What I kind of wish I never learned from Unbelievable: A Netflix series based on a true story about rape

“(We’re) talking about a crime that is absolutely devastating and massively under-addressed. So bringing that issue out of the dark shadows of our culture and pulling it into the light is really important” Showrunner Susannah Grant

{CONTAINS SPOILERS}

Not too long ago my husband and I finished watching the new Netflix series, Unbelievable. It was hauntingly powerful. It had a way of provoking anger and providing deeper understanding in us as the viewers. There was compelling character development amidst a tragically gripping and mesmerizing story line. But the heartbreaking reality behind this eight episode show is that it was much more than a show. It was someone’s (many someone’s) life reality being depicted. It was lived and felt and experienced off the screen.  Watching this part of other people’s lives played out before me in a show felt a little unfathomable.

I kept telling myself this really happened.

 As someone who thinks long and feels deeply about sexual abuse, this show caused a lot of those previous thoughts and feelings to come to a head. It is intrusively teaching me many things about this topic. In fact, these are some of the things I “kind of wish it never taught me.” Because now, I’m held accountable to a new degree. And yet this sort of knowledge-based accountability is the very reason I find these lessons worth sharing with you, too.

Maybe the first step is choosing to enter into the stories

I was hesitant to watch this show. I knew the content would be risky for me to watch on many levels. I knew it would affect me in ways I did not really want to be affected. To be honest, I have a pretty weak stomach when it comes to many of life’s darkest realities. Sometimes it feels as if the darkness swallows me whole. And to be even more honest, that’s part of why I ended up watching it. While I think knowing ourselves (our weaknesses, triggers, and tendencies) provides necessary ground for discerning what kind of content we take in, this time I decided I needed to push myself a little. Or a lot. I landed at the conclusion that for me, this time, it was worth it.

I think in hindsight my choice is teaching me that entering into the story, even of a complete stranger, will not actually lighten the load of what they are already having to carry. But on the other hand, it is teaching me that maybe choosing to carry just an ounce of it by exposure will give greater understanding, deeper compassion, and more fervent outrage for the weight already placed upon them. What we might carry for a week, some will carry for a life time. So we can choose to taste just a portion of the reality that they never got to choose for themselves. Maybe for you that will not mean watching the show. But it probably will mean that you will have to choose to learn something you cannot un-know and feel something you cannot un-feel by the exposure of excruciating stories from those who choose to share them to any degree and for any reason. 

There is no “right” way to respond to trauma 

There was a crucial turning point towards a whole new level of suffering for one of the victims. This turning point happened when Marie Adler, the first accuser, began to be doubted. A seed of doubt was first planted into the case by Marie’s former foster mom. There is a very telling scene where the foster mom is talking to a detective and sharing her suspicions of fabrication. These expressed suspicions depicted the real life foster mom who claimed that Marie’s response was not emotional enough, that she was not making eye contact, and that she found it suspicious that Marie had told several people. This was the sudden gateway to Marie being berated, belittled, and bullied by investigators. Which then led to Marie claiming and being charged for, false reporting.  What this spiraled into can traced back to the assumption that there is a “right” or “normal” way to respond to such experiences.

Scene one of episode two further drives this point home as we are introduced to a bubbly, communicative, warm woman who is sharing her own eerily similar story to that of Marie’s. The stark difference, however, is that she is not curled up in a ball grasping for words to report to the police. She, instead, is delightfully direct and detailed. She is deemed “dependable.” Marie was dismissed as “troubled.” Yet trauma is trauma. And its validity can not be measured systematically. Trauma will inevitably affect the inflicted. No amount of running or hiding or stuffing or shouting will make it disappear. But exactly when and how it will be responded to is not determined by our own prideful scrutiny. 

Rape is a direct act of violence 

For the sake of sensitivity and delicacy I will not delve deeply into this point. But it is utterly impossible to hear even the slightest detail of a rape case and not equate it with a sheer act of harrowing violence. I think our initial response to this statement would be something like “of course it is!” We wholeheartedly agree rape is very very serious, and even violent. Along with any form of sexual assault. Yet our lived response in today’s rape culture can tend more towards language like “being caught in the moment” or a “one time slip up.” But this sort of behavior must be attributed to something much greater than just an unmet sexual desire. It does not take much research, or experience, to discover that this sort of abuse is linked to power, control, and entitlement. Sexual assault can happen in a foreign place or a familiar place. It can come from a person the survivor will never lay eyes on again or from a person they will see every Holiday. Or every day at school. Or every day in their very own home. Regardless of when, who, or where we must talk about and treat such sexual assault for what it is- a pinnacle of violence. It is not only one act of crime (which this alone should ensue just-penalty); it is an act of many crimes coming together as one and culminating itself in the worst kind of survived brutality. 

Christians can, and should, show up for this battle

While most Christian viewers will heartily cheer on detective Duvall and gladly claim her as our own, we at some point will simultaneously shrink back upon the realization that we simply can never be like her. She is this gentle, soft spoken, empathetic, brave, passionate, powerhouse of a woman. And we’d be happy to be a fraction of the person that she is. “Detective Duvall” reminds us in a brilliantly beautiful way that Christians can, and should, fight hard against injustices. Injustices, like this show portrays, that are often dealt with unjustly. We, too, live in a world of injustice stacked upon injustice. And we, too, could learn a few things about how to take up the cause of the violated and the victimized. I believe this can be done without pitting the gospel of grace against the gospel of justice. I believe it can also be done without fear that this kind of darkness will make us forsake the light. It will be scary and hard, but we along with Duvall should say, “Here I am, send me.”

Yet when we put this detective on a pedestal (or any great men and women of the faith who have carved paths towards this end), we miss the God on his throne who they are actually representing. The God who told us from long ago that he cared about his people seeking justice, correcting oppression, and defending the rights of those in need. We may never be the modern day William Wilberforce of sexual assault. But, in our own small spheres of influences we can fight with the same sort of anger, plead with the same sort of passion, and care with the same sort of tenderness that these battle-hero’s-for-justice also exemplified.  All the while pointing to the Christ of our Christianity. 

We just never know

One significant scene that stuck out to me in Marie’s story was in the aftermath of her trauma and the backlash of not being believed. This scene takes place in a store that Marie is attempting to work at. She is behind a table with shaking hands that are unable to even successfully squirt ketchup into a cup. The lady waiting on the other side of the table is annoyed that this “incompetent worker” is not even capable of correctly preparing a small sample of dipping sauce for her as the customer to try. She comes across as impatient at best and condescending at worst. And it makes us mad. But let’s face it. We are watching from Marie’s point of view. Too often I am in the shoes of the lady who is only asking for base-line proficiency in customer service. Or basic reciprocation in my relationships.

I want this to serve as a reminder for me that the person in front of me, from my closest friend to a complete stranger, may have just walked away from their very worst nightmare. The kind that they are not able to wake up from. The kind where the invasive flashbacks cannot be ignored and the crippling panic attacks can not be predicted. As the often-spoken-little-applied quote goes “you never know what kind of battle someone is fighting.” So instead of accusing and assuming from the outside of the battle as an attacker, let’s enable and embrace as a defender who goes inside their battle and fights with them and for them. 

Whatever it takes, be a safe place

As this show eludes to multiple times, let’s give pause to these staggering stats from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center: 1) Rape is the most under-reported crime; 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police. 2) Only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to the authorities 3) The prevalence of false reporting is between 2% and 10%. A study of eight U.S. communities, which included 2,059 cases of sexual assault, found a 7.1% rate of false reports. 

My goal in sharing these numbers is not to spark the newly heated debate about false reporting. It is more to challenge our defaults. Do I believe there can be harm in the rally cry “believe women, every single time, no matter what”? I do. But I also believe there is so much irreversible harm that we inflict when our default towards an accuser is one of doubt. What if instead our instinct was to first assume that another Marie Adler was sitting in front of us. The kind of Marie, who by sharing, was taking the risk to lose more than what had already been taken from her. The kind of Marie who heart crushingly exclaimed that if she had to do it over, she would lie again. Lie better and lie sooner. Why? Because the truth only proved to multiply her sorrow and shame. She came to believe that keeping the truth to herself was less painful than trusting it over to someone else for them to do what they wanted with it. The tragic irony of not being believed was that Marie now felt just as unsafe behind her unlocked door as she did outside of it. No one was safe anymore. Not even the good ones who were supposed to protect her. 

But, I am convinced that even more than the need to change the settings of our default is the need to cultivate the space for safety. May that sacred space be found in us. May we work hard to be the kind of people who are safe before, after, and in the midst of our friend’s and neighbor’s tragedies and traumas. May we be people of solace and solidarity. Marie finally found that place of safety. It was in a therapist. A therapist who welcomed her silence, saw her tears, and listened to her voice when she courageously chose to use it. The therapist’s refreshingly trustworthy approach was not to dissect a story, but rather to really get to know the girl sitting in front of her.  Let us, too, sit on a soft couch to listen from instead of a cold jury seat to dictate from.

** Below are anonymous answers from a diverse group of survivors that I know that were willing to answer the question “what is one thing you want people to know about sexual assault?”

 

   I would say that for me, it feels like everyone’s worlds keep going and mine stays still. I feel stuck and unable to completely move on, specifically because of my current court case. It just feels like a scab that keeps getting involuntarily picked off.

 

 Even though I’ve “moved on” and “forgiven” my abuser (whatever that even looks like) that doesn’t mean that I want to have anything to do with him. 

 

Healing comes in layers.

 

Yes, it was 20 years ago. But yes… I can still recall the fear & self-loathing as if it was yesterday.

 

The one thing I would want others to know about sexual assault is when someone opens up and shares, the most valuable way you can help is by listening and saying, “I believe you.” There is incredible incredible power in those words to break the cycle of fear, denial, isolation, and avoidance to the victim. How someone responses truly will have an effect on the healing process.

 

Those who are victims believe a ton of lies, but the main one is, ” I should have been able to stop it. I should have been able to defend myself. Or “if I had not done ____ he wouldn’t have assaulted me.” I don’t care if you’re 2 or 40. That is a complete utter lie! But with this lie comes the great pain of shame and guilt.

 

One thing I wish people knew about sexual assault is that it is so much more than being physically and sexually taken advantage of. It is certainly nothing LESS than that, but it is much more. It changes the entire trajectory of the survivors life. I truly felt like my soul was affected in this experience. So survivors aren’t being dramatic or emotional, an experience like sexual assault is deep and soul crushing. However, that doesn’t change the reality that we are ALWAYS called to “do the next right thing.” God’s plan is STILL for us to thrive where He puts us and live an abundant life. We don’t have a different measurement or standard for obedience. We don’t get to “opt out” of adding value to those around us, simply because we survived sexual assault. But with that said, I would urge others to simply consider this- being victimized changes everything, but also it changes nothing. Our call, responsibilities, and duties do not change. But we are forever changed. And that is very hard to navigate. 

 

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