Trigger warning: This post contains language about sexual assault that some readers may find disturbing.
It wasn’t until the end of my conversations with Kaitlyn Dever and Danielle Macdonald, two of the leads in the new Netflix limited series Unbelievable, that I told them about my own sexual assault survivorhood. Selfishly, it mattered to me that they knew I was one of those people. I wanted them to know that my experience is a fact of what happened to me, one that informs how I approach plenty of situations, including shows and movies that depict sexual assault.
Unbelievable is and isn’t one of those shows. It is more a portrait of survivorhood than it is a narrative about rape. In large part, it is a study on what can happen to survivors by virtue of whether or not people believe them. It is also a true story and one that, despite the title, is entirely familiar for many viewers.
Where other projects often run the risk of exploiting assault as a plot point or shorthand for trauma, Unbelievable unpacks what it means for survivors who are either denied healing, or given space and support to navigate their trauma. Based on an investigative piece published by ProPublica and the Marshall Project in 2015, as well as an episode of Chicago Public Media’s This American Life and a book by the same reporters as the ProPublica piece, the eight-part series begins in 2008 with 18-year-old Marie Adler (an anonymized version of a real victim, played by Dever), just as the world she has built for herself in Lynnwood, Washington, begins to crumble: A masked man has broken into Marie’s apartment, restrained and violently raped her, then forced her to shower and therefore wash away any DNA or evidence he might have transferred onto her body.
Because he left no evidence, and because her memory has gone static, both police and members of her family doubt her story. After an invasive medical examination and an insensitive inquiry, two detectives coerce her into saying she fabricated the attack. They do not investigate further. Her friends turn on her. She is later charged with filing a false report.
Three years later, we meet Detective Karen Duvall (based on Detective Stacey Galbraith, and played by Merritt Weaver) who has just been assigned to a rape case in Golden, Colorado. She interviews Amber Stevenson (an anonymized version of a real victim, played by Macdonald) who recounts how a masked man broke into her apartment, held her at gunpoint and raped her, and forced her to shower. She is as calm as she can be; trauma manifests in myriad ways for different people, and sometimes acting calm can serve as a form of self-preservation. Galbraith takes on Amber’s case and later teams up with Grace Rasmussen (based on detective Edna Hendershot, and played by Toni Collette), who has been investigating a third rape with similar details. This time, the victim is an older Black woman who lives alone. Together, they follow as many clues as they can to apprehend who they think is a serial rapist.
Neither of them know Marie exists, or the story of what happened to her. How could they? The detectives in Lynnwood closed Marie’s case years ago.
Dever herself hadn’t heard of the case, or of the bombshell investigation that laid bare the ways in which both people and the system they worked for had failed Marie, until she auditioned for the project. “I hesitate saying it’s a story because this is actually something that happened to someone — something very, very terrible and tragic,” she tells MTV News. “But knowing that I’d be able to shed light on something that not a lot of people know about, that was something I knew I wanted to be a part of.”
The series presents Marie’s story as a parallel narrative to Duvall and Rasmussen’s investigation; while they work diligently to chase down every possible lead and dead-end, it becomes immediately clear that detectives never even gave Marie’s case a chance. She never fully owns up to being known as a liar, and balks at calling herself one when a judge asks that she do so, moves to a new apartment to avoid the memories of her old place, and struggles to move on. She sinks into depression, has suicidal thoughts, and loses her job. Hers is a worst-case-scenario for many survivors, an overwhelming amount of whom may keep the truth to themselves. An estimated 73 percent of rapes are never reported to police, for a variety of reasons, up to and including a belief that police won’t actually help.
While more and more people feel empowered to share their stories today, the odds still validate survivors’ fears. Lawsuits are slow, and play out in messy, invasive, public ways, and the legal system is, in many ways, better equipped to protect the perpetrator than their victim. Survivors face being smeared, invalidated, discredited, and disbelieved. Perpetrators rarely face accountability, and even when high-profile perpetrators fall from considerable power, it’s likely that they’ll be propped back up by the same industries they exploited. Sometimes it can feel like sharing your trauma just isn’t worth it when weighed against retribution, shame, and the world feeling like they are now owed the details of a personal violence.
Amber’s story, then, is as hopeful as a story about this particular trauma can be: Duvall is kind, and treats her with a care that Marie’s detectives certainly didn’t exhibit to her. She also remains committed to the case, which is especially notable given that less than one third of rape cases that are actually reported to police ever result in someone being charged with the crime. But Unbelievable doesn’t introduce us to the rapist or give him much interiority, frankly because we don’t need it. The series’s creators opted against making a project that felt “rape porny… there’s so much casual observation of violence just in our advertising [and] our culture that I just didn’t want to be anywhere near that,” writer, director and executive producer Susannah Grant told Variety. Instead, we feel the full weight of Marie and Amber’s separate attacks. They are shown only in flashbacks, but they’re still hard to watch. They should be — they are scenes of rape.
When it comes to portraying sexual assault on screens, Macdonald points out that Hollywood has frequently gotten the narrative wrong. “It’s not a great track record,” she tells MTV News. She was drawn to Unbelievable because “it’s never from the perpetrator’s perspective. It’s never about him or why he did it. This is really just the effect that [rape] can have on people.”
For her, it was important that the series shows the ways in which Amber tries to move on — she goes out with her friends, attempts to date, attends her classes and tries to keep her old routine — as distinct from Marie’s difficulty coping. “There’s not one universal way that people react to trauma,” she underscores, adding that “in society, often we don’t understand that we expect people to react a certain way to an event. Everyone processes differently.”
With that processing often comes new kinds of pain, too. Amber checks in with the detective, but her hope quickly sours into disappointment: Duvall and Rasmussen find no new leads as they pore over a seemingly impossible case. Marie, meanwhile, never even entertained a hope that the police would find her attacker — they made it clear they didn’t believe he existed.
It’s not easy to watch. It isn’t easy to portray, either, which drove Dever and Macdonald to find their own ways to protect themselves as they worked. “I knew that I needed to do my best for Marie,” Dever says. “She deserved that. And my little headache at the end of the day — from crying, probably — doesn’t even compare to what Marie or any of the survivors went through. It doesn’t even compare. So I was sort of keeping myself in check with that constantly.”
“It’s heavy, but the one thing we always tried to keep in mind was that this has happened to real people,” Macdonald adds. “As difficult as this was for me to film, people have actually experienced this. Keeping that in mind really helped keep my perspective. This is someone’s actual story and I can’t make it about me.”
Because the show is so devastatingly relatable, Netflix partnered with survivor advocacy group RAINN to provide resources for anyone who might feel triggered while watching or who wants to learn more.
“We definitely find that whenever there’s a show that focuses heavily on this topic, we see an uptick in calls” to a national hotline, Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of RAINN, tells MTV News. He adds that it’s important that family and friends are included in conversations, if survivors feel comfortable doing so. “They can play a constructive role in their loved ones’ healing process,” he explains.
And survivors are everywhere. Per RAINN, at least one in six women and one in ten men have survived rape (nonbinary people, along with transgender and queer people, live with a higher risk of sexual assault than cisgender counterparts). “Sadly, if you haven’t experienced this yourself, you at least have a friend who has,” Dever points out.
Yet the fact remains: Ninety-eight percent of reported rape cases are true, and that doesn’t even account for the millions more that are never formally filed. Providing space for survivors, and for those who have yet to or may never come forward, is a crucial step in fighting rape culture at large. But as both actors stress to MTV News, the point of the show is to not force survivors who have not shared their status to do so if they don’t feel ready.
“Understanding just how different every experience is, was actually very eye-opening for me,” Macdonald says. “I hope this series allows people to feel justified in how they process it. There is no right or wrong way. It is only how you feel and that’s OK. You are justified to feel how you feel.”
“It’s a truly difficult thing,” Dever adds. “At the end of the day, we want people to at least feel seen and heard.”
Though the series was in development prior to the 2017 reports that exposed alleged predator Harvey Weinstein, and the ensuing conversation that thrust Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement into a national consciousness, the era in which it has been released adds an undercurrent that functions almost like an additional character. We know Marie is telling the truth, because we are telling the truth. We know what it’s like to be forced to piece a life back together after someone else shattered it. We know how it feels to worry someone might not believe us, or suggest we deserved it, or were somehow responsible.
So I couldn’t separate my own truth, and my memories, from the series as I watched it. And I have tried — trust me, I would love nothing more — to forget those nights ever happened. But they come flooding back, and every moment is the worst possible time to relive the most painful nights of my life. My own assaults were unlike the ones depicted in Unbelievable: Like the vast majority of survivors, I knew my attackers — had dated one of them, even — and the series recounts a nearly unsolvable case with a stranger at its core. Even so, I understood the pain and the rage and the sadness that Marie and Amber felt. I got why Duvall and Rasmussen worked so hard to deliver justice to those survivors, because isn’t that, in some small way, what we do every time we talk about the unspeakable things other people forced upon us?
I can’t tell you, objectively, what it feels like to watch Unbelievable, just like I could not objectively speak to either Dever or Macdonald. I know too much. I know firsthand. I wish I didn’t. But it’s a thing you can’t ever unknow.
The series has been called an “anti-Law & Order,” and a crime drama that finally gets everything right. These things may be true, but Unbelievable is still, at its core, someone’s lived experience. It is the truth that was denied to one woman, granted to another by sheer luck. That reporters, and later, filmmakers, listened to those women and honored their space and recovery shouldn’t feel as groundbreaking as it does. But such care speaks volumes to the national temperature surrounding these harrowing crimes.
“We’re living in a time where we’re finally giving each other a chance to speak, and then we’re listening to each other, and we’re having compassion,” Dever says. “There’s definitely more work to be done, for sure, but I think we’re finally making progress in that area.”
It’s on all of us to stand up against sexual assault. Find out more at metoo.mtv.com. And if you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, help is available. You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE or visit rainn.org.