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    A Sustaining Grace

    A review of the Netflix series Unbelievable

    Liz Essley Whyte

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    Law enforcement agencies often aren’t very good at sharing information with each other, and neither are journalists. In 2015, investigative reporter T. Christian Miller was writing about police mistakes in sexual assault cases for ProPublica when his sources told him about an intriguing probe into a series of rapes in Colorado. Several police departments had worked together across district lines to catch a suspect who was counting on them not to do that: an investigation done right.

    Meanwhile, Ken Armstrong, a reporter with the Marshall Project in Washington, was working on a profile of a case gone spectacularly wrong – featuring the very same criminal. Miller heard that his fellow journalist was onto this story. Rather than race to see who could finish first, they decided to combine their efforts and in 2015 published “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” It won immediate acclaim, for good reason – it’s well told, deeply reported, and perfectly paced. The two men won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for the article and later expanded it into a book, A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America.

    The story follows eighteen-year-old “Marie” (her middle name), who was violently raped in her apartment by an intruder in Washington state in 2008. Police treated her with skepticism and contempt, pressured her into a tearful recantation, and charged her with false reporting – a step so unusual, even in unsubstantiated cases, that it shocked other officials. In the aftermath, she lost her job and all her relationships. Her former foster parents distrusted her, her friends sent her hateful messages, and her caseworkers shamed her in front of her peers and threatened to take away her housing.

    It took detectives three states away, three years later, to eventually track down Marie’s rapist, who turned out to have many victims – victims who would likely have been spared had the Washington police taken Marie seriously. It’s the kind of story that fills you with both rage and hope. It’s also the kind you start reading, then look up to find your entire lunch break has gone by. As a fellow investigative journalist, I have read Miller and Armstrong’s report many times, marveling at how they unraveled the tale in such a riveting way.

    Now television streaming giant Netflix has adapted their reporting into a miniseries, “Unbelievable,” with remarkable success. More than 32 million households watched it in its first month, the company announced. Like the original article and book, the show recounts Marie’s trauma – both the original violation and the subsequent disbelief she encountered – with quiet and agonizing detail. It also weaves in classic whodunit suspense as it follows the dogged efforts of two female officers, Detectives Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen in the show (Detective Stacy Galbraith and Sergeant Edna Hendershot in real life). Meanwhile it adheres closely to Miller and Armstrong’s reporting.

    Merritt Wever and Toni Collette who star as the detectives in Unbelievable, a Netflix series

    Merritt Wever, left, and Toni Collette star as the detectives who linked two far-flung rape cases in “Unbelievable.” (Netflix)

    Netflix’s rendering of Duvall stands out. She is poised and confident enough to command respect from others but humble and starstruck by her more experienced partner, Rasmussen. She does not tolerate nonsense. After noticing a creepy man eyeing teens in a diner, Duvall casually reveals her service weapon while she pays her check. In contrast to the bumbling detectives who hounded Marie, she listens to rape victims with patience and sensitivity, sticking to the old Russian proverb “Trust but verify.”

    The meticulous portrayal of her interviewing and investigative techniques seems  intended for others to learn from. (One of the show’s writers, Ayelet Waldman, is a former prosecutor and survivor of assault.) As Duvall and Rasmussen pursue their investigation, they bump up against systemic problems in the way violence against women is handled, which makes the positive model all the more important. (In the book, Hendershot reflects on her crushing sense of responsibility in working on crimes with human victims: “They are one hundred percent depending on you.”)

    Netflix also portrays Duvall as the mother of two young girls, juggling child-care duties with her husband and soothing a fearful daughter in the middle of the night. That in itself is an unusual layer for a character in a procedural crime drama.

    Remarkably, the series also fleshes out an aspect of the detective that most TV shows wouldn’t bother to touch: her Christian faith. Duvall has a small note reading “HERE I AM. SEND ME.” taped to the dashboard of her SUV. It’s a reminder of what she’s doing, she tells a victim who asks about it. “It’s from Isaiah. God shows up, looking for someone to be of service, clean things up a bit.” She and her husband attend a strikingly realistic church service and sing “In Christ Alone” – a modern hymn sung by tens of thousands of evangelicals every week. Contrast that with most Hollywood portrayals of Christian gatherings, at best complete with bland sermons and generic white choir robes and chapels reminiscent of Precious Moments figurines. 

    This is no Precious Moments religion. The show makes Duvall’s faith a point of tension with Rasmussen, who in one frustrating moment explodes, “Are you seriously whipping out your Jesus s--- right now? As far as I can tell, Jesus has a piss-poor sense of direction because we are about as far as we can be from any kind of f---ing path. … Your Lord has not given us one goddamn break, so as far as I’m concerned, he can just go f--- himself.”

    “It was not my finest moment,” she apologizes later. “That’s nothing I haven’t thought a hundred times myself,” Duvall replies. “The stuff we see, it’s hard enough with God. I don’t know how anyone does it without.”

    In another scene, Duvall shocks Rasmussen by saying she hopes the rapist chokes on his own vomit. “Read your Old Testament, woman,” is Duvall’s comeback. “We’re big into vengeance.” Their banter is a raw exploration of the ways that faith fits into, and is called into question by, the disturbing realities they deal with.

    A practicing Quaker, ProPublica’s Miller was sensitive to the importance of faith to the real-life Detective Galbraith and sought to report that fairly. He was gratified the TV series (for which he and Armstrong both consulted, but did not write) did the same, without underplaying or exaggerating her beliefs. Religion is often “not accurately portrayed in the role that it plays in people’s lives, a quiet and subtle and sustaining role,” he says. “They worked so hard to get this right, and it shows.”

    Just after the perpetrator is handed a lengthy sentence, Rasmussen confides to Duvall: “I did something this morning that I’ve never done before. I prayed. . . . I bowed my head and I said, ‘Listen, mother---er, you let all this horrible s--- go down day after day after day. Is it too much to ask on this one day, you get one f---ing thing right?’ And look, it worked.” And with that, Grace Rasmussen admits to a dawning awareness of grace.

    Duvall’s lived witness touches someone else’s life as well – someone she never even meets. In the final scene, Marie cold-calls her just before driving off to start fresh. Even after the hardships she endured growing up in foster care – surviving abuse, subsisting on dog food – Marie had always tried to take a sunny view of life and other people. But in this experience, she tells Duvall, “it just became harder for me to believe that there was really any good in the world.” The worst part was “waking up feeling hopeless. And I would think things like, ‘Well if the world is this bad, do I even want to be in it?’”

    But then, she continues, “out of nowhere, I hear about these two people in some completely other part of the country, looking out for me and making things right.” More than anything – more than learning her attacker was locked up, or receiving an apology from the institutions and people who doubted her – “it was hearing that, about you guys, that just changed things completely.”

    Does finally getting “justice” balance out the grave injustice that she experienced? Does the good done by hard-working public servants outweigh the evil they encounter – outside and inside the system? Does God “giving them a break” one morning explain all the times they didn’t get one? These equations are impossible to square. But the show reminds us that the call to right wrongs is still clear.

    Miller and Armstrong’s journalism sharpened my ambitions for my storytelling. Galbraith/Duvall’s pursuit of her calling likewise inspires me. Even if wedged between caring for children and thousands of other daily necessities, persistent efforts to do good can actually improve others’ lives. Even hitting obstacle after obstacle, patient truth-seeking can eventually bear fruit. And even if the injustices you or I seek to unwind feel gnarled up beyond repair, the little crooked places we manage to straighten can make all the difference to someone.

    Contributed By Liz Essley Whyte

    Liz Essley Whyte is a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity.

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