Netflix Sold Baby Reindeer , Its Hit About a Stalker, as a “True Story.” What Happened Next Was Inevitable.

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I wondered, while I was watching Baby Reindeer, what kind of aftermath a show like that might have. The unexpected Netflix hit, written and directed by its star, the British comedian Richard Gadd, was based on his real experience of being stalked by a middle-aged woman. Accordingly, the series begins with the words “this is a true story” on screen.

As I made my way through all seven episodes, I thought that people would undoubtedly try to find the real-life inspiration for the character Martha, the stalker obsessing over Donny, Gadd’s fictionalized version of himself. That is just how the internet works these days. Give people what they perceive to be a mystery to solve, a person’s identity to uncover, and enough of them will try. The question in my mind was whether they would succeed. And now, it seems, people have—or so it appears, at least. They have done so quickly and with ease. One woman in particular has had her name plastered all over the internet this week, along with screengrabs of past tweets at Gadd and other details that seem to corroborate that she is the real person who stalked Gadd. In an interview with the Guardian shortly after the show hit Netflix, Gadd said that the production had changed so many details about the real Martha that she probably wouldn’t even recognize herself in the series’ stalker. It seems that this may be wishful, even willful thinking. The woman in question is also Scottish, also has a legal background, looks somewhat like Martha, and had tweeted things at Gadd in the past that are quoted word for word in the series. It’s fairly damning, particularly since Netflix put out an Instagram reel stating that each and every email Donny receives from Martha in the show is a verbatim message Gadd received from his stalker.

The Daily Mail, in its infinite wisdom, thought it was a good idea to run an interview with this woman, whom they don’t name, in which she claims that, by writing a show about her, Gadd is now the stalker. Earlier today, the Daily Mail put out a follow-up article, in which the journalist who conducted the interview with the supposed “real Martha” alleges that he is now himself being harassed by her, with endless phone calls and abusive text messages. This seems to be both a mind-boggling “life imitating art” moment and an inevitable consequence of directly engaging with someone who is quite clearly mentally unwell in order to generate rubbernecking clicks for your website. The Daily Mail should never have interviewed this woman, and should certainly not have allowed her to pose for photographs sitting at a bus stop like Martha does in the show (which they “decided not to publish,” a late-arriving bolt of common sense).

People have also tried to work out who Gadd’s separate abuser figure—depicted on Baby Reindeer as an older man in the comedy industry—was. One theater director whose name was being bandied about online in recent weeks has had to get the West Midlands police involved to investigate threats made online against him, an apparently innocent person. Gadd himself put out a message to fans on his Instagram story asking for people to stop speculating about who the real-life people from the show are, naming this theater director specifically as someone to leave alone.

All in all, a mess! But it’s difficult to know what to learn from the mess here. This is sticky, difficult stuff. Gadd was himself the victim of horrendous abuse at the hands of another person, and of disturbing harassment at the hands of another, but Baby Reindeer’s brilliance as a television program comes in part from its refusal to paint a simple picture of saintly wronged person and evil wrongdoer. Gadd himself has described the real Martha as someone who was “unwell” and “needed help.” This is what makes Baby Reindeer great drama: the complex ways that abuse tightens its grip around people’s lives in different ways; how they then visit their trauma on those around them; grappling with that guilt on top of the pain of the abuse itself. This is Gadd’s story to tell. But while he has every right to tell that story, him doing so has real-world consequences—consequences that most of us wish didn’t exist, but they do. As evidenced by the past, oh, decade or so of the social media–dominated internet, people seem to find it very difficult to know where to draw the line in online sleuthing. It may be that when Gadd was doing Baby Reindeer as a stage show, the risk of dragging his real stalker and real abuser into the spotlight alongside him seemed smaller. The spotlight itself was smaller. But I can’t help but wonder whether more should have been done to preemptively guard against the effect of millions of people worldwide hearing this horrific story, their phones at the ready to get digging, whether out of a misguided sense of justice or just plain boredom.

Where this leaves us is complicated. Should people have to pretend their fictionalized accounts of real events from their lives are pure fiction? Would anyone believe them if they did? That doesn’t feel right either. But it may be that the Baby Reindeer effect will give other writers pause, in the future, about just how true to life they feel comfortable making their art. Broadly, that feels, at a gut level, like a bad thing, diluting stories and the truth because we’re unable to trust audiences to behave themselves. At worst, it could even be seen as veering toward asking victims not to speak up about what has happened to them.

Perhaps Gadd should have anonymized his story more. But at what point would anonymizing his account have meant telling a different story, a less real-feeling one? In the absence of a real answer, all we have is mess.