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Unbelievable: the harrowing real-life story behind Netflix’s new true crime series

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Christobel Hastings
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An Unbelievable Story of Rape, the Pulitzer Prize-winning article chronicling the real-life trauma and resilience of a teenage girl named Marie, has been serialised in a new true crime series from Netflix. In the wake of its premiere, the show has inspired a wave of conversation about the treatment of women and girls in the criminal justice system, and even earned praise from the real-life woman behind its story.

Cast your mind back to December 2015. You’re scrolling Twitter, and a story keeps popping up on your feed. It’s been so frequently shared, that you suspect for a minute that your app might be glitching. It’s a story about an 18-year-old who said she was attacked at knifepoint, only to retract her story. The story, you then discover, doesn’t just chronicle one horrifying sexual assault, but unfolds into multiple attacks by a potential serial rapist. It’s so gripping, in fact, that it reads like a work of fiction. But it turns out to be true.

The story was of course An Unbelievable Story of Rape, the Pulitzer Prize-winning article by T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project, and the subject of the This American Life radio episode, “Anatomy of Doubt”. Soon after it was published, the article went viral, putting the spotlight firmly on the traumatic experiences of victims when reporting sexual violence, as well as the entrenched institutional biases hindering their investigations. Now, that same story is the subject of an upcoming Netflix true crime series, Unbelievable.

Kaitlyn Dever’s Marie is interviewed by detectives in Netflix’s Unbelievable

Billed as “a story of unspeakable trauma, unwavering tenacity, and astounding resilience”, Unbelievable follows the story of teenager Marie Adler (played by Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever) a former foster child who lives in special housing for at-risk young people. When she files a police report claiming that she was raped by a masked intruder in her home, the detectives in charge of the case respond with scepticism, pressure and gaslighting, and eventually, even her own foster mothers (played by Elizabeth Marvel and Bridget Everett) begin to doubt her story. The authorities subsequently deem her story “unbelievable”, and Marie recants her statement, whereby she is charged with a gross misdemeanour for false reporting.

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in Colorado, two female detectives, Karen DuVall (Merritt Weaver) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Colette) begin to identify links between an eerily similar string of rape cases, and join forces to pool their knowledge. With the insight of another victim of an alleged rape (Danielle Macdonald) by the same suspect that the pair are investigating, the detectives work tirelessly to connect separate investigations across the country that they believe is the work of a serial rapist. When they eventually apprehend the culprit, they are led to a teenage survivor who never received justice: Marie.  

Toni Collette as Grace Rasmussen in Netflix’s Unbelievable

While the personal identities of those involved in the case have been fictionalised for the series, the female-led drama closely mirrors the real-life events of the investigation, which have also been chronicled in the book Unbelievable.  According to showrunner and director Susannah Grant, it was important to show the gruelling reality of reporting sexual assault, and to shed light on the obstacles in the criminal justice system hindering victims’ cases

“There a couple of things you hear said about the process of reporting a rape,” she said in an interview. “One is that the investigation feels like a second assault. And you also hear that the process of going through the kit also feels like an assault. So, rather than just accept that, we really wanted to break that down and communicate that on a more visceral level, so you can experience why that’s true in an emotional way.”

In a new trailer, we’re given an insight into the traumatising process of reporting rape, and the ways the criminal justice system fails victims, by way of two male detectives’ who demonstrate a profound lack of understanding when it comes to investigating cases of sexual assault. “No signs of forced entry, no DNA, not a single neighbour heard or saw a thing,” a sceptical voice in the trailer intones.

The trailer also makes apparent how trauma has affected Marie’s memory, through fragmented pieces of her story which reflect her fragile psychological state. “Maybe I blacked it out,” she says tearfully at one point. But even when Marie does gain some clarity on past events, she is resigned to the fact that no-one will take her story seriously. “They just kept asking me the same question, ‘How come your story doesn’t add up? How come people don’t believe you?’” she says, getting visibly upset. “Even with people that you can trust, if the truth is inconvenient, they don’t believe it.”

Merritt Weaver as Karen Duvall in Netflix’s Unbelievable

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, executive producer and director Sarah Timberman also emphasised that a major part of creating the series was showing that there is no set way to respond to sexual assault. “Such a huge part of the story is exploring the ways that people respond to trauma and just underscoring the fact that there’s no right way to respond to a trauma,” she explained. “And yet there are so many preconceptions about the way people are expected to behave in the wake of something like a violent assault.”

Kaitlyn Dever, who plays Marie, explained that she immersed herself in Marie’s story by listening to her voice on This American Life.

“I mean hearing her voice in that was kind of enough for me,” she explained. “I wanted to get to know her backstory as much as I could. I also wanted to know the story like the back of my hand, and I talked to Lisa [Cholodenko] and Susannah about it in early prep and we kind of came to the conclusion that - we had a conversation about maybe talking to her, but I only wanted to do what she wanted to do. 

“We wanted to respect her privacy, and I was lucky enough to have all of this information about her, and I feel like you aren’t trying to make a carbon copy of Marie or I wasn’t trying to memorise her mannerisms or her accent. For me it was really all about figuring out her emotion and her state of mind during the whole thing and coming about it with as much respect as possible.”

Since dropping on Netflix, Unbelievable has earned rave reviews from the critics, with many hailing the crime drama one of the best shows of 2019. 

Jen Chaney of Vulture wrote that the show’s centring of the victim’s narrative, and the examination of the treatment of women in the criminal justice system, felt like a “radical approach to crime storytelling”.

Inkoo Kang from Slate agreed. “In a true-crime ecosphere in which victims rarely get their say, Unbelievable is admirable for rearranging the genre to re-centre survivors and spotlight the too-little-discussed repercussions of a too common crime,” she wrote.

Alan Sepinwall of Rolling Stone, meanwhile, wrote that the first hour of the show, which follows Marie’s attempt to recall her harrowing trauma, and the police eventually charging Marie with filing a false report, rates “among the most brutally effective episodes of television you will see”.

“Sexual assault is a difficult, delicate subject, and one that too many series and movies use as an exploitative crutch,” he writes. “With Unbelievable, the creative team and superb cast treat the subject with the seriousness and grace it deserves, while also telling one hell of a story along the way.”

The harrowing drama has also sparked an outpouring of intense discussion online, with many sharing their own heartbreaking experiences of sexual assault, and others identifying with Marie’s feelings of doubt and confusion in the wake of her trauma. 

“Just started #Unbelievable on #netflix. Bringing back A LOT of shitty memories but I’m getting v annoyed at people making judgements as to how she *should* respond. I know I was like no I don’t want to talk, now I do, now I don’t, yes I’m fine, yes I’m ignoring that this happened,” one viewer wrote.

“Everyone responds differently. You have no idea how you’ll respond until it happens to you, & guess what, even then you probably won’t know because (spoiler alert) you’ve just been violated & had all control snatched away from you & the world is kind of fucked up,” they continued. 

Others expressed anger and frustration at the way victims of sexual violence are re-traumatised in the criminal justice system. 

“If you have the guts to face how women who report sexual violence are treated by law enforcement, how they are humiliated, antagonised and abandoned by the legal system, and how sometimes it takes women to bring justice to women, please watch #unbelievablenetflix,” wrote one social media user.

“This is disgusting. This is literally why women struggle with admitting to being sexually assaulted because they’re forced to relive the moment 60+ times, and then poked and prodded at by our legal system. #Unbelievable,” another user commented.

“In #Unbelievable on Netflix a sexual assault survivor is basically coerced and threatened by police officers to “admit” that she lied about her assault. It is based on a true story. It makes me wonder how many of the “false accusations” stories we hear weren’t actually false,” wrote a third viewer. 

In a twitter thread sharing his thoughts on the series, Ken Armstrong, who co-wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece An Unbelievable Story of Rape, confirmed the accuracy of the details concerning Marie’s hospital examination, the conduct of the police detective who charged Marie with a false report, and the dedication of the cast, who immersed themselves in studying the material of the case.

Armstrong also revealed that he had spoken to the real-life Marie in the wake of the documentary’s release. With Marie’s permission, he was able to share her praise of the show, and in particular, Kaitlyn Dever’s characterisation.

“Two weeks ago I got a call, from Marie. She told me she had just watched the series,” Armstrong wrote. “Watching it was hard, she said. ‘I did cry quite a bit,’ she said. But she had decided she wanted to and was glad that she did. She called the show ‘excellent.’”

“Marie has told me before that it can be a struggle for her to put her feelings and thoughts into words,” he continued. “In that scene, she said, Kaitlyn Dever captured her struggle. ‘It was, like, perfect,’ she said.”

Armstrong went on to explain that watching the re-creation of her experience on screen, and especially the persistence of the Colorado detectives, had helped Marie process her ordeal.

“Marie has told me before that it can be a struggle for her to put her feelings and thoughts into words,” he continued. “In that scene, she said, Kaitlyn Dever captured her struggle. ‘It was, like, perfect,’ she said.”

“Watching the last episode, watching the re-creation of the Colorado detectives closing in, provided Marie something she didn’t expect,” Armstrong concluded. “Seeing him get put away, that was closure for me,’ she said.”

With many hailing Kaitlyn Dever and predicting awards for her performance, Unbelievable looks set to become one of the defining dramas of the decade. And given the shock-waves from the show are educating people about sexual assault, and inspiring conversation about the way girls and women are mistreated in the criminal justice system, we can consider the case for female-led dramas convincingly closed.  

All eight episodes of Unbelievable are available on Netflix now.

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Images: Netflix

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Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.

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