It was the first time I had ever yelled out loud at my television. I knew I had to turn it off – it was just so disturbing and maddening and frustrating and sad. But I couldn’t turn it off. Instead, I sat there for hours, riveted to the story of former foster child Marie Adler and her ultimate heroes, Detective Stacy Galbraith and Detective Edna Hendershot.
If you haven’t watched Netflix’s new series “Unbelievable” yet, clear your schedule. It’s binge-worthy. I should include a warning for those who may be sensitive to such things. It’s rated MA, mostly for its adult theme and one scene of adult male nudity towards the end of the series during a police strip search.
But rape is gritty and averting your eyes won’t make it go away.
Unbelievable is a true story based on a serial rapist who preyed on women more than 10 years ago. This American Life presented a podcast on the story a few years ago called Anatomy of Doubt. And ProPublica, together with The Marshall Project, published a Pulitzer prize-winning article.
Marie was 18 years old when she was raped in her home in Washington. She was newly on her own in a subsidized one-bedroom apartment that was part of a program for young adults transitioning from foster care. Marie had been in foster care and group homes from the time she was 6 years old. She had been abandoned, sexually assaulted, fed dog food and otherwise physically abused during her childhood.
And then she was raped.
The man who raped her broke into her apartment through an unlocked door. She woke up to find him standing above her holding her own kitchen knife. He tied up her hands with her own shoelaces. He wore gloves, and a mask, and used a condom. He took pictures of her and threatened to put them online if she reported the rape. And then he left.
Marie called police, and her foster mom, and her friends. The show brilliantly depicts the frustration and devastation of having to tell police what happened over and over and over, as new officers came on scene. Marie submitted to the invasive medical exam stoically while I sat ugly crying in my basement.
But then it got worse. As Marie tried to deal with the realities of what had happened to her, those closest to her – her former foster mother to start – began doubting her. In their minds, her affect was off – she was cold, unemotional, giggly, and seemed to move on too quickly.
Marie wasn’t following their script for how violent trauma survivors should behave.
Marie’s foster mom called the detective in charge of the case and expressed doubt about Marie’s story, and everything went downhill from there. The detective started aggressively questioning Marie about details she couldn’t remember. They brought up inconsistencies in her story. They put her in a cold room with two men who lectured her about wasting police time.
To make it stop, Marie finally just said it never happened.
And then, they charged her with false report. The public defender said he had never seen such a charge in his entire career. But they charged her, and she pled guilty to make it go away.
She lost her friends, her job, her apartment, everything. She had already lost her sense of control and safety. She had nothing. It really was unbelievable.
A few years later, in Colorado, another woman reported a rape. The masked man wore gloves and woke her up while holding a gun, tied her hands, raped her, took pictures of her, made her shower for 20 minutes, and then left.
The detective who responded to the call listened to the victim, and did her job investigating the crime. She eventually realized there was a similar rape reported in a neighboring county, and the two female detectives in charge merged their cases and didn’t let up until the rapist was found, arrested and sentenced to more than 300 years for more than 30 rapes.
They found pictures in the rapist’s stash of Marie Alder.
There’s a lot to learn from this series about believing women, about listening, about not imposing on victims of trauma a preconceived manual of how they should behave.
But mostly, it’s an unbelievable story and, as Marie tells the detective at the end of the series, a chance to “next time, do better.”
Michelle Quist is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.