure simply because of his maledom. Look at how she had to hide her name and face until now, and how brave we know it is that she did it, and how much more hate and vitriol and blame she will now face because of it. To this day, my own mother still says to me, “I believe that’s what you believe happened to you,” my creativity and artistic nature a clear source of continued melancholy for her. As if that were the answer, as if that were the problem.

Retracting allegations  

The seemingly unanswerable questions—What? Why? Why now? How is this possible? What makes you think this is what really happened and wasn’t just something you dreamed up?—only makes it harder to communicate and not spiral in what is being presented to you as the only logic that makes sense. It’s why Marie crumbles and succumbs to the police’s suggestion that she’s actually the liar and totally the problem. Especially when there’s a mother figure involved who doesn’t believe you, like Marie’s foster mom. It’s why when I—in finally telling my mother about my experiences with sexual violence and she shut me down as always—I overstated something about what happened to me, in a moment of exasperated desperation, to try and make it all seem “bad” or “real” enough for her to even consider believing me. I regretted it instantly, but didn’t know if I should correct myself as I was losing either way, but it would be more so if I willingly and immediately admitted an emotionally fueled transgression. And it made me feel like she was right: maybe I am just a dramatic liar. I felt like she’d gotcha!-ed me, that I’d invalidated my own experience with an outburst that allowed her to “win” the argument or moral high ground about whether or not I’d been sexually assaulted. Some people can make it hard on themselves to be believed, because of trauma or not “acting like a victim,” whatever the fuck that means. When that level of disbelief is constantly thrown on a person, after years of being told that’s who you are, it’s easy to believe what other people say above what you think and feel and know; it’s why someone like Marie would admit to a crime she did not commit. At the time of the events, she had internalized the idea that she’s imperfect, and therefore bad and wrong: deserving of pain and trauma. Even the most extroverted and effective communicators among us might crack under such pressure and assume the given mantel. Women, especially, internalize all the doubt and misgivings society throws at us, and feel like it’s ultimately our fault, even if the truth that it isn’t eats away at us. In our minds, we deserve to be eaten, maybe.

As proven by the judge in the Turner case, and the cops in Marie’s, there’s little room in our justice system for imperfection when you’re caught up in it (unless you have a lot of money or incredibly influential friends). There’s an inherent bias in all of us that so often fails those who can be perceived as not wholly truthful or evasive for reasons usually entrenched in personal or socialized prejudices. It is, perhaps, a self-defense mechanism, as well as a central tenet of the patriarchal society in which we all live: men are the authorities, the leaders, the ones whose personhood we should protect. They are important. Everyone else merely exists around and for them, nothing more, nothing less.

Which is why Unbelievable as a series, as excellent as it is, ultimately left me wanting. Yes, it is incredibly nice to see two women being great at what they do, solving cases, and caring about victims in a way that rarely ever happens. But in doing that—mostly focusing on Amber and the victims who came after Marie—this story of rape again left the imperfect victim as an elusive, shady figure we can’t really understand, a handy framing device we check in with between Wever and Collette’s monologues. Why don’t imperfect women get the sort of dissection and adulation (and sometimes outright romanticization) that we give male antiheroes and villains? Why do we have more of a capacity for empathy/understanding a comic book character such as the Joker than women who have been beaten up by the real world and must figure out a way to navigate through it? Maybe we’d have an easier time protecting and respecting these imperfect victims if we actually told their whole story once in a while.

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Alicia Lutes

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