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Rape Survivor From Netflix’s ‘Unbelievable’ Shares Her Thoughts on the Series

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Editor's Note

This post contains spoilers about the Netflix series “Unbelievable.”

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

On Sept. 13, Netflix released its latest true crime series, “Unbelievable,” based on the true story of rape survivor Marie who was wrongly accused of filing a false report. In a series of tweets, journalist Ken Armstrong, one-half of the reporting team that first told Marie’s story, shared how Netflix’s version of “Unbelievable” got it right for sexual assault survivors and why it provided Marie some closure.

Though Netflix’s version of “Unbelievable” is fictional, many of the facts in the story follow what happened to the real Marie after she was raped in 2008. When male detectives don’t believe Marie, she recants and is charged with filing a false claim. Two female detectives states away take on a serial rapist and bring Marie’s perpetrator to justice. Susannah Grant served as the series’ showrunner.

Journalist Armstrong, who earned a Pulitzer Prize alongside co-writer T. Christian Miller for reporting on Marie’s story in 2015, took to Twitter to share his thoughts on the newest telling of the story, along with sharing Marie’s thoughts.

“In @Netflix’s #Unbelievable, Marie is a teen who reports being raped,” Armstrong wrote on Twitter. “I was one of the reporters who first told Marie’s full story. To me, Marie is not a character. She is someone who trusted me with her story, painful as it was. Here are Marie’s and my thoughts on the show.”

He continued, adding Netflix’s eight-part series was the fourth telling of Marie’s story, in addition to his original reporting, an episode of “This American Life” and a book:

In the show’s 1st episode, Marie, after reporting her rape, goes to the hospital for an exam. In the scene, we learn how many swabs are taken. Where they’re taken from. And what Marie is told after—that she might start thinking of killing herself. Each detail is accurate. I know, because I’ve read the real-life medical report. The scene is clinical, unadorned…and powerful. Susannah Grant, the series’ showrunner, wanted to capture how an investigation can become its own form of trauma. To do that, she let the facts speak for themselves.

He said when he learned of Netflix’s “Unbelievable,” he and Miller were concerned about how the show’s creators would treat Marie and her story.

“Reporters become protective of stories. We want their lessons to come through,” Armstrong tweeted. “That’s why I say that to me, Marie is not a character. Jeff Mason, the detective who charged Marie with lying, is not a character. He is a cop who sat with me and owned his mistakes, horrific as they were, and I got lucky: Unbelievable’s cast and crew, it turned out, were protective of the story, too.”

Armstrong went on to explain how each member of the cast, including Kaitlyn Dever as Marie, Merritt Wever who plays investigator Karen Duvall and Eric Lange as Detective Parker, took great care in preparing for their roles. Of Lange, Armstrong wrote, “He could have made his character a cartoon villain. But he didn’t. Because the man he played wasn’t.”

He also pointed out Netflix’s “Unbelievable” maintained all the original lessons found in Marie’s real story, including “the misconceptions about trauma,” “the confrontational tactics misused by the police in Washington” and “the triumph of police teamwork in Colorado.”

Marie reached out to Armstrong to share her thoughts on “Unbelievable” as well.

“Two weeks ago I got a call, from Marie. She told me she had just watched the series,” Armstrong tweeted. “Watching it was hard, she said. ‘I did cry quite a bit,’ she said. But she had decided she wanted to and was glad that she did. She called the show ‘excellent.’”

Armstrong added:

I asked Marie if I could share her thoughts on Twitter. She said that would be fine. She brought up one scene in particular—in the first episode, in which she’s confronted by police and recants. Marie has told me before that it can be a struggle for her to put her feelings and thoughts into words. In that scene, she said, Kaitlyn Dever captured her struggle. ‘It was, like, perfect,’ she said.

Marie also told Armstrong she felt the show accurately represented her story and how it impacted others in her life, including two of her foster moms who initially didn’t believe her rape allegations either. Armstrong said:

The series shows how two of Marie’s former foster moms doubted her account. Both later apologized to her. Marie forgave both. She kept ties with both. After finishing the series, Marie called both, to reassure them: The show doesn’t demonize you. She encouraged both to watch. For Marie, watching the work of the detectives in Colorado, 1,300 miles from where she had been attacked, reinforced a sense she’d had since first she learned about them: ‘I felt like they were my guardian angels, looking out for me.’

Oftentimes media representations of sexual assault survivors miss the nuances and difficulty of surviving a sexual assault, the process of reporting an assault and how, to an uninformed eye, trauma can make a survivor seem like an unreliable narrator. However, when done right, a film like “Unbelievable” can provide sexual assault survivors a sense of unexpected closure, as it did for Marie. Armstrong tweeted:

“And watching the last episode, watching the re-creation of the Colorado detectives closing in, provided Marie something she didn’t expect. ‘Seeing him get put away, that was closure for me,’ she said.”

You can find Armstrong and Miller’s original telling of Marie’s full story on ProPublica below.

Originally published: September 16, 2019
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