In the final episode of the Netflix series Unbelievable, a 21-year-old rape survivor is told by her attorney, “What happened to you should not happen to anyone, ever.” He was not referring to the traumatic experience she had gone through. At least not just that. “You know, no one accuses a robbery victim of lying…but when it comes to sexual assault…” he trails off after continuing in an even tone for a while. The second part of the sentence — hanging in the air — would have sounded something like this had it been worded: “But when it comes to sexual assault, the default approach towards the victim is of doubt.” Looking down, Marie Adler (an impressive Kaitlyn Dever) nods her head. Even though incomplete, the utterance makes sense to her. She had experienced the same when she was exhaustively questioned by the police and later disbelieved after informing them of being raped. This attitude of distrust towards narratives and narrators of sexual assaults — which gradually progresses into making those speaking out question themselves, and ultimately silencing them — lies at the heart of Unbelievable as the show explores how the believability of one determines the authenticity of the other.
Created by Susannah Grant (she has written and directed the series), the eight-episode police procedural drama is a riveting adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning article An Unbelievable Story of Rape in the US investigative site ProPublica, delineating how two female detectives — Stacy Galbraith in Golden, Colorado and Detective Edna Hendershot in Westminster — collaborated to get hold of a serial sex offender who ultimately pled guilty to 28 counts of rape in 2011. Notwithstanding minor exceptions like changing the names of some characters — Galbraith is Karen Duvall and Hendershot is Grace Rasmussen — and inclusion of the personal lives of the detectives, the series remains largely faithful to its primary source, depicting in harrowing details how the man, Marc O’Leary (Chris McCarthy in the show) got away with identically committed crimes for long by leaving little or no evidence behind. The act, then, bearing no vestige of the incident, appeared self-effacing, depending solely on the narrators to be validated. It is here that Adler’s case both falters and remains such an important addition to the narrative.
Three years back, the then-teenager was raped by the same man but it was viewed as a desperate attempt of a troubled teenager —who had spent most of her growing up years in foster homes and found the transition of living alone difficult —seeking attention. Later, she was bullied by the police into admitting that the crime never happened. This was not just because her statement bore inconsistencies (as the police claimed) but because Adler had not behaved like someone who has been raped, should. Most of the other women (after being extensively questioned) were believed to be violated even though their case had dried up for lack of evidence, even when their perpetrator was not arrested. In their anger, fright and disillusionment, they behaved in the way they were expected to. Adler, on the other hand, appeared detached on the day it happened, and later seemed more engrossed in setting up the new room she had shifted to rather than recounting the horror. She looked like she had moved on — too soon and too unscathed. One of her foster mothers, Colleen (Bridget Everett) noticed the same when the teenager did not return her hug or break down like she was supposed to. She was, as Colleen tells somebody over the phone, “fine, like nothing had happened.” It is this ‘confounding normalcy’ that makes Adler an unreliable narrator first and later a fraud in the public eye.
Grant, through her, investigates into the politics of victimhood and foregrounds not just how difficult it is for women to convince that they have been assaulted but how it becomes imperative for them to act out that suffering in order to be convincing. Their experiences might be private, even varied, but the terror and the purported shame must be exhibited for the societal gaze (which is predominantly male) — trained to recognise all victims of sexual assaults in a uniform way — in order to be acknowledged. Women must perform their victimhood to evoke sympathy, to demand concern, but mostly to be identified as one.
Adler’s case — unregistered and hence unnoted for long — assumes great importance in this regard, for it points towards another reality where, in the absence of such an evident and vivid enactment, a woman is not just victimised but has to fight a longer and harder battle to be recognised as one, where her story is not merely disbelieved but denied, where justice is not delayed but appears declined.
It is not incidental that the tireless effort of two female detectives helped in unravelling the apparently irresoluble case which, in turn, proved Adler’s claims right after three years — after she regretted reporting it, after she lost her friends, her job, her housing, and her right to grieve over what had happened to her. Duvall and Rasmussen (Merritt Wever and Toni Collette respectively, both in fine form) — infused with palpable empathy —viewed each woman differently, sensing quiet outrage in their apparent diffidence and seeing through composure as numbness.
In the post MeToo universe where an abundance of instances of disparate women sharing their private stories — some taking refuge in someone else’s words while some raising their own voice — challenge our known perceptions of victims and victimhood, a series such as this emphasises the urgent need to believe narratives of sexual assaults, not because of, but in spite of the narrator. It is the show we deserve as much as we need. Its relevance, independent of being a searing adaptation, ultimately lies in portraying the subjectiveness of trauma, highlighting how a similar incident can elicit different reactions from different people and coaxing us to recalibrate the familiar parameters we use to believe or dismiss someone. Because, as the show cautions, an incident of sexual assault disregarded as unbelievable is probably one that was disbelieved in haste.