'I May Destroy You' Shows The Complicated Emotional Impact Of Sexual Assault

HBO

In the most recent episode of I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s Arabella follows the breadcrumbs of ATM withdrawals and Uber receipts to reconstruct the previous night out. She can’t remember traveling home, but her friend Simon says he walked her. The cut on her forehead, he tells her, happened as she drunkenly staggered around the bar. But what about the patchy half-memory she has of witnessing an attack? Alissa, Simon’s girlfriend who also woke up with a foggy recollection, assumes her drink was spiked, and the suggestion unlocks another version of events for Arabella. What follows is an an episode of I May Destroy You that realistically, sensitively portrays the aftermath of drug-facilitated sexual assault.

At first, Arabella resists her own memories: the man blocking the door (but what door?), the sounds of violent banging. She watches a YouTube video on how false memories occur. Then, she watches it again. Her mind hardwired for self-preservation, she tries to convince herself that the gauzy flashbacks aren’t correlated to the real world. The episode is at times a direct response to the questions too many survivors of sexual assault are asked: Why didn’t you call the police immediately ? Why didn’t you scream? If you think you were drugged, how can you be sure what happened? Arabella, at first, isn’t sure, and even as the evidence accumulates — the bruises on her hip, the scrapes on her knees, the realization that Simon lied about seeing her home — her mind clings to that uncertainty like it can change the past. It’s denial as a form of armor.

I May Destroy You is a show about one dynamic, resilient woman that exposes how close so many young women have come to being her at some point — whether they realized it or not.

I May Destroy You is not the first television series to tackle sexual assault with an emphasis the survivor's journey through system; less than a year ago, Netflix’s Unbelievable dramatized the real-life case of a Washington state 18-year-old whose report of rape is initially dismissed as the attention-seeking invention of a former foster kid. But for many viewers, Coel’s semi-autobiographical depiction of assault is likely to be one they find some echo of their own lives inside. Arabella is a young, successful, confident woman; she’s also vulnerable in a way that feels tragically familiar and unavoidable. I May Destroy You is a show about one dynamic, resilient woman that exposes how close so many young women have come to being her at some point — whether they realized it or not.

It’s also a show about the role police play in how survivors experience trauma. In Unbelievable, when the victim tells police she’s “pretty positive that it happened,” a male detective responds, “Pretty positive or positive?” She’s asked to retell the story of her assault over and over with no regard for the emotional tax of doing so. But in I May Destroy You the detectives Arabella speaks with — both women — are patient. They don’t challenge her fragmented story; they ask questions designed to excavate the missing pieces. They start from a place of believing Arabella even more than she's able to believe herself. In one exceptionally wrenching moment, we watch her stitch together what the police already know: Arabella is the person being blocked from the bathroom door. She’s not just a witness of the attack, but its survivor.

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In the final scene of the episode, Arabella tells her friend Terry (Weruche Opia) they need to make a pact: When they go out, no one disappears on each other. On the one hand, it’s a smart suggestion designed to keep them safer. But underneath it swims the idea that rape is preventable with vigilance, that somehow Arabella is at fault for her own assault. It's a chilling reminder of the complicated emotional impact of sexual assault — one that I May Destroy You will likely continue to explore in the episodes to come.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.