Jurisprudence

Why Not Go to the Police?

In Unbelievable and Know My Name, sexual assault survivors confront the profound injustices of the justice system.

Kaitlyn Dever as Marie Adler in Unbelievable, and Chanel Miller.
Kaitlyn Dever as Marie Adler in Unbelievable, and Chanel Miller, author of Know My Name.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix and Mariah Tiffany.

In the year since Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, one exchange has replayed in my mind more than any other. It happened on the day Christine Blasey Ford testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her at a high school gathering in 1982. Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the most strident Kavanaugh supporters on the committee, was storming through the Capitol during a break in that day’s hearing when activist Robyn Swirling approached him. “Sen. Graham, I was raped 13 years ago,” Swirling said.

Graham had been telling reporters that Ford’s inability to pinpoint the date of her alleged assault had made him doubt her story. Swirling told him that she, too, could not remember the exact date of her rape. “I’m so sorry,” Graham said, without making eye contact.

Swirling continued, “You’re so sorry, but do you believe me?”

“You needed to go to the cops,” Graham said. “Go to the cops.”

In some ways, it was a routine and minor moment: a clash between a progressive activist and a conservative lawmaker in a basement hallway in the Capitol. But the whole scene—Swirling’s insistent telling of her rape, Graham’s invocation of the police she didn’t call as a way to dismiss her story entirely—encapsulated, in just a few seconds, the dynamic conservatives had established to defend their own from allegations of sexual assault. Graham didn’t know whether Swirling had reported her rape to the cops, didn’t care that she wasn’t accusing a specific person or trying to get anyone in trouble. His knee-jerk response to an allegation of rape made in a vacuum, by a woman he knew nothing about, was to tell her she was doing it wrong.

Police reports, or the lack thereof, have loomed large in recent years in right-wing bids to discredit women who accuse powerful men of sexual abuse. In 2016, Bill O’Reilly said on his dearly departed Fox News show that he refused to “get into” the sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump unless police were taking on the cases. Conservative columnists have used the absence of law enforcement involvement to cast doubt on the stories of Ford and E. Jean Carroll, who in June accused Trump of having raped her in a department store fitting room in the 1990s. When Ford first came forward with her allegation against Kavanaugh, Trump tweeted that “if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says,” she or her parents would have promptly notified the authorities.

That tweet prompted thousands of sexual assault survivors to explain their own reasons for deciding not to tell the police (or, in some cases, anyone) about what happened to them, using the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport. People wrote of feeling sure they wouldn’t be believed, worried about preserving professional relationships with their assailants’ friends, or embarrassed that they’d been drinking too much. Many said they’d played out a possible police report in their minds—and the interrogation, public scrutiny, and invasive investigation that could follow—and decided it wasn’t worth the slim chance at seeing justice served.

Two recently released stories of sexual assault vividly demonstrate that, for many, what comes after a police report ends up feeling nearly as traumatic as the event that provoked it. Unbelievable, released on Netflix in September, is an eight-episode drama based on the true story of an 18-year-old in Washington state who reported a rape, then recanted when police officers told her they were skeptical of her story. (She was only vindicated after her rapist attacked five more women.) Know My Name is a new memoir from Chanel Miller, formerly known as Emily Doe, whose victim impact statement was widely read on BuzzFeed after her assailant, Brock Turner, was sentenced to six months in county jail for sexually assaulting her while she was unconscious. Viewed as companion pieces, the series and the book make a powerful statement about the ways the justice system betrays its promises to protect victims, putting their own character and credibility on trial when they try to speak up about someone else’s crime.

Unbelievable presents two case studies of law enforcement: the tragedy of the police department that distrusted rape survivor Marie Adler and charged her with filing a false report, and the triumph of the pair of female detectives in Colorado who ended up finding and arresting Adler’s rapist, after spotting connections between a slew of rapes that occurred in the Denver area. The series contains several sickening depictions of a rape in progress, filmed from the perspective of the victim, but one of the most disturbing scenes takes place inside the police headquarters, where two male detectives badger Adler into saying she’d lied. Her former foster mothers had grown suspicious when Adler didn’t exhibit the kinds of outward signs of distress they’d expected from a recent rape victim. One of the women shared her concerns with the police, who called Adler in to pressure her on minor inconsistencies in the story of her rape, which she’d been asked to recount multiple times.

As Adler, actor Kaitlyn Dever radiates anxiety and self-doubt. She’s wracked with flashbacks of her assault as she attempts to explain herself to two detectives who’ve begun to believe she made up the story for attention or to get moved to a better apartment in her subsidized housing complex. The detectives interrogate her as if they already know she’s lying, as if she’s been charged with a crime, talking circles around her until she begins to doubt her own memory. They don’t let up until she’s delivered a written statement retracting the rape claim.

The scene is so infuriating, the detectives so devoid of empathy or genuine interest in truth-seeking, that if the Unbelievable script weren’t based on records from Adler’s actual interrogation, you’d think it overwritten. But Adler’s terrible story isn’t even uniquely terrible. It’s only unusual in that it eventually resolves in a measure of justice, with the capture of a serial rapist, which made it a subject fit for national headlines and a cautionary tale on Netflix.

Only about 2 percent of rapes reported to the police end in felony convictions, and only part of that low rate owes to the kind of “he said she said” testimonial impasse that skeptics use to shrug off the problem of sexual assault as hopelessly complex. Journalists who’ve investigated rape-kit backlogs and police mishandling of sexual assault cases have found mistrust of victims in every corner of the justice system: detectives who test rape kits to see if the victim had drugs in her system but don’t test for the perpetrator’s DNA; police officers who run a background check on a victim to see if she’s “credible” but don’t look at the criminal history of the man she says raped her.

When academic researchers did deep dives into how the cities of Detroit and Los Angeles handled sexual assault cases, they found “a subterranean river of chauvinism,” Barbara Bradley Hagerty wrote in the Atlantic in August, “where the fate of a rape case usually depends on the detective’s or (less often) prosecutor’s view of the victim—not the alleged perpetrator.” A detective who conducts law enforcement trainings for an Obama-backed initiative to get more rape kits tested told Hagerty that he’s noticed a pattern among officers he’s met. They have an “intractable belief that we could not seem to shake”: the idea that many women are lying when they say they’ve been raped.

In Know My Name, Miller recounts a story that seems as if it should be headed somewhere slightly better. The evidence of her 2015 assault was abundant and straightforward. There were two witnesses, and they’d held Turner until law enforcement officials arrived, arrested him, and declared Miller unconscious, making it easier to prove that she hadn’t consented to any of the sexual acts he’d forced on her. Neither police nor prosecutors doubted that Miller was assaulted.

But as Turner’s arrest got picked up by the press and his legal team began arguing in his defense, the focus turned to her: what she’d drank that night, how she’d behaved, why she, a 22-year-old who’d already graduated from college, was at a fraternity party in the first place. Online commenters intimated that a good-looking, Olympic-bound Stanford guy like Turner would have no reason to assault an unconscious woman, because there must be plenty of college women ready to consent to whatever he’d like to do.

Turner himself raised the only defense he could: Miller wanted it, he said, and she liked it. He and his team would spend their time in the public eye trying to prove Miller was a party girl who’d said “Yes” when Turner asked to finger her on the ground next to a dumpster. “His only way out is through you. It was like watching wolves being clipped off their leashes while someone whispered in your ear that meat has been sewn into your pockets,” Miller writes of the moment she realized that, to hold her assailant accountable, she’d have to stand trial herself. Unlike any other violent felony, she writes, “what was unique about this crime, was that the perpetrator could suggest the victim experienced pleasure and people wouldn’t bat an eye.”

Know My Name is distinguished by Miller’s talent for vivid, clarifying self-reflection, which led millions to read her victim impact statement into the canon of writings about sexual assault. With an unsparing eye for the ways a trial calls a victim’s own knowledge of her body into question, the memoir names, distills, and renders freshly appalling the indignities of trying to prove one’s own assault in a high-profile court case. Photos of Miller’s vulva were projected in the courtroom for Turner, his family, and court reporters to see. Jury members were asked to scrutinize a drunken voicemail she’d left for her boyfriend before the assault. The judge who sentenced Turner to a mere six months in jail, of which he’d serve three, would say in court that he believed Turner thought the sex acts were consensual, even though he’d run, leaving Miller’s unconscious body behind, when two witnesses confronted him.

All manner of commentators—from Turner’s friend, who chalked up the assault to “clouded judgement” on both Miller and Turner’s part, to Malcolm Gladwell, who devoted a chapter in his most recent book to raising doubts about Turner’s culpability—stepped in to share their theories about Turner’s intent and Miller’s desires. Miller’s claim that she’d never wanted to be stripped on the ground by a freshman she’d just met and fingered so aggressively that debris from the ground ended up in her vagina was just one side of the story observers considered. It was a tale, they proposed, that might have been fabricated by a heavy drinker who was embarrassed that she’d cheated on her boyfriend.

To some extent, this is how the criminal justice system is supposed to work: Every defendant has the right to defend himself, and it’s up to the jury to decide whether his narrative or the prosecution’s is the truth. Cases of sexual assault, no matter how heinous, do not warrant exceptions to due process, and for the most part, Know My Name does not argue for them. Instead, it offers a granular account of the humiliation, malicious questioning, and countless hours of retraumatizing recollection that often await a woman who does the exact thing that Lindsey Graham, Donald Trump, and so many others tell her to do if she wants her rape allegation to be believed.

When sexual assault skeptics tell survivors they should have told the cops, they’re positioning a police report as a first, necessary step in any credible sexual assault story. But they’re also treating it as a last step, with no recognition of the lengthy, painful process it sets in motion. If a survivor doesn’t have a squeaky-clean personal history, or if her rapist is someone she knows, or if she can’t begin to imagine how she’d prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she didn’t consent to sex, she may think it silly to sign up for years of personal torment, with no demonstrable benefit to her own healing, on the off chance that she’ll be one of the few to see her rapist punished for his crime.

The fact that Miller did cooperate with law enforcement, and her assailant was convicted of a felony, and the process was still such a drawn-out, dehumanizing mess for her is part of what makes Know My Name such an infuriating read. At several points in the memoir, Miller almost suggests that she was lucky: If she didn’t have an attractive, successful boyfriend, or any boyfriend at all, it would have been a lot easier for the defense to convince the jury that she’d been on the prowl that night. If two men hadn’t happened upon Turner midassault—a turn of events so rare in sexual assault cases that it seems almost allegorical—Miller might not have known what had happened to her, and Turner might not have been caught. Know My Name is tightly focused on Miller’s life, but it’s impossible to read it without thinking of the thousands of similar assaults gone unprosecuted because they were committed under less-provable circumstances, or to less-sympathetic victims. And it’s impossible to confront Miller’s recap of all the suspicion and victim-blaming she faced without considering the depth of American society’s reflexive distrust of women, such that even when a survivor has two witnesses and a supportive prosecutor to back her up, a not-insignificant segment of the population will root around for a reason why her sexual assault claim must be untrue.

Here’s where Know My Name and Unbelievable converge on single message: that the criminal justice system we rely on to adjudicate accusations of sexual assault is part of a world continuous with the commentators and political leaders who habitually cast doubt and blame on women who, at great risk to themselves and their families, make public rape allegations. The detectives and civilians who disbelieved Adler are not so different from the internet commenters who plagued Miller. Courts, juries, and police departments reflect the biases of the people who serve in them—biases that are informed by cultural narratives about untrustworthy women, about rape claims as easy avenues for enrichment or revenge, and about victims, like sex workers or drug users, who deserve what they get. Ensuring that doctors, detectives, and judges treat survivors with dignity requires not just proper training for people in these professions, but a shift in the public discourse.

Taken together, Know My Name and Unbelievable uncover some of the current pitfalls of this discourse—specifically, the impossible double binds a survivor finds herself locked between. People doubted Miller’s story because she met her assailant at a party, so they suspected she might have consensually led him on; Adler’s former foster mother doubted her story because a methodical rape by a masked stranger sounded too cinematic—like “the script of a Law & Order story”—to be believed. Miller writes that prosecutor Alaleh Kianerci, whom she generally liked, warned her not to appear angry on the witness stand, because “if you’re angry, you’re defensive” and “being too emotional made you unreliable.” Adler’s doubters got suspicious when her affect was too flat. There are no circumstances, no sexual assault victims perfect enough to dispel the social inclination toward disbelief.

The urgency with which Miller’s story and Unbelievable have been embraced (Netflix said 32 million households watched at least some of the latter in its first 28 days on the platform) suggests that there is an immense appetite for stories that recognize how, even in scenarios wherein the system produces a deserved felony conviction, a victim who seeks justice after a sexual assault may find more trauma along the way. These stories affirm what most pop culture depictions of rape don’t show but that too many people who’ve been abused have long known: that accountability for perpetrators doesn’t always lead to—and sometimes comes at the expense of—healing for survivors.

These stories also raise the possibility that survivors’ voices, which skeptics often treat as unreliable secondary sources, could be the thing that shifts the focus of popular narratives about sexual abuse away from the perpetrator’s experience and toward the victim’s. Even in the midst of an emerging tradition of women excavating their personal pain with hashtags like #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport, there is still an audience out there that finds the pathology of individual serial abusers more compelling than the lives of the survivors they leave in their wake. Unbelievable and Know My Name assert the primacy of victims’ own stories in any attempt to understand sexual violence in a way that doesn’t conflate what might look like a successful outcome—an arrest and conviction—with true justice.

Miller gets at this in the way she frames Know My Name as a personal testimony of public value, a story many have guessed at but only she can tell. She describes herself as “a civilian who’s been randomly selected to receive an all-access pass to the court system,” with the responsibility to fill the gaps of our collective imagination with the details she observes. It’s a way to make meaning of her suffering, and, she hopes, one step toward transforming the systems and narratives that failed her.

“I write to show how victims are treated at this moment in time, to record the temperature of our culture,” she writes. “This is a marker, and I hope that in twenty years this grueling aftermath of victimhood will feel foreign.”