Netflix’s ‘Unbelievable’ Shows Justice Begins With Police Believing Sexual Assault Survivors


Sep 16, 2019


Image Credit: Unbelievable (2019) (Netflix)

Marie (played by Kaitlyn Dever) was 18 years old, living alone in a transition-from-foster-care apartment, when a strange man broke into her room and raped her. He wore a black mask and black gloves, tied her up with her own shoelaces, clicked photos of her naked, abused body, and left no DNA traces of himself. He would go on to do it to four other women. This is the haunting premise of Netflix’s new show Unbelievable, which is based on a true story reported by investigative news site ProPublica in 2015. Marie exists; so does her rapist, and so do all the women he stalked, stole from, assaulted and raped. 

But when Marie — real-life rapist Marc Patrick O’Leary’s first target — went to the police, they didn’t believe her. In Unbelievable, which is an almost scene-to-scene adaptation of the ProPublica article, two incompetent, inconsiderate, ham-fisted detectives get easily swayed by one of Marie’s former foster mothers painting her as an attention-seeking, reckless teenager. They accuse the 18-year-old, still reeling from the rape, of lying, of not getting her story straight, of wasting their time. Coerced, helpless, tired, Marie signs a document admitting she lied about the sexual assault; the story gets out to the media, and Marie loses all of her friends, her support systems. She also faces the possibility of losing her home when she is charged with a false-reporting crime by said ham-fisted detectives.

After Marie, the rapist, still at large, goes on to abuse other women in different districts across the U.S. state of Colorado, finally blipping on the radar of two female detectives.

This story is not new. It’s reflected in the fact that an estimated 99.1% of sexual assaults go unreported in India, the main reasons for which being low trust in police and low conviction rates for “gender crimes,” such as sexual assault against women, according to a LiveMint report.

Rape is the rare violent crime for which law enforcement first puts the survivor on trial, and once satisfied, proceeds to find and convict the accused. This is apparent in a 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology paper, which shows “policemen in India tend to be far more reluctant to register crimes such as sexual harassment and domestic violence as compared to other crimes such as break-ins,” LiveMint reported, adding that in India, the conviction rates for gender-based crimes such as sexual assault are lower than overall conviction rates.

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“Survivors, particularly among marginalized communities, find it difficult to register police complaints. They often suffer humiliation at police stations and hospitals, are still subjected to degrading tests by medical professionals, and feel intimidated and scared when the case reaches the courts,” according to a Human Rights Watch on India. In India and in several other parts of the world, when an environment of distrust and oppression is imposed upon the sexual assault survivor, it’s a win if they can move past the trauma with dignity; justice, more often than not, seems like an impossibly far cry.

Unbelievable puts the problem inside our homes — where it already is, but often goes misunderstood, or completely ignored. It shows the detectives constantly putting Marie’s temperament and her history of being abused and neglected on trial, attempting to paint her as someone who would be likely to lie about sexual assault. They repeatedly ask her to repeat her story, hoping she’ll slip up so they could swoop in on a discrepancy and de-legitimize her claim, completely ignoring Marie’s mental health mere days after the rape. The people around Marie, on the other hand, are constantly amazed she’s functional; they assess that she doesn’t seem traumatized, therefore concluding there was never any trauma. Unbelievable shows how a limited understanding of the human psyche, especially with little to no mental health help available for sexual assault survivors, births the faulty notion of a ‘right’ way to deal with trauma. The ProPublica investigation outlines the common misconceptions among police (and others) that handbooks available in the United States are trying to correct, designed to help law enforcement deal with survivors in a respectful manner — “Investigators, one guide advised, should not assume that a true victim will be hysterical rather than calm; able to show clear signs of physical injury; and certain of every detail. Some victims confuse fine points or even recant. Nor should police get lost in stereotypes — believing, for example, that an adult victim will be more believable than an adolescent.”

Unbelievable also provides the solution. The show leaves no doubt in the viewers’ minds about the competence, the consideration, the respect and the diligence female detectives Karen Duvall (played by Merritt Weber) and Grace Rasmussen (played by Toni Collette) extend to the cases, and to the sexual assault survivors they serve — a stark contrast to the seemingly weathered male detectives who are portrayed as more concerned with closing an “inconvenient” case than delivering justice to women. The only detectives who seem to be following basic rules and etiquette while talking to a trauma survivor are the women: they approach the survivor in a gentle, quiet, non-aggressive way; they ask the survivor for permission before asking a prying question or touching her; they make sure the survivor knows she has a choice in how the investigation moves forward and that at any point, the survivor can choose to deny participation.

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On the backend, the women are furious, outraged, persistent, meticulous and relentless. It seems Duvall and Rasmussen are the only ones in the show who understand the gravity of sexual assault and how it has the potential to derail survivors’ entire lives. Even though Unbelievable is aesthetically treated as a true-crime cop show, its content is what stands out. After #MeToo brought forward millions of sexual assault and harassment stories, and institutions and societies started grappling with how best to deal with the movement’s aftermath — especially in light of a faulty criminal justice system — Unbelievable offers an alternative to the solutions that have so far, come the easiest. The answer is not to take women’s stories with a grain of salt; it’s not to peddle the misogynist-favorite #NotAllMen rhetoric; it’s not even to encourage more women to report sexual assault.

The solution Unbelievable provides is a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system, from providing better sensitivity training of the police, to teaching police officers to take women’s claims seriously and respectfully, regardless of gender, class, caste. Asking women to report their trauma to the police is not a solution if the police system is broken, if there is endless research proving the women won’t be believed. Unbelievable shows us institutional change might be possible. Let’s just hope some cops are watching.


Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.


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