Six Things ‘I May Destroy You’ Artfully Teaches About Survivors of Sexual Assault
Michaela Coel’s HBO series demonstrates realistic and relatable portrayals of survivors dealing with the aftermath of rape (Content Warning: Contains Spoilers)
A stranger drugs and rapes a woman on a night out at the bar. There is no rush to apprehend the offender, there is no CSI-style investigation, there is no resolution. All that’s left is a woman who has to learn how to continue living her life in a world that will never quite feel the same again, a world unwilling to wait for her to find her footing on this new, uneven territory.
What makes I May Destroy You so unique is that it takes viewers down the lengthy path of what happens in the psyche and day-to-day life of survivors of rape after they are assaulted. The story is not premised around the rapist and his lack of consequences, leaving the focus instead on the survivor. The series provides an authentic and realistic portrayal of how survivors learn to go on in a life that is suddenly very different than it used to be, riddled with the nuances of trauma, destruction, survival, and hope, all stuck on a never-ending loop.
I May Destroy You teaches viewers that the narrative of what a survivor looks and acts like differs from person to person, and all responses to sexual trauma are valid and legitimate, despite what our culture often tells us. It does so with humor and humanity that anyone can relate to. Finally, it also teaches viewers that although each survivor is different, there are some relatable and universal truths that come with surviving the aftermath of rape.
1- Everyone reacts to rape and trauma differently.
Arabella, the main character portrayed by Michaela Coel, is the first character to be assaulted on a night when a man drugs her. We see her dancing, falling over, and then cut to her typing the end of her latest novel that she needed to finish by the morning. She is still drugged and dazed. In spite of this, she still goes to work, because she has to. She does not have the luxury of time to sprint off to the hospital to get a forensic exam or stop by the police station to explain what happened. In fact, it takes her several hours and days to recover from the fog of being drugged, come out of denial about the situation, tell a trusted friend, walk through the night with someone else who had been there, and make a decision to report even though she was unclear on most of the details.
It is refreshing to watch an accurate depiction of the first steps survivors take after being assaulted, particularly when a predatory drug is involved. Unlike unhelpful caricatures of rape victims written into the scripts of crime shows, many of whom are meant to legitimize their experience by immediately weeping and falling apart, Coel’s character brings reality back to what it means to be a “real” rape victim and helps to weaken harmful stereotypes of how people process trauma. She processes her trauma slowly and realistically. She speaks of it calmly and rationally, even though she is confused and hurt.
What’s so artful about this show, however, is that it demonstrates how others react to being victimized as well. Arabella’s friend, Kwame, is also raped. He is not drugged, and immediately reacts with emotional pain. However, like many rape survivors, he is not sure if what happened could actually be legally defined as rape. Partially because of this, he does not report to authorities for weeks. When he does report the crime, he is so deeply humiliated and retraumatized by the police that he does not even want to speak of it again, and does not tell his friends or anyone else for a long time afterwards. He keeps everything to himself.
So we see Arabella, who needs to process and speak of her rape again and again, and we see Kwame, who initially survives his experience by not speaking about it at all. Both of these reactions are equally valid. Survivors of rape all react to trauma differently, and these characters demonstrate two common reactions. And of course, some survivors can immediately process what happened and miss work and go to the hospital and report to the police and do all of the things that society tells us a “real” rape victim would do, but that uncommon scenario is left out of the show.
2- Everyone copes with rape and trauma differently.
Understanding and processing trauma is a complicated and individual process. Coping with rape and trauma is equally so.
Arabella has the support of good friends who know what happened to her. She tries new things like yoga and painting, stops using drugs, stays relatively positive, seeks therapy, attends a support group, becomes an activist, and grows a network of support on social media. She also becomes a little obsessed with trying to figure out who raped her, as at the end it is revealed she goes to the same bar every week to try to find the rapist.
Kwame copes completely differently. He acts out with hypersexualization, is cold and distant with people, especially intimate partners, has a bit of an identity crisis, and seems to drink more than we used to see him drink.
Our culture pushes a narrative about how “real” rape victims should cope, but the reality is that whatever a survivor does to cope, they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Arabella could be interpreted as a strong survivor for the “healthier” coping mechanisms she finds, but in the eyes of the legal system, she could also be interpreted as a liar since she is able to carry on with her daily tasks and seems to be doing quite well from the outside looking in. We only know that she is not, in fact, doing well and is indeed harmed by the trauma because we see her struggling to stay afloat at work, internally suffering from flashbacks, and needing to be around others at all times.
On the flip side, Kwame’s actions are also very common for survivors who may try to regain a sense of power and control from casual sexual relationships, and who may cope with unwanted memories and emotional pain by abusing substances. Even though these are common coping reactions to rape, in the eyes of the legal system, Kwame could be deemed unreliable, overly sexual, and basically victim-blamed for his rape even though he did not truly change until after the assault. His character brings forth old victim-shaming narratives that measure the integrity of a victim by their chastity.
Neither Arabella or Kwame are right or wrong in how they cope. They simply act in a way that works for them at the time. Whatever coping mechanisms survivors pick up, “good” or “bad”, more on the healthy end of the spectrum or less so — and most survivors will likely have some of each — these acts are are keeping that person alive for the time being. Even “healthier” coping skills can become unhealthy if they take over a person’s life, like Arabella’s brief social media obsession. I May Destroy You not only humanizes and legitimizes all kinds of coping behaviors, but also does not place judgment on them, which we could benefit from as a society to learn how to truly believe and support survivors.
3- Survivors of rape often need assistance to get their basic needs met.
Arabella’s book deal falls apart as she finds it increasingly difficult to focus enough to write. Her mind is constantly replaying details about her assault. She eventually runs out of money. While she still has a place to live and has friends to borrow from for food and other expenses, many survivors do not have that safety net.
Trauma often impacts the mind in a way that causes problems with memory and focusing, and working under those conditions is a very difficult task. Especially considering that survivors often have PTSD or experience many symptoms of PTSD, including being unable to sleep well and suffering debilitating flashbacks, it is easy to understand that productivity and trauma do not easily co-exist. For survivors who have been assaulted by intimate or domestic partners, additional layers of difficulty in stable housing and finances often emerge. Student survivors often struggle to keep up in school, and working survivors often experience hardship on the job.
Most researchers and advocates will say that the most important needs for survivors are their basic needs. More than a grueling legal trial in the spirit of attaining “justice”, more than yoga or painting (although often very helpful), survivors need food, shelter, and cash assistance. This series gives us a glimpse into the domino effect of why that happens.
4- Learning how to heal is a bit of a mystery.
Healing comes from friends, from “people who affirm you” (as Arabella’s friend Terry frequently repeats), from new experiences like painting, yoga, exercise classes, therapy, and many other relaxing and healthy yet time-consuming activities. Healing comes from replacing negative memories with positive memories. Not every activity that could be considered healing works for every survivor. Arabella seeks therapy, but Kwame does not. Not every option will resonate with everyone. And there is no end date to healing.
Additionally, accessibility to healing adds an extra layer of difficulty when trying to overcome trauma. In the United States, therapy is often afforded to those who have health insurance, the wealthy, and those who receive assistance through victim compensation programs after reporting rape. Therapy is not always accessible to all financially, and even so, transportation and cultural barriers compound the possibility of or willingness to receive therapy at all. The same is true for many other therapeutic activities.
Why is there not more support for survivors to access ways to heal? Why do survivors fortunate enough to have friends and to be able to easily get around need to go to countless locations to participate in activities that could be helpful for them, often surrounded by strangers who are not on the same path? Why do so many survivors need to rely on running into that random girl from high school who just so happened to start a support group in order to find a group of people they can speak with who understand?
The reality that healing is not straightforward, that it’s messy, non-linear, sometimes inaccessible, culturally-specific, and somewhat of a ridiculous scavenger hunt resonated throughout this series. We also follow Arabella’s quest to heal during an entire year and at the end are still left with an understanding that despite her best efforts, and despite how far she has come, she still has not fully healed from her experience. Can anyone?
5- Reporting rape compounds the pain of being raped.
Reporting rape is a process that never leaves you alone. You can never find peace and healing simultaneously while seeking the allusion of “justice”.
Arabella and Kwame are both harmed in different ways by reporting to the criminal system. As previously mentioned, Kwame is treated so poorly by detectives that it prevents him from even speaking of the rape again or seeking help from anyone else for a long time. This sequence of events is unfortunately incredibly common. A survivor recently told me that when she decided to report, the detective who took her initial call said that he would take her statement, but he would immediately call the perpetrator and find out what she is lying about- so did she really want to follow through? The first person a survivor tells about the assault is crucial to their recovery. The police are very frequently not good first people if the survivor wants to stand a solid chance at surviving.
Arabella’s relationship to her case is more akin to a torturous rollercoaster ride with the highs of feeling like her case is moving forward, and then sudden and dramatic setbacks that makes her stomach drop. While her detectives are empathetic and kind, they ultimately fail her and her case closes in a random and devastating blow that she did not see coming, right before needing to attend an important work meeting.
Nothing in a show has ever felt more true to reality. Survivors who report are constantly navigating a chaotic system outside of their control. Detectives disappear and then reappear at always seemingly the least convenient moment with the worst possible news. The criminal system is an emotional tug of war that does not stop because the survivor has work or school or an important event to attend. It builds you up just enough to give you hope, and then breaks you, over and over again.
And then you have to go on with your day like nothing happened, because you have to survive.
6- Moving forward does not happen because we heal, it happens because we have no other choice than to keep going.
At the end of the series in a powerful final episode, Arabella is deciding how to spend her night. We learn that she has been going back to the same bar on the same night each week in hopes of finding the rapist. What does she hope to do upon finding him? We see a few versions of what closure would look like for her.
First, she imagines drugging him and making him feel as victimized and powerless as he made her feel. Revenge. Next, she imagines that he breaks down, dissociates, and reveals that he does this as the result of his own trauma. In this scenario, she seems to land on forgiveness by way of understanding why he does the things he does. Finally, she imagines consensually sleeping with him and then telling him to leave. Control. Many survivors imagine confronting the person who raped them, and this game of scenarios feels relatable. What makes it even more human is wondering what we would actually do.
None of these endings feel right to her, none of them feel complete. None of them make the rape not have happened, none of them fix what he broke inside of her that she has spent a year trying to repair. None of them give her any more power to move forward than she already has. His damage has been done, and his life is no longer relevant to her. She ultimately decides not to go, and for the first time in over a year, stops her quest to find what she is looking for by turning towards the assailant. She decides that it is time to attempt to forgive and let go for the sake of herself.
The ending of the series cannot quite be described as happy, or whole, or complete. Each character continues on with their lives with an unparalleled wake of devastation behind them and still somewhat within them. Arabella publishes her own book and seems to find success. One character notes that her new book is written with equal talent to her last book, but so different it feels like could have been written by a different person.
Arabella feels different to the viewer as she opens it to read it- she is quieter, calmer, and devoid of the same level of carefree joy she radiated at the beginning of the series. It is quite clear that the rape changed her. But the message seems to be that she has found a way to live and do what she loves to do, even as a person changed by the course of life events that she never asked for. Because, after all, she still is a person, and being a survivor means that she has chosen to live. The world did not give her time to keep going on in the same way, but she found her own way on a new path more reflective of who she is now- a changed and brilliant person with a new story to tell.