“UNBELIEVABLE”–Scenes from a Structure



Watching the new Netflix series Unbelievable has made me remember some things I’d forgotten, or maybe I tried to forget them.

I now recall when I first heard the word “manipulative”. It is a word I – and my parents, who were not fluent English speakers – learned from my older brother and sister who accused my mother of being manipulative. She was. I am sure I just overheard it that first time in some conversation that did not include me, since I was the youngest by far in the family. I recall that first hearing of the word because it gave me pleasure to finally have a word to name what was going on in our house. I recall, too, my father’s knowing, bemused expression upon hearing that word – “manipulative.” His expression conveyed an awareness that this was a new word, a BIG word. He nodded as he took it in. His bemusement let his children know they would not succeed in besting him with new fancy words in English. Nice try. There was no acknowledgment from him that a new word might be needed because all the old ones had failed.

For my part, I am often delighted by new words! Take “gaslighting” for example. What an efficient word. I LOVED learning it. But it arrived late; I was already in my 30’s. If I had had it earlier, it would have saved me some time. I recall an argument with my mother when I was in my late teens. She was looking me straight in the eye and lying to me about something, over and over. I lost it. I remember pointing to her dark brown wood kitchen cupboards and saying (maybe I was screaming): “do you want to know how to drive someone crazy? Tell them every day these cupboards are white. Point to their dark brown doors, and then say without hesitation: ‘these cupboards are white.’ Eventually, the person will lose their mind.” I recall going on like this for several minutes. If only I had known the word “gaslighting,” I could have been more efficient not only in communicating my distress but in understanding it.

She wasn’t trying to make me lose my mind. It is just that other things were more important to her. I knew that. Lots of things were more important than me. What men thought was more important than me. What people might say was more important than me. Money was more important than me. Status was more important than me. Getting me married was more important than me. Mostly I fought all that. But sometimes I gave in. When I came home from graduate school for visits, she would often have a “match” waiting for me, a date – the son of friends; good people with standing in the community or in some other community. They were always “fine people” and he was always a “fine boy.” I almost always refused. One time I went. He seemed nice. He was a doctor; a draw for her, not for me. He took me to a club and got me a drink. I became terribly dizzy; I was embarrassed to be sick and said I had to go to the bathroom. I asked someone where it was. The room was spinning. I spent what felt like an hour frantically wandering around the small club trying to get to it. No matter which way I turned I seemed to end up back in the same place. I blacked out. When I opened my eyes I was right in front of the Ladies. A miracle. I went in and sat down with my head between my knees and tried to feel better. In a while the worst of it passed.

I went back out and found my date. What took you so long? he asked. I said I had to leave because I was ill. I remember he looked irritated. He said I must have drunk too much, but I didn’t think so. I remember feeling confused by his response. He said he would take me home, but when we were in his car he suggested we go to his place where he did not rape me. That does not make him a hero because he tried.

Had I told my mother what happened, she would not have believed me. So I didn’t. She almost certainly would have suggested I must have misunderstood his intentions. And she most certainly would have told me I should never have gone to his apartment. Last but not least she would have told me not to tell anyone; for my sake, she would have said, and she might have believed it.

I went to the doctor the next week to figure out what had happened to me that night in the club. He could not say, but he did say I had intuitively done the right thing. When you are dizzy like that with an unwell stomach, it is because all the blood has rushed to your stomach from your head. When you bend over and lower your head to your knees, he said, you force the blood back to your head and out of your stomach. I was inexplicably proud to have done well, but I was still mystified about what had happened. It was not until I heard about the Bill Cosby case 30 years later that my memory of all this came back. I was talking about Cosby with my own kids, telling them to be careful about what they drink, who they are with, and so on and, suddenly, it dawned on me and I said: “Wait, I think *I* was roofied!” Come to think of it, that was a new word too.

Unbelievable tells the true story of a rapist who tortures women; the just plain crappy male detectives who manipulate and gaslight his first victim, a troubled teenager named Marie, into retracting her claim that she was raped; and the two women detectives who would have believed her but who get to the case only much later, after the rapist has damaged many more lives. The series, which is rich and mesmerizing, features a cast of finely drawn characters and interweaves two parallel narratives: the story of Marie, betrayed by the cops who don’t believe her, and the story of the two women who work to hunt down the rapist. The two pairs of detectives are powerfully contrasted. The male detectives are coasting, the women are overachieving hard workers, competent, dedicated, and professional. The men carelessly violate the victim, the women carefully help those they work with to regain a sense of control. When the facts finally come to light — Marie was telling the truth! — one of the male detectives, Parker, wonders aloud how he could have got it so wrong. He asks himself whether he might be one of the bad apples he always complains about. You can see the progress in his rumination…and also the laziness that will allow it to float away. That is how brilliant this series is.

A lovely review in the Atlantic, by Sophie Gilbert, sees it differently. Titled “Unbelievable Is TV’s Most Humane Show,” the review finds hope in the moment when the “show reveals, in lingering detail, the look on Detective Parker’s face as he realizes the appalling ways he mistreated a vulnerable teenager.” But Parker’s face and comportment in that episode show something else: all the wind has been taken out of him. He sags. The two powerful women, who skipped no steps and left no stone unturned, have solved the case through sheer brilliance and dogged persistence. If their rows upon rows of paper piles documenting false and good leads are the signs of excellent police work, and they are, and he says so, then he has never come close to that. And he knows it. “That’s good work,” he says, “very good work. Looks like you have enough to send him away for a long time.” Nope, says Rasmussen, the more senior of the two women. “I don’t count my chickens. I’ve seen rapists get probation too many times to count on anything.” He nods; once again caught in the act of underachievement. What the camera sees when it lingers on him is not a pre-determination of his own personal improvement but a sad dawning sense of his ineffectiveness and the pathos of what it will be like to live with the undeniable knowledge of his own mediocrity: to know that he has been so out-performed, and by two women…. How will he live with that?

On the steps outside, we get a glimpse of how. As he leaves the station, accompanied by Rasmussen, Parker stops and says: “I feel like.. um.. I should explain. The problem is, uh… I’ve got nothin’.”

Rasmussen stays silent. Somehow, she doesn’t help him with his feelings or say anything to make him feel better. (I love her.)

He sighs. “You know you hear about bad cops…guys who make bad calls or end up hurting the people they’re supposed to protect, and I always think, like, who the hell let him on the force, right? Just get rid of him…. Maybe we should get rid of me…”.

Again, silence from Rasmussen. (I could not love her more right now)
Parker, in the void: “Well, thank you.” Rasmussen: “You bet.”

End of scene.

The next time we see Parker with another person, we see he has not changed at all. It is still, incredibly, all about him. In the final episode, he comes to tell Marie that her rapist has been caught and that he now understands he was wrong to disbelieve her. But he is still uninformed about her needs and he still puts his own needs first. He approaches her at work, at night, where she is alone cleaning up. She is triggered.

“You got a couple of minutes?” he asks.
She breathes heavily.
Parker: “I am sorry to bother you at work, this won’t take long. Um I got some information…recently that I need to share with you ….. a rapist was apprehended and they found 8 pictures of you taken during an assault, during your assault; the one I didn’t believe, the one I made you say never happened. I figured you wouldn’t want to see me but I felt

(‘BUT *I* FELT?)

I felt it was important to tell you in person
To look you in the eye and tell you I was wrong”

… and now… it clearly is all about him:

“I mean I’ve been trying to figure out how I could have been so off.
I wish I had an answer. I don’t.
I’d do anything to go back … and to just start all over and do right by you. I really would.”

Marie: “Well you can’t.”

Parker does later apologize (the Atlantic calls it “genuine”; it isn’t not genuine). Much later, Marie comes to the station, surprising him at his workplace, and she demands that apology, and he says he is “sorry; very very sorry.” But his partner, who also wronged her and is standing right there, does not say anything and when Marie leaves, with the words, “next time do better,” Parker nods, and looks around, a bit lost, at his partner, at the ceiling, at the stairwell where he stands. All that looking tells us all we need to know: he is simply not up to the task.

Hence my surprise to read in the Atlantic that the series’ message is we can do better. “It’s possible to investigate rape cases in ways that make it more likely for victims to get justice, not less. ‘Next time,’ Marie tells Detective Parker, ‘do better.’ The great hope the series offers is that he actually might.” I see absolutely no sign that he will. And many signs that he won’t. In fact, given the chance, again and again, he doesn’t.

The Atlantic’s Gilbert is not wrong though that the series is both humane and hopeful. The suggestion of the series is that a better understanding of trauma would improve things for women pursuing justice, as would an understanding of rape as a crime just like any other, as would more hardworking women detectives and fewer lazy male ones, and better communication all around. I am sure all that is true. But if I quibble with Gilbert, and the series, it is because unbelievability is also a structure. If Parker is a little lazy, that is not just a personal flaw; his shoddy work has for many years passed muster. Why? Because the world is his oyster. The possibly radical message of Unbelievable is that that world may come to an end. At the same time, the series makes it quite clear that it is far more likely that Parker will continue to be Parker. All the Parkers will.

W.E.B. Du Bois marked the work of the nefarious color line with the question “How does it feel to be a problem?” I think misogyny can be summed up by a question too: “How does it feel to be unbelievable?” It feels like hard work, I can tell you. The women detectives know it too. They pile up the evidence and the paperwork because they know what structure they are in. Their diligence is impressive and it solves the case. They keep going, in order to make conviction certain, to take no chances. Their tenacity is the height of professionalism. That is why it puts Parker to shame. But that tenacity is also and still a symptom of misogyny. How does it feel to be unbelievable? It feels like patriarchy, a word I learned in graduate school. We will need a new word for what comes next.