It’s hard not to feel something after watching Netflix’s new show Unbelievable. Whether it’s sadness, fear, anger or a surge of feminist pride, I found myself feeling a little frightened and riled-up.
The series documents the real-life story of two rape investigations and shows how one can go so wrong, while also providing hope on what can happen when the system gets it right. With only eight episodes, it’s a powerful — but entertaining — binge-watch to add to your list.
The show is inspired by the 2015 article “The Unbelievable Story of Rape,” part of ProPublica and The Marshall Project’s joint reporting investigation that won a Pulitzer-prize in 2016. The story has been turned into an episode of NPR’s This American Life, and Netflix released its own adaptation in September.
It begins with 18-year-old Marie Adler (played by Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever) sitting on her couch in Lynnwood, Washington. She has a blanket wrapped around her body and tears running down her face.
Scenes of her violent sexual assault, which occurred the night before, flash on and off the screen as the viewer is introduced to Marie's former foster mother Judith (played by Elizabeth Marvel), and then to the police that first arrive on the scene.
Marie soon finds herself being challenged by the two lead investigators on her case about some inconsistencies in her story. The police pressure ultimately leads Marie to retract her initial statement.
This storyline is contrasted by a similar incident in Golden, Colorado in 2011. Detective Karen Duvall (played by Merritt Wever) is conducting a rape investigation with a 22-year-old victim whose story matches Marie’s in an eerie way.
The show highlights the differences between Marie's investigation and how Detective Duvall and her partner, Detective Rasmussen (Toni Collette), handle their investigations. It comes down to acknowledging the trauma, survivors play a key part in any investigation.
Immediately, there's a stark difference in the way each of the initial interviews are handled. The detectives in Marie’s case pressed her on small details she couldn’t remember and expressed judgement if Marie remembered a new detail or changed something from before.
Detective Duvall, however, recognizes that Amber, the second rape victim we meet, has just experienced serious trauma and that her brain might not be processing as normal.
Marie’s inability to recall specific details from the night of her rape are consistent with what other survivors experience, says Professor Katherine Reed, who teaches a course called “Covering Traumatic Events” at the Missouri School of Journalism.
“The truth of the matter is because of how trauma — this is crucial — because of how trauma affects the way memory is encoded by the brain, people who are survivors of trauma, especially extreme trauma like a sexual assault, can't necessarily remember everything,” Reed says.
Reed is a fan of the show and an even bigger fan of the original written story. She even makes her reporting class and her trauma reporting classes read it every semester.
“It’s such a good explanation and such a thorough explanation of how people who don’t understand the impact of trauma on the brain can misunderstand the way survivors of sexual assault can sometimes behave,” Reed says.