On Netflix’s “Unbelievable” and the Culture of Serial Rapists

For anyone that has filed a police report after an assault, the first episode of “Unbelievable” is a trial to get through. I myself stopped and started it many times, getting up to refresh my overflowing mug of tea more than once. The cops involved discover some “discrepancies” in Marie’s story after she reports her sexual assault, mainly relying on accounts of how she behaved afterward. Her foster mother claims she seemed fine and acted as though nothing had really happened. Another foster mother lets the police in charge of her investigation know that Marie had a history of abuse in her life as a foster child and that she may be getting some things mixed up in her current story. Detective Parker leans into Marie, hanging his suspicions on minor details like whether she called a friend after, then untied herself, or untied herself and then called a friend. It’s a heart-pounding scene that ends in Marie recanting, saying that there is no rapist and she made it all up. One exchange goes along the lines of:

Parker: There are inconsistencies in your stories, I mean, the dialing alone we have four different stories, where you tied, untied, with your hands, with your toes.

Marie: I dialed with my hands.

Parker: Then why did you tell Connor you used your toes?

Marie: Maybe I did!

Parker: You just told us you didn’t.

Marie: Well, it’s.. I don’t…it’s confusing.

Parker: For us too. […] there are other people who don’t know what you told us about the rape…that it’s the truth.

Marie’s confusion is a classic trauma response only amplified by the cyclical questioning of the detectives. They plant the seed in her head that there are other people besides them that don’t believe her. Believing she has no allies, it becomes easier to recant, especially after the detectives recite their alternate story where Marie created her assault as a means to deal with being victimized in the past.

What to those of us familiar with trauma is clearly fatigue and memory loss, reads to the detectives as noncompliance. This is a common phenom in questioning victims, the criminalizing of trauma responses.

Netflix’s “Unbelievable” chronicles the real-life story of “Marie Adler” (a pseudonym) a young woman who is raped at 18 and charged with false reporting after authorities failed to investigate her assault. The show takes viewers through the investigation of the crime on Marie’s end, and pairs that with vignettes of the future as detectives Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), and Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) come together after discovering similarities between their cases.

Unbelievable also brings to life the very real stories of many women who have been raped and taken their assaulters to court, and how a woman’s fight for justice is often tainted by the legal system. From reporting your rape and giving a statement to police, to appearing in front of a judge or jury, the interrogation of rape victims creates a culture that allows serial rapists to prosper in the shadows.

In July of 2015, I was raped by someone I had considered a friend. I waited until October to report. The night that I called to report the assault, an officer came to my apartment. I remember that he seemed incredibly tall, but that may have been because I was sitting on my couch and couldn’t look him in the eye. He stood with one leg out the door, his foot planted on my porch as the other leg held the front door in place. I lived in a rowhouse beside a black family that had three young boys next door. They were playing on their porch as I gave my statement; I wanted desperately to ask the officer to close the door but was afraid of coming off too aggressive or insubordinate to an authority figure.

I recounted the details of my assault as best I could; he stood there callously.

“When you say he assaulted you, I need you to be specific, use the right terms: did he put his penis in your vagina?”

I looked next door to see if the boys were listening. The baby of the family would often hide behind the divide between our houses and pop up to look at me giggling as I read on lighter days. That night, he was hiding for a different reason.

The officer left and said someone would be calling me soon. Someone did. I went into the precinct for Sex Crimes and gave yet another statement, again in excruciating detail, of what happened to me. I knew I had to tell the truth about how much I drank that night, that I said yes to one glass of wine after another, that I naively slept in his bed, that here I was a whole three months later reporting for the first time.
Throughout my process, I couldn’t help but feel that the lawyers, DAs and detectives were formulating a case against me and not my rapist. I have a specific memory of being grilled about where exactly my underwear was during the assault. When I had initially reported, I had said they were “around my ankles” and when telling my story to the DA I said they had been removed.

“So which is it,” he asked, “were you still wearing them, or had they been taken off of you? This is a detail that the defense will use against you; you have to get this right.”

Something happened to my brain after that trauma. The best way I can describe it is little blackouts. I’m asked a simple question: were my underwear around my ankles or on the bed, but the way I am asked it produces this blackout. I try to search for the scene in my head and like that, it is gone. I can’t see the specifics and so I can’t vocalize them, and that memory loss is framed as a lie and not a symptom of PTSD. Watching Marie go through the same thing jogged this memory in me, and I was all too clearly back in that same space. A girl in a room full of men begging them to believe me.

The fact is, our legal system fails rape victims on multiple levels during the investigation process. To start, victims are often reporting their stories to unsympathetic law enforcement officers who don’t have experience working with sex crimes, and often engage in victim-blaming tactics that can cause accusers to recant, become confused or defensive which can then be labeled as “inconsistent, volatile, not acting as a victim should.”

In the case of Sara Reedy, who was raped at 19 at a gas station in Cranberry, PA, the officers who questioned her accused her of making up the assault to cover up stealing cash from the register at her job. Reedy’s statement intake quickly became an interrogation:

When I was brought to the hospital, Detective Evanson was already there. The police walked me through the waiting room and they basically put me in an office space like one of the nurses would use. It was a very small room, like a cubicle-type space, but it had doors. Evanson was sitting there waiting for me and that’s when he asked me to tell him what happened and I told him, and after I was finished telling all the details about the assault and the man, and how I was robbed, his first question to me was “How many times a day do you use dope?”

I thought he was referring to heroin, because heroin had been a problem in that area, and I told him straight up that I did not use heroin, that I smoked pot occasionally but that I hadn’t smoked pot in about a week. Eventually, they moved me into an actual hospital room to give me the rape kit, but actually, before giving me the rape kit, Evanson and the corporal, Corporal Massolino, came in and questioned me again. And I had to go through the details of the assault all over again. Evanson basically led the whole thing—it’s cheesy to say, but it almost felt like they were playing this “Good Cop, Bad Cop” game because Corporal Massolino just sat there. He really didn’t say anything. Evanson just kept on grilling me and it eventually turned into “Where’s the money? If you’d tell us now about what actually happened, you’d save yourself.” And he actually went to the extent of saying, “Your tears won’t save you now,” when I finally started crying. It was like a horrible Lifetime movie.

Her story is horrifying, but ultimately one of many. When victims get past the initial statement, they often move on to the next step: getting a rape kit done. In the state where I live, a preliminary audit in 2015 found over 3,044 untested rape kits statewide. Following pressure from The Accountability Project, things began to change. The Allegheny County Office Medical Examiner was awarded $254, 437 to test 400 kits. Data from End The Backlog states that:

In 2019, Pennsylvania governor signed S.B. 399, which builds on current law by establishing submission and testing times for anonymous rape kits and kits for which the jurisdiction is unclear. The new law requires the state police to annually conduct an untested rape kit audit instead of biannually as previous law stated, and to include a review of current rape kit evidence collection practices every two years. The bill also grants victims the right to be informed at least 60 days prior to destruction of a rape kit and to have a rape kit preserved without charge; to receive written information on policies about the collection and preservation of rape kits; to consult with a sexual assault counselor; and to receive information on protective orders, victim compensation, and restitution. It requires the Attorney General to develop protocols for notifying victims about their rights.

While these advancements are promising strides, if an unaffiliated entity had not intervened, these rape kits would have undoubtedly stayed untested until now. One scene in “Unbelievable” show’s Wever’s character pressuring a rookie cop on why the DNA results on her rape kit have been taking so long to arrive. After having another cop make the call, it’s discovered that there was some sort of mix up at the lab, and the results are on their way.

Whether or not this scene is pulled directly from reality isn’t of the greatest importance; what is is that situations like this happen in precincts all across America. One of the biggest discoveries to come out of the slow clearing of the nationwide backlog? Serial rapists are more common than originally thought.

In a report published through the Atlantic by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, she argues that untested rape kits are merely a symptom of a much bigger problem: investigators at all levels put more energy into discouraging victims from reporting than they do investigating rapes, even when DNA evidence is right in front of them.

Each year, roughly 125,000 rapes are reported across the United States. Sometimes the decision to close a case is surely correct; no one wants to smear an innocent man’s reputation or curtail his freedom because of a false report. But in 49 out of every 50 rape cases, the alleged assailant goes free — often, we now know, to assault again. Which means that rape — more than murder, more than robbery or assault—is by far the easiest violent crime to get away with.

Untested rape kits, victims shamed for what they wore or how they responded after, the boys culture of many police precincts, incorrect statistics of false reporting, and lack of trauma-informed policing allow rapists to walk free in a great disappearing act. Their DNA, the very fabric of their being, may be sitting in a box somewhere, but they are virtually faceless in the world outside of their victim’s traumatic memory. So many rapists have skated under the radar for years, giving them ample time and opportunity to offend again and again. Police who investigate rape are more likely to make a couple of phone calls and move along anticipating that victims will eventually grow tired of waiting or be too afraid to testify. During her investigation into serial rapists, Rachel Lovell uncovered that in Cleveland, nearly one in five of the rape kits tested had belonged to repeat offenders.

Conversations around who commits rape are still stalled at the one-and-done “strangers” point; conjuring up views of the masked assailant in the bushes or at your faulty door with a screw driver, hands gloved. While this is the kind of rapist that appears in “Unbelievable,” for many survivors of sexual assault, they knew their attacker, or were connected to them in some way. There is no magic data that pinpoints what makes a rapist a rapist, but a recent study has shown that many (convicted) rapists view themselves as either people who consider themselves thieves that steal anything — and sometimes that includes sex — or narcissistic men that believe they are owed women’s bodies because of some perceived slight in their past.

In the first case, think of someone getting caught shoplifting. The store takes action, calls police, makes a report. Maybe some good Samaritans get in the way and catch the thief before he gets off. If he gets away, he’s highly likely to offend again, whether the reason for stealing is derived from need or adrenaline. Many crimes are prosecuted with the assumption that if the offender is let free, they will do it again, but not rape. Too often we’ve seen publicized trials like that of Brock Turner where white men are given light sentences because they “still have so much life ahead of them.” None, if little thought is given to the lives of victims, what they can lose, and the lives they could have lived if they hadn’t been raped. One disturbing example of this disregard for victim’s lives is that of the 2012 suicide of a woman who was raped by actor and director Nate Parker. Her death certificate stated that she suffered from a “major depressive episode with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse.” The outcome of her reporting was that Parker’s accomplice, Celestin, was sentenced to six months in prison but served no time after the victim refused to testify. Parker himself transferred to a different school and went on to receive accolades for his 2016 film “Birth of a Nation”.

Whether or not the rapist(s) involved are a part of the Hollywood elite or simple college students, their livelihood is weighed at magnanimous excess to that of those they’ve hurt. With that knowledge, it’s no wonder many end up not reporting or decide against testifying once the trial is underway.
Victims that do end up reporting their rapes are tasked with being “perfect.” They have to show the correct amount of emotion, be devastated but not too devastated, be completely sober, straight, and sexless virgins. If you’re a person of color, LGBTQ, a sex worker or poor, the odds are further stacked against you. Constant court dates and visits to detective offices, paying for legal representation and taking time off work certainly adds up. In Pittsburgh, there is a local non profit called Pittsburgh Action Against Rape that provided me with a victim advocate, therapy, and legal advice at no cost to me. Many that were also in my situation have not been as fortunate.

For black women in particular, myths about hypersexuality perpetuated by white supremacy, keep black women from reporting rapes or seeking justice through the penal system. Furthermore, as outlined by a 1983 paper by Jennifer Wiggins in the University of Maine School of Law journal, police tend to focus on the myth of black rapist/white victim. This myth supposes that black men are rapists and their victims are white women, therefore leaving black and brown women out of the conversation. When detailing the circumstances around my criminal trial, I wrote:

“White supremacy feeds rape culture by taking the term “victim” and imbuing it with negative connotation. We see it over and over again in far-right discourse that argues black folks “play the victim” and “pull the race card.” Often, women like me are not viewed or treated like victims, but rather morally corrupt whores who’ve made bad decisions. We’ve put ourselves in a position to be taken advantage of. The violence against us is of our own doing.

There is no longer a ‘rapist.’”

In “Unbelievable,” after years of being told she was a liar, after many women who had become resigned to a life without justice, Marie Adler finally gets hers. Not only is her rapist behind bars, but she received a settlement from the city after suing them that allowed her to start her life over. This story ends well; plenty more do not, because our culture is not committed to taking on entities that fail to hold young men accountable. In order to do that we would have to examine an entire foundation built on white supremacy which powers our capitalism, the billionaire class, our politicians and leaders. A real dismantling of rape culture would require deep introspection where survivors, black and brown women, LGBTQ folks, sex workers and disabled people would become leading voices and actors. In this world there won’t be a need for Mariska Hargitay’s, Merrit Weaver’s, and other mythical “good cops” amongst the crop of bad to save us because we will already be saved.

The show resonates because so many have had disturbingly similar stories of blaming, shaming, and pain. While the female detectives involved are deserving of accolades, the real heros are the other women who were victims of this serial rapist who opened old wounds to help others like themselves. It takes an immeasurable amount of power to trust in and uplift those who are suffering with and around us, especially when the laws put in place to protect us refuse to. The rapekit backlog was alive and growing at the expense of the livelihood of victims until civilians stepped in, donated money, started dialogues, held protest, etc. The strength in a community educated on rape culture can not be overstated.

With a show like this falling on the heels of the Me Too movement, there is plenty of fire and opportunity to create discussion and action on how to dismantle rape culture. It starts with community care and understanding the many ways that sexual trauma affects behavior and mood; that there is no proper way to grieve in the event of such a horrific violation of the body and spirit. What is community care? One example I mentioned earlier are non profits and programs like PAAR: an organization that provides its services to victims completely free. PAAR itself is funded by private donations, fundraisers, gifts, and stocks and securities.

These services are not limited to therapy and legal help. Community care is about giving survivors and people struggling to stay afloat the tools they need to function in everyday life. To get back to work if they desire, to be able to leave the house without a panic attack, to have food, clothing, and even the small joys we allow ourselves in the midst of getting by. Not long after I was raped, I quit smoking and my cravings for nicotine were only alleviated by sugars. I lived for my weekly mango sorbet or being able to take a lyft home from therapy instead of waiting 35 minutes for a bus. To other people this looked like luxury, for me it was a brief break from the replay of traumatic memory that bombarded my brain at will.

While many other organizations that brand the name Community Care focus on health care aspects of the practice, which are undoubtedly important, I believe the concept goes beyond doctors and therapists. UPMC (A Pennsylvania based health care conglomerate) has its own Community Care insurance division, though the company itself has been notorious for worker exploitation and using its non profit status as a shield against paying taxes while its CEO boasts billion dollar earnings. A better example, Wisconsin’s Community Care Incorporated provides services for the elderly, families, and individuals. CCI has staff members that help people navigate the difficult spots in our healthcare and mental health systems, alleviating much of the stress involved with trying to find appropriate treatment. However, it still focuses on doctor care and doesn’t appear to provide a comprehensive plan for health and healing.

PAAR and many other centers like it offer self defense classes, poetry workshops, dance classes, and more. Center for Victims provides great literature on ways people cope after a traumatic incident; from physical reactions to remote sensations. They also offer mediation and crisis response, as well as a “men challenge” aimed at shifting the conversation toward how men can stop domestic violence and sexual assault. Terms like self-care often leave the onus on incredibly vulnerable people to provide for themselves what they don’t have the means to. One person can only do so much, and while it is important to do work in the privacy of the self, connecting with others who have been through similar struggles goes a long way toward feeling seen and understood. These centers have a unique opportunity to fulfill a basic need for those who are struggling and feeling isolated: togetherness.

As a culture we often pay lip service to phrases like “it takes a village”while believing that the path to betterment is an entirely solitary road. There is a rush for victims to “be well, get over it, push forward” instead of giving space to the rage, anger, betrayal, grief, disgust, and sadness that can come as an after effect. The pressure to get back to life as usual often creates “suspicious” behaviors like Marie Adler displayed: pretending it didn’t happen, not wanting to talk about it, confusion and gaps in memory. Community care creates spaces where these behaviors and emotions are understood openly and without shaming. It includes places that offer low cost or free food to those in need, daycare services and shelter to women who experience marital rape, even afterschool programs for children that need time away from home are forms of community care. Not everyone has the means or power to start an organization, so small initiatives like educating yourself on PTSD and rape, listening to survivors, donating books, food, and money to those that have lost wages are ways to start forming a society that doesn’t put the victim on trial. As a practice, community care brings healing out of the frame of self and into the atmosphere, because we can’t all fully mend ourselves in a wounded world.

The process of healing goes beyond seeing rapists in prison, it can’t exist in a culture that still blames a woman for a short skirt or daring to live in the aftermath. Survivors of assault deserve more than having to defend their names day in and out, instead, we deserve a world where the resources to survive are readily available. So that we, much like Marie Adler, can chase the vision of our lives we’ve always desired and deserved.

Dani Janae is a poet and writer based out of Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not writing love poems for unavailable women, she's watching horror movies, hanging with her tarantula, and eating figs. Follow Dani Janae on Twitter and on Instagram.

Dani has written 3 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this.

    I am not a survivor myself.
    I do however have a few in my life, and articles like this are precious because they can help us allies understand and seek more education on this issue without putting the onus on the victims we know to explain themselves.

    I appreciate you willing to share your experience and your take on this.

  2. I never reported anything to the police. I remember trying to tell the matron at the school I went to that I was being bullied (I was 10 I didn’t really have the words to describe what was happening). She told me that I shouldn’t ‘tell tales’ so I didn’t speak to anyone about it until my mental health imploded years later. I can remember how hard it was to try and talk back then, how difficult it was just to talk to a therapist years after so trying to imagine how it must feel to talk to the police…Luckily for me there were other stronger people at that school who did stand up and talk and the school is shut, abusers in jail or dead. Not everyone is so lucky.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.