Watching Unbelievable

Watching Unbelievable

It’s one of those things you feel you have to watch, even if you don’t wanna.

And I didn’t wanna.

I’d heard a discussion of the Netflix series based on real-life award-winning investigative reporting into how police had investigated claims of rape by various women in Washington state and Colorado. At the risk of spoiling it for you: There was a serial rapist, and all the women featured in that series had indeed been raped by the same man. But not all of them were believed.

The discussion I’d heard focused on the first episode, by far the hardest one to watch, of a young woman, barely into adulthood. She’d bounced around from foster family to foster family all her life, had suffered abuse and mistreatment, really her life was one damn thing after another. And at 18, having to leave foster care and moving into a transition apartment, she gets brutally raped.

She’s being made to tell her story several times. I lost count, but it was about half a dozen times. To one cop, then the investigator, then another, then hospital staff examining her (oh, and being examined after rape doesn’t look like a picnic), then again in writing. Plus her friends and foster moms. She doesn’t get comforted, doesn’t get to hear anyone tell her it wasn’t her fault and mean it, or even ask her if she’s comfortable or not answering all these questions so soon after being raped.

She’s a traumatized young woman, and sure enough somewhere along the way the cops realize there are a few inconsistencies between her various testimonies. Her memory is shot. She may have blacked out, maybe she’s too upset to think straight, she doesn’t know, can’t explain, contradicts herself some more.

At some point the two male detectives lose patience with her, and conclude she made the whole thing up. They will eventually charge her with public mischief for misleading them. Will you be surprised to hear she came this close to suicide?

She loses her job, her friends, whatever dignity she’d managed to keep. She suffers, alone. A lot. For something she didn’t do. And on top of suffering from the trauma of the rape itself, she has to carry the weight of everyone’s reproach. She is made to feel responsible for being a liar, a floozy, a failure. Nobody helps her.

That weight she carries seems, to me, unbearable. So much so that I think that’s what they should have called the series. Unbearable. Yet she bore it.

It will take years for investigators elsewhere to track and arrest the serial rapist who brutalized this young woman. Who will then sue the authorities for prosecuting her unjustly. The small settlement she gets buys her a jeep and enough freedom to feel like she can finally start her life on her own terms. At any rate, that’s the way the series ends. I hope it’s what happened to this woman in real life.

For every story that ends with vindication, there are countless who don’t. So many stories of women sexually assaulted or raped that never get prosecuted, because too often women don’t feel like they’ll be believed so better shut up and move on. That’s certainly what I did.

Other women report it and get dismissed, either summarily or later on in the process. And even if they get past that, to the point where their aggressor is now standing trial, too often the testimony won’t hold up in court and the aggressor will go free or suffer punishment that pales in contrast to the offence.

The justice system has to be biased in favour of the accused. We all understand that. Better let a guilty man go free than punish an innocent one. All very true. But when it comes to sexual crimes, which are predominantly against women, the people who suffer the consequences - often alone, with no support - are the very same ones who got assaulted in the first place.

That, to me, is the Unbelievable part.