In the summer of 2008, a teenager woke up to find a man in her Lynnwood, Washington, apartment, standing over her with a knife. He tied her up, raped her, and took photos of her before leaving. She reported the rape, spoke with detectives, underwent a clinical sexual-assault examination, and cried as she warned her fellow participants in Project Ladder—a program helping young adults transition from foster care that had provided her housing—to lock their doors at night.
And then, a few days later, she recanted her report and said that she had made up the incident.
Referred to only by her middle name, Marie became the subject of the investigative journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize–winning report for ProPublica and the Marshall Project, called “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” In their piece, Miller and Armstrong connected Marie’s case with that of a pair of Colorado detectives who pursued a serial rapist in 2011, and since then, the tale has been retold twice: as an episode of the podcast This American Life, and as a book, originally titled A False Report (recently republished as Unbelievable), in which Miller and Armstrong expanded on the story.
Now Netflix has released a TV adaptation, called Unbelievable—and, as in the initial article, Marie serves as the limited series’ anchor into a larger exploration of rape culture. But Marie’s case could have easily been mistranslated in the dramatization process: As critics have noted over the years, television has typically trafficked in using rape as a plot device—the crime provides provocative “shorthand” for drama and offers a shallow backstory for underwritten characters. Rape scenes are often seen through male characters’ eyes, as in Game of Thrones, or are overshadowed by the series’ interest in examining the possible redemption of the rapist instead, as in the latest season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.