Trigger warning: This post discusses an account of a sexual assault.
With its title, Unbelievable, Netflix’s new limited series (out today, September 13th) presents the nauseating truth of how some investigators and prosecutors react to sexual assault survivors’ stories. The series’ creators and stars hope that by bringing the true story of one woman’s experience to light, they can do something to change that.
The show takes its name from the Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica/Marshall Project article on which it’s based, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” The article, and the show, center on a real-life woman, Marie Adler, and what happened when she reported being raped.
According to the article, Marie was 18 years old, had just left the foster care system, and was living on her own for the first time. A man broke into her apartment in Lynnwood, Washington, threatened her with her own knife, tied her up with her own shoelaces, and raped her. He left behind very little evidence and used a condom.
Marie reported her rape to the police and her former foster mother, Peggy, immediately. Peggy suspected she was making it up to get attention.
“It was like, I felt like she was telling me the script of a Law & Order story,” Peggy said in the ProPublica article. “She seemed so detached and removed emotionally.”
When Peggy told this to the police, they took Marie back in for hours of questioning, bringing up minor discrepancies in her story and threatening her with dire consequences if they discovered that she was lying. Under the stress of this questioning, she later told ProPublica, she “flipped the switch” that allowed her to suppress her emotions. In that emotionless state, she gave police a written statement that said her assault may have just been a dream. The police later charged her with filing a false report.
We know now that it was not a false report after all. It took the work of two detectives from different police departments, Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot (played by Merritt Wever and Toni Collette, under different character names), to prove Marie’s story true.
You can watch the Netflix show or read the article to learn how the detectives tracked down Marie’s rapist.
But what’s more important here is what Unbelievable is attempting to do with these disturbing facts: Make viewers understand, or try to understand, what it’s like to be sexually assaulted and then have authorities turn against you.
Reading that the police bungled a case is one thing. Seeing the emotional impact of their actions on screen can be potentially more moving, and maybe even more convincing.
“I wanted to tell this story in a way that would carve it indelibly into the audience’s hearts,” creator Susannah Grant told Bustle.
After the truth of Marie’s case came out, the Lynnwood Police Department expressed regret for how they handled things and have since changed the way they respond to sexual assault reports. Maybe it’s the job of shows like Unbelievable to transform the culture as a whole.
If you are a sexual assault survivor and need help, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to speak to a trained counselor. You can also chat online with a counselor here. Both services are available 24/7.