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'I May Destroy You' Is a Rare - but Realistic - Look at the Aftermath of Rape

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I had heard great things about “I May Destroy You,” a collaboration by the BBC and HBO. However, as a rape survivor myself, I was admittedly hesitant to tune in. In my experience, many shows tend to use rape as a plot device meant to shock and horrify the viewer, but put little effort into showing the true aftermath, often discarding the experience entirely once the credits for that episode roll.

I have always had a hard time watching any portrayal of sexual assault because, even though the specifics may differ, the underlying emotions are the same. In that moment, there’s always the same feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, that same urge to yell and scream, to fight and kick, yet that terror and shock that freezes you and that overwhelming desire to flee, to escape, to get yourself as far away as you can, even if only in your mind. Afterwards, there’s always those nagging questions and self-blame, wondering if you had done even one thing differently, would it have happened? Even though everyone else’s stories are different, seeing any portrayal of sexual assault brings me immediately back to my own experiences. Those wounds reopen and feel fresh once again.

As hesitant as I was, I had heard this show was different, something I had to see for myself. I signed up for HBOmax specifically to tune in, planning to space out my viewing to incorporate any downtime needed to recuperate from trauma. I did not expect to binge-watch all seven episodes that were currently available in one afternoon, but it was so easy to get pulled into that world and to feel for the characters within.

The show centers around a young British writer, Arabella, and her tight knit group of friends. One of the first things I noticed was that she was realistically flawed. She wasn’t the typical innocent whose purity was stolen as some shows try to exaggerate and portray rape victims for sympathy. She was a real, gritty, genuine person, unapologetically wild and carefree, attempting to live life to the fullest. There was drinking, drug use, casual sex and so many of the vices of younger people today.

As I began watching, I immediately braced myself for the impending rape because those moments are always the hardest to watch. However, the rape itself wasn’t a gratuitous, traumatic viewing experience meant to shock and abhor the viewer. It was only glimpsed in flashbacks, taking a backseat to her response to being assaulted. My initial apprehension eased just knowing that this show wasn’t using rape merely as a plot device but was delving more into the aftermath of assault.

I was also surprised to discover that the show didn’t simply revolve around one specific rape, but examined multiple types of sexual assaults, some of which people may not realize are even a violation because society leads us to believe there are many gray areas that do not appear clear cut enough to be definitively labeled as rape. Most surprising was the inclusion of a false rape accusation, making it clear that this show was not making the blanket statement to always believe the victim, but rather to look at each case individually and consider the impact various traumas had on each character.

The show is brutally honest in its portrayal of the vast spectrum of responses a victim may receive from others in their life, ranging from accusatory to supportive. It also beautifully illustrated the common responses received from rape advocates, support groups and even the lack thereof from the police, who often do not have the proper training to adequately offer the support needed by the victims.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about this show was the realism with which it portrayed each victim and the aftermath. I related more than expected. Everything from the hesitation in sharing their stories, the disbelief that it could have happened to them, the anger and rage, the depression and numbness, the desire to fundamentally change yourself and that overwhelming need to fight and to heal — every single emotion I ever experienced being a sexual abuse survivor was right there.

I normally avoid any story lines that involve rape because it hits too close to home. But this show truly was different. It wasn’t about traumatizing  the audience with the terror of an assault but rather to humanize the victims, to show them as real people and not just statistics. It felt like a vindication, as if survivors everywhere were finally given a voice and being represented. I walked away feeling heard, as if someone else understood what I had experienced and with the knowledge that I was not alone.

Screenshot via ‘I May Destroy You’ trailer.

Originally published: November 18, 2020
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