In the era of the #MeToo movement, where rape accusations nowadays seem to be more of a case of “he said, she said” as opposed to a criminal investigation of the accused party, Unbelievable seems to illuminate modern-day concerns regarding sexual assault and the mistreatment of rape victims, showcasing why reporting figures for sexual assault are in fact so low.
Launched on Netflix last month, Unbelievable tells the true story of a young woman (portrayed in the show as Marie Alder, though her real identity is unknown) who was sexually assaulted after the masked assailant broke into her house in the middle of the night. Marie had suffered a long history of abuse and negligence starting from a young age, after her birth parents fed her dog food and abused her psychologically and physically. Jumping from foster home to foster home, she was residing in a transition home between foster care and the real world, and with a full-time job and friends, she appeared to be adjusting to her new life well.
After the sexual assault, Marie is bombarded with questions from doctors and police officers who demand she tells her story over and over. While the male detectives investigating her case seem to focus less on finding the man who raped her and more on whether Marie is telling the truth, they buckle down on the holes in Marie’s story in the days following the attack, and at a loss for how to continue answering the detectives’ questions when they don’t believe her, she falsely claims that she made up the attack to get out of questioning and avoid dealing with the investigation further.
Meanwhile, the second episode of the eight-part series follows another victim in a different state, but the stark contrast between her experience and Marie’s communicates the severity of the male detectives’ negligence in handing her sexual assault case. For one, the female detective investigating the second victim’s case approaches the situation gently, asking her if she’s comfortable with sharing what happened, walking her through what will happen at the hospital with the rape kit, and staying with her until a friend arrives so she isn’t alone.
Eventually, two female detectives in Colorado investigating nearly identical rape cases team up to catch the serial rapist, who sexually assaulted multiple women across America and was sentenced to 327.5 years in prison for rape, robbery and stalking. While the success of these women in catching the assailant seems to give the series a positive ending, an interview with the rapist by the Colorado Police Department reveals that Marie Alder was his first victim, and he admits that he left behind countless fingerprints and DNA at the scene. He told police that he expected to be caught the next day, but when he wasn’t, he decided to continue on with his crimes across the country, getting smarter and more careful with DNA as he preyed on more women.
Therefore, had the male detectives investigating Marie Alder’s case taken her more seriously and focused their energy on catching the rapist as opposed to labelling her a liar, they could have prevented the multiple criminal cases to come and thus the psychological and physical abuse that other women endured as a result of the guilty man still being on the loose.
Even though I had seen the show trailer before diving in, I found Unbelievable difficult to watch at first, particularly the first two episodes with multiple, if brief, flashbacks to the sexual assaults. The whole show is of a generally upsetting nature, heightened by the outstanding acting from the actresses portraying the victims. However, I felt a moral obligation to keep watching the show because it is based on a true story and these situations play out often in our society, which was a feeling I had never experienced while watching a TV show.
As an avid fan of “Law & Order: SVU”, which tackles criminal cases of a sexual nature, particularly those dealing with sexual assault, by the NYPD’s Special Victims Unit, I have learned a decent amount about how an official police investigation of sexual assault functions, from rape kits to questioning the victim and assailant.
With a knowledge of how diligent detectives on rape cases should function (albeit knowledge gained from watching a fictional TV programme), I immediately noticed flaws in how the male detectives handled Marie Adler’s case, and since this is based on a true story, it made me fear that other detectives around America and the rest of the world may treat crimes of a sexual nature with the same approach.
For one, the Washington detectives fail to handle Marie’s situation delicately. Considering that she is being questioned just hours after the rape, this should be a no-brainer, but the detectives and doctors seem to have no sympathy for Marie wanting to take a break from questioning, and they fail to give her any information about what they will do to find the man that assaulted her or how the rest of the investigation will play out. In contrast, the detective investigating the Colorado woman of the second episode walks her through exactly what the doctors will do during the rape kit procedure, and she also assures her that she’ll do everything in her power to catch the man who attacked her.
Later in the show, Marie is essentially pressured to lie and say that she fabricated the rape allegation after the male detectives pressure her about why her story doesn’t add up and interrogate her on the details that change every time she repeats her story. As detective Olivia Benson of “Law & Order: SVU” repeatedly tells other officers, a victim’s story may change upon retellings because memory from trauma comes back in pieces. The detectives investigating Marie Adler’s case should have been aware of this fact and approached the victim more gently; instead, they spent precious investigation time questioning the veracity of her allegation as opposed to actually working to catch the assailant, which ultimately resulted in missed evidence and DNA and thus the perpetuation of a serial rapist’s attacks.
Because it is based on true events, and due to its realistic portrayal of what sexual assault victims have to endure, the show opened my eyes to how we can better support victims of sexual harassment and assault. As the show reveals through the female detective’s conversations with one of the victims, it’s important to be gentle when approaching victims of such crimes, as they may not be keen to share their story and experience and may still be traumatised long after the incident.
The show does acknowledge that false rape accusations do occur, but the events also show that these are few and far between and that victims should not be accused of fabricating their story without valid reason, especially as the show reveals the detrimental and criminal effects of doubting victims when they are telling the truth.
After watching Unbelievable, I feel grateful for the work of detectives, particularly women, who dedicate their lives to putting these criminals behind bars and helping victims feel safe again. However, there is a substantial amount of anger that comes with watching a show like this, particularly when you realise that these victories for victims of sexual assault are rare. According to Rape Crisis England & Wales, only 15 per cent of those who experience sexual violence report to the police (for reasons evidenced in Unbelievable), and conviction rates for rape cases are far lower than other crimes, with only 5.7 per cent of those 15 per cent reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator.
Overall, I would recommend Unbelievable to everyone as it holds powerful truths about the reality of sexual assault crimes today and will leave you wanting to get out and make a difference in this criminal epidemic however you can.
What can we do to help? In St Andrews, it’s important to be mindful of those around you and look out for anyone who could be vulnerable, including young women walking home alone or appearing too drunk to consent. Additionally, you can get involved with societies like Got Consent or Sexpression to educate students and the youth of Fife on sex education and consent.
If you are a victim of sexual harassment or assault, or you would like to talk to a mental health professional about the contents of this article, email email@example.com or phone 01334 462020 to get in contact with Student Services. Additionally, you can also speak to the Fife Rape & Sexual Assault Centre at 01592 642336.