Sharing Stories: Unbelievable

By Raina Kor

When survivors share their stories with others, they’re being vulnerable and sharing a part of them. Survivors share their stories for a variety of reasons: to report, to get help and support, to encourage others, to take back power, the list could go on and on. By all means, when survivors share their stories with others, they hope to be met with care and support rather than blame and disbelief. When survivors are met with blame and disbelief, they’re less likely to share their stories or seek support and are revictimized. They’re more likely to internalize their emotions and reactions to the event. In the Netflix series Unbelievable 1, Marie Adler was met with disbelief; she was revictimized and retraumatized when she reported her story to the police. Here is a personal takeaway from the series and warning to the reader, there are spoilers.

In the first episode, the viewer learned that Marie lost her parents at a young age and was placed in foster care. While growing up, she would be moved from foster home to foster home. When Marie turned 18, she entered a program called Project Ladder, which allowed her to live on her own in a subsidized apartment. Marie was happy living in the subsidized apartment and felt like she had more freedom.

In the first episode, we also learned that on August 11th, 2008, a man entered Marie’s apartment and sexually assaulted her during the early morning. Marie called her neighbor, then friend, and then the police after the assault. She was met with care and support by her neighbor and friend; however, she was met with disbelief from the police. The police treated Marie as if she was the perpetrator and needed to prove that the story was true. She was met with questions of interrogation and was confronted that the story and evidence did not add up. Ominously, Marie’s previous foster parents and the police thought Marie was not presenting enough distress following the event. When survivors are met with disbelief and interrogation, they’re less likely to cooperate and more likely to be retraumatized and revictimized. 2;3 Perilously, survivors are less likely to be seen as creditable if they were not crying or showed no signs of overt distress.3 In Marie’s situation, she was retraumatized and revictimized by the police and persuaded to say the assault never happened.

At the end of the third episode, Marie was charged with false allegations after she reported that the event did not happen to the police. Horrifyingly, Marie’s case was made public, and she was depicted as a liar in the news and press. Statistically, false reports are rare and only occur about 5% of the time.3 Marie felt like she could not talk to anyone about what was going on because she was disbelieved when she reported and was depicted as a lair.

There were an additional five rape cases that were all executed in a similar fashion as Marie’s case, and all of the stories were believed when they were reported. The five cases were being investigated by detectives Duvall and Rasmussen. Amazingly, both of the detectives knew that taking a victim-centered approach while working with survivors was crucial. They understood the importance of putting the individual first and developing trust with them. The detectives also understood the importance of informing the individual about the process and allowing them to choose what they wanted to do, which gave them their power back.

On February 13th, 2011, (seventh episode), Marc O’Leary was taken into custody, and his home was searched. The team found photographic evidence of Marie’s assault on hard drives. Thankfully, the detectives were able to track down the officer that charged Marie with false allegations in 2008. When the detectives got ahold of the officer, he stated that the case had been closed, and Marie was charged with false allegations. Rasmussen then sent the officer photos of Marie from the hard drive. Felicitously the officer learned that he should have taken Marie seriously and made a huge mistake.

Maire went and saw a lawyer to sue the city and police department; she received $150,000. She used the money to start a new life; she got a car and left her hometown. Before Marie left the city, she stopped at the police department and demanded an apology from the police officer that disbelieved her story.

As a binge-watcher of all platforms, I thought that the directors did a good job presenting Marie’s story, and I appreciated that the directors met with the real-life survivor that the series was based on. I also appreciated how throughout the series, there are statistics on the rate of domestic violence within families of police officers (around 40% 1 ) and how there is corruption within the legal system. The series pointed out how rape scenes are less examined for evidence than murder scenes. Admirably, the series highlighted that false reports are uncommon, and reporting is not an attention-seeking act by any means. However, I do want to acknowledge that the series does endorse some rape myths: assaults are done by strangers, and that assaults look like a Law & Order scene. In reality, most rapists target individuals they’re acquainted with, and not all rapes are injury-provoking or involve weapons2.

Overall, the series does an amazing job at capturing how survivors are commonly disbelieved and dismissed when reporting their stories to others and the legal system. The series depicts how survivors may be interrogated by the legal system and coerced into making statements that are not inaccurate. Unbelievable1 also does a wonderful job capturing the emotional and psychological distress a survivor may endure when they share their story.

Resources:

1 Vohlers, J., Miller, C. T., Armstrong, K., DiMento, K., & Leanza, C. (Producers). (2019, September 13th).

Unbelievable [Television series]. 09/13/2019: Netflix. Retrieved from https://www.netflix.com/search?q=un&jbv=80153467

2 Garza, A., & Franklin, C. (2020). The Effect of Rape Myth Endorsement on Police Response to Sexual Assault Survivors. Violence Against Women, 1077801220911460–1077801220911460. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801220911460

3 O’Neal, N. (2019) “Victim is Not Credible”: The Influence of Rape Culture on Police Perceptions of Sexual Assault Complainants, Justice Quarterly, 36:1, 127-160, DOI: 10.1080/07418825.2017.1406977