Netflix's Unbelievable is a masterclass on telling survivors' stories 1 month ago

Netflix's Unbelievable is a masterclass on telling survivors' stories

Last week, Netflix added the unbelievable Unbelievable. 

The series tells the true story of Marie Adler, a young woman who was bound and raped by a masked man in her home over a decade ago.

Adler reported the incident to the police, but because of her family history and the abuse apparent in her past, neither the people closest to her, nor the police, believed her story.

Forced to retract her statement, Adler finds herself losing her job, her friends, and the trust of her various foster families, as she struggles to navigate a world filled with people who think she's a liar.

Fast forward a couple of years and a series of seemingly unconnected assaults lead detectives Grace Rasmussen and Karen Duvall into a cat and mouse chase with a criminal who is equal parts careful and brutal - while showing no sign of stopping.

The plot itself, although pointedly tragic, is not one we haven't heard before.

For years, stories of sexual assault victims and survivors have dominated popular culture, art, and social media. Sometimes their stories are told well, other times they're not.

Unbelievable distances itself from other depictions of sexual assault that have been presented as mere entertainment, nothing more than a plot device to prove something about a female character, usually regarding her strength or, indeed, her weakness.

Instead, the series portrays a story that is both sensitive and empathetic to the victims, while teaching us the right way to amplify their own voices.

Unbelievable's first episode focuses on Adler's assault, the brutal nature of the attack, and the trauma she must endure again and again each time she is forced to recount her story.

To the police. To her family. To a nurse. To a doctor. And to the police again.

The repetitiveness of the investigation - and the pain it is clearly causing - is paramount, presenting a system that is blatantly detached from the victim, inherently judgemental, and devoid of empathy.

A couple of episodes later and the detectives' approach is noticeably different.

Rasmussen and Duval don't accuse the survivors they speak to of anything. They don't force them to relive their trauma, retelling unnecessary details that will ultimately have little to no effect on the case.

They tell multiple women that they can take their time, to speak about what they feel comfortable with, and that they don't need to say sorry.

Their words vary but the message remains the same: there's no right way to be a victim.

This week, actor Merritt Wever spoke at length about her portrayal of Det. Karen Duvall, saying that she put a lot of consideration into how she was going to approach the role.

Wever said she wanted to do the character justice - but that she also wanted to do justice for the victims, in her own small way.

"In a lot of ways, I didn’t have control over the representation of the material," she told Collider. "I had to hope and trust that it was going to be handled in a way that I could get behind and support."

"I did a lot of research, specifically around guidelines for how to work with trauma victims, and how to interview them and investigate sexual assaults."

Wever's research, as well as that clearly undertaken by the rest of the Unbelievable team, shows.

In the series exists a level of nuance, an understanding, an inherent message that there is no right way for a survivor to react to a traumatic assault.

But that there is a right way to tell the story of one.