How Netflix's 'Unbelievable' Exposes One Of The Fundamental Ways Society Still Misunderstands Trauma
Content warning: this post contains discussion of sexual assault. In the opening scene of Netflix's new crime drama Unbelievable, a young woman sits glassy-eyed on the floor of her Washington apartment. Her hair is mussed. Her brows are furrowed. A comforter is wrapped protectively around her body. "Go on honey, take a sip," her foster mom prods, handing her some water. The woman stares vacantly into the mug, blinks hard, then drinks. A moment later, a police officer arrives. "I was raped," she tells him plainly. He asks for more details. She stoically recounts them.
A psychologist would tell you that this type of response is a clear case of dissociation. After enduring such a visceral and paralyzing violation, Marie — that's her name — has simply shut down. Her lack of emotion isn't indifference, but an instinctual survival method honed through thousands of years of evolution, and for people like Marie, one that can become habitual after repeated trauma — a hair-trigger reaction as second-nature and subconscious as wincing. Stay still long enough, and perhaps the predator won't kill you. Bury the pain afterward, and perhaps you'll feel numb enough to survive it.
But no one recognizes this in Marie, played by Kaitlyn Dever in the Netflix series. Instead, they mistake her detachment for disregard. In the days following the attack, she seems to revert to her usual self: dutifully packing (and then unpacking) her apartment to move to a new unit in her at-risk youth housing complex; prancing excitedly through the aisles of a local department store while shopping for fresh sheets; insisting, despite persistent pressing from those closest to her, that she's just fine, and no, she doesn't need to talk about it. She'd rather just keep moving, like a shark that must swim to stay alive.
Combine that reaction with the apparent attention-seeking behavior Marie had been exhibiting since living on her own for the first time, and slowly, those around her begin to doubt her story. The extremity of it all just seems so unimaginable, her reaction too callous. After all, eight out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, not a strange man who broke in, bound and gagged them, and photographed the whole ordeal for blackmail, as Marie claimed. Is it possible she made it up? Her foster mom wonders. She passes her concerns on to the police.
After detectives confront Marie about discrepancies in her account (something quite common in rape cases due to fragmented memories), it doesn't take long for her to recant. She even starts to question herself, saying it might've been a vivid dream. Soon, she's charged with filing a false report. She loses her free housing. She's put on probation. Almost everyone in her life abandons her.
Three years later, two investigators working several states over catch a serial rapist and find evidence linking him to Marie. The five other attacks (one in Washington, four in Colorado) all came after hers. The lesson is clear: had the original detectives taken Marie more seriously, perhaps the other women wouldn't have been assaulted. Perhaps the worst moment in Marie's life wouldn't have torn her whole world down with it. If it weren't based on a true story, it would feel like some sort of parable.
"We have an idea of what is supposed to happen, and then when something doesn't match that script, we have to figure out what to do with it."
Instead, Marie's story exposes one of the fundamental ways society still misunderstands the effects of trauma — symptomatic of a culture that has always found it easier to discredit victims than to believe them. If it didn't happen, we can go on thinking that bad things only befall bad people, because the alternative is too arbitrary and disquieting. If it didn't happen, we can deny and distance ourselves from our own fragility and helplessness. If it didn't happen, we don't have to wrap our head around the fact that it would ruin us, too, in ways we cannot fathom or control.
"We have an idea of what is supposed to happen, and then when something doesn't match that script, we have to figure out what to do with it," says Dr. Debra Kaysen, Ph. D, a clinical psychologist and Stanford University professor who specializes in treatment for traumatic events. "One option is that we change the script, but often people are pretty attached to them, and so they ignore the information. They assume that it means the script is true and the person is not being truthful."
The misconception that we can somehow measure trauma — that there is a "right" or "wrong" way to react — is something that often comes up in true crime stories. If the grieving witness wasn't too calm, they were too anxious; if they weren't suspiciously overemotional, they weren't sad enough. Again and again, we tailor our expectations to fit the narrative and scrap together proof of guilt. But the reality is that, while there is a lot we know about what happens to the brain during trauma, the response in the aftermath is too varied and vast to gauge.
"People can be numb, they can be dissociated, they can be laughing. But we can't say, 'Oh when someone's laughing, this is what's happening in the brain,'" says Dr. Jim Hopper, Ph. D, a clinical psychologist and nationally recognized expert on psychological trauma. Between genetics, personal histories, and sociopolitical context, "It's much more complex than that. We can't define that biologically."
For survivors of sexual assault like Marie, this assumption can be especially damaging, as according to Hopper, not being believed is often more traumatizing than the act itself. "Especially when it's a stranger, like in Unbelievable. Obviously that guy is a really disturbed predator. [What he did is] no surprise, he's that kind of person," Hopper explains. "But when you go to the police, who are supposed to be getting the bad guy, or you tell your partner or someone else who [you're supposed to be able to trust] and they don't believe you and they're blaming you, that feels like an even greater betrayal. Because those people are actually supposed to be helping."
In turn, this can exacerbate the feelings of shame and self-blame that already come with sexual trauma. "Social support is a good predictor of how people do emotionally after going through a trauma. And it cuts both ways," Kaysen adds. "Positive social support is very protective, but negative social support is really harmful and puts people more at risk."
With Unbelievable, showrunner and executive producer Susannah Grant hopes to challenge the antiquated line of thinking that ultimately silenced Marie — or at least, to make us question our own innate and problematic beliefs. When the show's hardened, no-nonsense detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) meets the Washington investigator who dismissed Marie's story, she doesn't tell him off. She doesn't lecture him. She just looks at him quietly and lets him stew in his own remorse.
"You know, you hear about bad cops — guys who make bad calls and end up hurting the people they're supposed to protect," he tells her. "I always think, like, who the hell let him on the force, right? Just get rid of him." He pauses. "Maybe we should get rid of me."
"I'm so much more interested in a primarily good person who does an unconscionably bad thing because he has some basic misconception about the world."
When one of the Colorado detectives who worked on Marie's real case spoke to Grant during production, she asked that the writers not villainize the Washington investigators who didn't believe Marie was raped. Grant obliged; that was never the story she'd wanted to tell.
"When they talked about how the detective from the Seattle area felt when he heard the truth [in the original article the series is based on], he was absolutely devastated. It was the worst day of his life. And to me, that was really interesting, because he's not a bad person who doesn't care," Grant recalls. "I'm so much more interested in a primarily good person who does an unconscionably bad thing because he has some basic misconception about the world. And those misconceptions aren't unique to him. They're ones we all kind of share."
By showing viewers his perspective, Grant wanted people to "feel like, 'Oh yeah, I understand why he made that decision ... because maybe I share that point of view.' And then realize, 'Oh wow, I share that point of view and it's catastrophically wrong. And maybe I need to look at my own assumptions around this.' I thought that was a much more interesting way to look at this — the idea of us all collectively being complicit."
It's perhaps ironic that a story as unbelievable as Marie's has so much to say about belief: how much of it we entrust to others, the systems upon which it's established, the implicit biases it tends to breed. But by and large the biggest takeaway is that we should spend a little less time interrogating survivors and a little more time interrogating why our first instinct is to do so. Because if someone can put enough faith in us to share their deepest trauma, don't we owe them the same?
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.