Anna Menyhért: Interrogation vs Listening

The secondary trauma of survivors in the Netflix series ‘Unbelievable’

In 2015 journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Amstrong wrote a Pulitzer-winning article about a series of rapes that happened in the states of Colorado and Washington in the US, in 2008 and 2012 respectively – this article served as a basis for the screenplay of the series, written by Susannah Grant (screenwriter of the film Erin Brockovich), together with Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. 

The series alternates two stories: the first is the story of Marie Adler (played by Kaitlyn Dever), a 18-year old girl, who was raped in her home in 2008 in Lynnwood, Washington. The male detectives on her case disbelieved her and coerced her into saying that she had lied to the police, she had not in fact been raped. She was charged and convicted in court with false reporting.

The second story is that of a series of rapes, happening four years later in Colorado, being investigated by two women detectives (played by Merritt Wever and Toni Collette). They are able to join their investigations only thanks to luck, because the rapist knows that police departments in different towns and regions normally don’t cooperate over rape cases, however similar those might be. The husband of Detective Duvall works in the department of Detective Rasmussen, and one night they discuss the similarities of two rape cases in their respective districts – that is how Duvall makes the connection. The two detectives and the FBI join forces, discover several more unsolved rapes and hunt down the rapist.

Unbelievable talks about the victims, the survivors with respect and empathy. This means, firstly, that the focus is not on the rape-scenes, nor on the bodies of the women suffering the abuse, so often objectified in depictions of gender-based violence. We only see the victims’ flashbacks, evoking their pain and showing the uncontrollability of their memories. Screenwriter Susannah Grant says in an interview that when she was writing the rape scenes, which she had never done before, she “wanted to make sure that we weren’t doing anything that could, in any way, evoke rape porn, of which there is already way too much in our culture”. 

The series shows the difference between approaches: how crucial it is for a rape victim to be treated with empathy by the police, instead of becoming a subject of an interrogation which doubts the credibility of their accounts.  The detectives questioning Marie Adler used the Reid Technique, a well-known interrogation technique generally used to detect lies in the confessions of criminals. It is also known to have elicited false confessions due to the pressure it applies (Miller & Armstrong, Unbelievable, Broadway Books, 2018, 247). This method is unsuitable for interviewing rape victims.

In contrast to the relentless and almost cruel interrogation of Marie in Episode 1, in Episode 2 Detective Duvall meets another rape victim, Amber (played by Danielle Macdonald). She approaches her with empathy in such a way that Amber can stay in control of the situation, deciding herself when and where she wants to talk about what happened to her. To re-establish the feeling of control is especially important in trauma-situations which are characterized by the loss of control. In Episode 1 Marie is questioned by several detectives and nurse practitioners over and over again, and in the end she is asked to write her report herself, which totally exhausts her. The police are able later to accuse her of false reporting partly because of the small inconsistencies of her accounts told at different times.

Unbelievable is an unusual, unique series which is characterized by a feminist, survivor-centred and trauma-informed approach towards gender-based violence. The series emphasizes that being traumatized can lead to blocks in memory, but this fact does not mean that the testimony of trauma victims is unreliable. Disbelief in trauma victims’ reports is still wide-spread in many countries, as it was seen during the #MeToo Campaign. Journalists Miller and Amstrong dedicate a chapter to the issue of doubt surrounding rape victims among police in the US in their book A False Report (2015; published in 2018 entitled Unbelievable), the detailed account of their continued investigation. They interviewed detectives, policy-makers and mental health care professionals. Joanna Archambault, a sexual crime expert and trainer of detectives showed them a tape of an emergency call to 911. A tied-up woman makes a phone call dialing with her toes. She cannot switch off the very loud music in the background as she is tied.  The officers in the sexual assault crime training generally disbelieve that call, thinking it a hoax (Miller & Armstrong, Unbelievable, Broadway Books, 2018, 77). In 2005 Archambault wrote an updated policy for the International Association of Chiefs of Police investigating sexual assault that included the directive according to which “The victim’s response to the trauma of sexual assault shall not be used in any way to measure credibility” (quoted ibid.). However, blaming rape victims is rooted deeply in cultural bias.

In the series Unbelievable such bias is shown by how the officers agree that Marie is lying. She is just out of foster care as she had turned 18, and lives in a home for young people, so she is a very vulnerable person with a history of past abuse. No-one among her friends, colleagues and care-workers questions the police’s opinion. In the end the whole town turns against her after someone creates a webpage informing everyone that she falsely claimed rape. Moreover, Marie’s foster mother, herself a one-time rape victim is the one to initiate the doubt that leads to Marie being charged with false claims. She considers Marie’s reactions, as compared to her own experience, are strange and incredible.  So she calls the police and informs the detective that Marie had been showing signs of attention-seeking behavior before, during her turbulent adolescent years. 

A month later, when a very similar rape case is reported in the news from the nearby Kirkland, the two former foster mothers of Marie meet to discuss whether she could, in fact, had really been raped. The first woman is in complete denial, trying to divert possible guilt from herself. The other woman is inclined to believe that the rape had happened. However, she is not able to completely stand by Marie either, because husband had already warned the girl not to visit them when his wife is out, lest Marie would make a false accusation of sexual assault against him as well. This woman still makes an anonymous phone call to the Kirkland police drawing their attention to the similarities of the two rape cases. But when the Kirkland detective calls the Lynnwood department, he learns that Lynnwood is closing Marie’s case and charging her with false reporting. Believing Marie could have prevented all the rapes that were committed by the same rapist in the following years.

The series makes it very clear what happens when people don’t understand the reactions of a traumatized person. Marie’s detachment, her matter-of-factness, silence and her avoidance of the rape-topic during conversation makes the impression on people that she is lying. They expect more drama and loud suffering. In the book about the real-life story Marie tells the journalists that she had been an abuse-victim as a child, about which she had kept silent for a long time. This time she wanted to tell many people that she was raped, to avoid that kind of silence. She called several of her friends and told them that she had been raped. In turn she was labeled as attention-seeking. 

The real Marie also talks about a ‘switch’ she has: a kind of emotional detachment switch which allows her to emotionally ‘leave’ traumatizing situations. Trauma victims often react with detachment in trauma situations. Marie’s level of resilience is rare – she can control when to become consciously detached as a survival technique, to escape the emotional burden of the trauma that would lead to PTSD symptoms later. However, the burden of the double trauma – the rape and the accusation by the police – is too much for her. She becomes depressed.

The only person who explicitly believes Marie is the court-appointed counselor – a woman. (Previously we see hints pointing to the public defense lawyer also believing her, but he does not voice his opinion.) According to the psychologist no-one would make up such a story without an element of truth in it. And she summarizes what happened to Marie for the viewers as well when she tells her that she had been assaulted twice: first by the rapist and then by the police. Marie herself tells a story, an allegory of what happened to her. She talks about a film on zombie-apocalypse. She says the predators themselves cannot really be blamed, they just behave according to their nature, hunting down people. It is the people who should know better, but they don’t care about each other.

Secondary traumatization is imposed upon victims when people around them don’t believe them, don’t support them, turn away from them in denial and/or indifference. This series draws attention to the importance of a trauma-informed and survivor-centred approach in which police and other care professionals dealing with rape victims can be trained, so that they could treat survivors with empathy and compassion. Unbelievable accepts rape as a trauma, a life-changing event which brings a burden that will never be righted by anyone. Detective Duvall urges her team to do everything in their capacity to find the rapist explaining them the life-long consequences of rape. Yet the impact rape has on the life of the survivor and the outlook of trauma-processing is largely dependent on the behavior and approach of the people and the community surrounding the victims: on what support they get so that secondary traumatization can be avoided.

After the rapist is caught by the two women detectives and the FBI, photos of Marie are found on his camera. He had put Marie’s ID card on her body and photographed her. The male detective who had not believed Marie is notified, and arrives to examine all the materials complied by the joint team. In a proportioned feminist tone his behavior is shown as typical self-centred white male self pity: upon learning that he had made a huge mistake and caused the rapist to be free to commit more crime he gets into a small scale identity crisis questioning himself as a cop – yet he still does not think of the victim, and does not apologize to Marie until she visits him and tells him to do so. Marie charges the city with mishandling her case and receives a compensation.

The last episode ends with Marie calling Detective Duvall, thanking her. She tells her that more than anything, the knowledge that there was someone out there putting things right for her helped her live on. In the last scene she is driving away in the car she bought from her compensation money to start a new life somewhere else. Resolving secondary trauma by compassionate people helps her to resolve the primary trauma as well; creating testimonies in the first places via listening to victims instead of interrogating them can prevent secondary traumatization. 

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