"Unbelievable" Challenges Stigmas and Spurs a Conversation

Members from several sexual assault survivor groups came together with creators and cast for a panel discussion about the survivor experience and how best to support survivors.

The conversation, held at Netflix’s Hollywood offices, was tied to the release of the limited series Unbelievable. The eight-part project tells the story of a teenager named Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) who faces doubts from the police and those closest to her when she claims she’s been sexually assaulted by an intruder.

The event featured panelist from a range of leading organizations in the field: End Violence Against Women International, Peace Over Violence, Project Sister Family Services; Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN); Hollywood Health & Society; and Together We Rise, were also in attendance. Two licensed counselors and members of the RAINN speakers bureau were on hand for anyone in need of additional support during and/or after the panel.

Joanne Archambault, CEO of End Violence Against Women International, said she hoped the series could help transform stereotypes surrounding sexual assault. “It’s a matter of changing these ideas about what sexual assault victims look like,” she said.

Unbelievable is inspired by several source materials, including the 2015 ProPublica-Marshall Project article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” which won a Pulitzer Prize and laid the groundwork for the 2018 book A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America. The story also inspired a 2016 episode of podcast This American Life, entitled “Anatomy of Doubt.”

Ken Armstrong, who co-wrote the article and the subsequent book, also participated in the panel alongside executive producers Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), Sarah Timberman (Justified) and Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright), and cast members Merritt Wever, Danielle Macdonald, Eric Lange, alongside Dever.

“What I’m hoping your series is going to do is make this issue something that the public is talking about,” Archambault said in thanking the creative team.

The discussion included several clips from the series, including Marie’s examination at the hospital and one of her initial conversations with the police about the alleged incident. (Here is an inside look at the series.)

In addition to covering how the investigation into Marie’s alleged attack impacted her, the series also covers the subsequent issues she and other victims face in the wake of an assault. “What the series does really well is talking about safety,” said Wendy Blanco, director of clinical resources for Peace Over Violence. “If you don’t feel physically safe, you’re not going to be able to carry out your daily functions.”

Archambault is a retired member of the San Diego Police Department who supervised the department’s sex crimes unit for 10 years. She helped launch the public awareness campaign Start By Believing, which is designed to change how society responds to victims of child abuse and sexual violence. Ahead of the series’ launch, Start By Believing built a page dedicated to Unbelievable that connects visitors to resources to get help, volunteer, and more.

“I really think it’s going to have an impact,” Archambault said of the series. “We all need to do a better job understanding what sexual assault looks like, change the misconceptions, change the negative social stigma that’s attached to it.”

Photos courtesy of Netflix and Andrew Toth / Getty for Netflix

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