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Just because an accusation of rape is labelled as ‘fake’, it doesn’t mean that rape did not happen. Netflix series Unbelievable examines this, along with what can be done better.
Netflix series Unbelievable, a new true crime series, questions the premise that an accusation of rape is often labelled as ‘fake’. How fake is the accusation, really, and how can the police, the judiciary, and communities do better at helping survivors of rape and sexual assault?
Imagine that you are a police officer.
A young woman, barely an adult and living on her own for the first time, reports to you that she has been raped. Her behaviour, however, is not like what you would expect of a rape victim, and every time she talks about her experience, some details change. Furthermore, people close to her tell you that recently, she has been engaging in ‘attention-seeking behaviour’.
What do you do?
The popular opinion about the #MeToo movement is that it has given women too much power. That women can point the finger at any man, and his life is ruined.
The truth couldn’t be more different. Yes, more women are speaking up, but they are not necessarily being listened to more. No sooner does a woman speak up, than she is told “not all men,” “innocent until proven guilty” or worse “you are lying to get money/fame.”
It is telling that in the year since #MeToo came to Bollywood, no significant movie has been made which shows the survivor getting justice, but a movie like Section 375 that ‘debates both sides’, and makes a case for false reporting of rape is not only made, but also appreciated by the people.
Men who were accused of sexually harassing women continue to find work in Bollywood. Recently, Aamir Khan who initially claimed that he would not work with Subhash Kapoor, accused of sexually harassing actor Geetika Tyagi, has gone back to working with him, stating, “Laws of natural justice consider a person innocent until he/she is proven guilty. But until such time that the courts reach a conclusion, is it that he/she should not be allowed to work? Is he to just sit at home and not earn?”
However, this argument is acceptable only IF the police, judiciary, and due process are perfect and deliver justice every time without fail.
Unfortunately, the system is not perfect. Recently, Shruti Chaturvedi, Founder of media platform Chaipaani shared her experience of trying to navigate the frustration and humiliation that someone fighting a legal process in sexual harassment cases can feel. Her post has some excellent suggestions for how the process can be made easier and more sensitive. Actor Richa Chadha too spoke about the need for greater sensitivity when dealing with crimes involving women, which in her opinion will come from having more women in the legal profession.
What would you do if you were a police officer, and a case like the one I described to you came your way? Hopefully, you would realize that there is no one way in which rape survivors behave, and that inconsistencies are common when someone recalls a traumatic event. Hopefully you would still listen to the woman and do your best to find the man who raped her. Hopefully you would not accuse her of lying.
In 2008, Sgt. Jeffrey Mason and Jerry Rittgarn of the Lynnwood police Department however, did not believe Marie Adler, and coerced her into ‘confessing’ that she had falsely reported a rape. Further, they took her to court. Marie’s was name splashed across the press, she lost the trust of friends, people who were supposed to protect her turned against her, and she lost her job.
In 2011, Detective Stacy Galbraith of the Golden Police Department, working on a rape case, discovered through sheer luck that another detective in another police department, Detective Edna Hendershot was working on a similar case. Working together and pooling their resources, these women identified and caught the man responsible. Looking through the photos he took of his victims, they found one they did not recognize –Marie Adler.
This true case, the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 joint investigation from ProPublica and the Marshall Project by reporters T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, was reported in an article titled, An Unbelievable Story of Rape. This case and that article are the basis of the new limited Netflix series Unbelievable, starring Toni Collette, Merritt Weaver, and Kaitlyn Dever.
When I read the article a few years ago, I was shocked at the grave miscarriage of justice that Marie Adler was subjected to. When I came to know that Netflix was making a series based on the same, I looked forward to watching it. Unbelievable truly is a must watch.
It explores just how easy it is to label a report of rape as ‘false’. It shows just how confusing and overwhelming police procedures can be for someone who has just undergone a trauma.
How the impersonal approach of the police (especially male police officers), nurses at the hospital, and others, can leave a survivor feeling isolated and uncomfortable.
How having to recall the rape and narrate it again and again can feel frustrating and draining.
How even a kernel of doubt is enough to make the police stop investigating the crime, and investigate the survivor instead.
It also shows how everything can be done right. It shows detectives Karen Duvall, played by Merrit Wever, and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) interact with rape survivors from a place of empathy, respect and patience. They listen without calculating, without trying to poke holes in their stories.
Another positive is that the series stays focused on the survivors and their stories, without feeling the need to mythologize about the rapist. He is shown only briefly and from the point of view of the investigators and the survivors. Very rightly, it refuses him a voice.
The series speaks a deep truth – that just because a rape accusation is termed as ‘false’, it does not mean that the rape has not happened. Whenever we talk about rape, there are those who trot out statistics about ‘false’ rape cases. But how false are these ‘false’ rape cases? How can we be sure that the survivor has not been browbeaten and harassed into ‘accepting’ that they made a false complaint?
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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a
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