How ‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’ and ‘I May Destroy You’ Humanize Rape Survivors

(L) Michelle McNamara of 'I'll Be Gone in the Dark'; (R) Michaela Coel of 'I May Destroy You'. (HBO)

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n a year that has consisted of nonstop twists, two of 2020’s greatest TV triumphs, I May Destroy You and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, remain surprising. Not just because of their groundbreaking depictions of sexual assault and its fallout, but also because they’ve reached audiences via HBO—one of TV's biggest historical offenders when it comes to mishandling the topic.

HBO’s awful track record has, in fairness, been symbolic of the ways all TV networks do a disservice to sexual assault victims and rape survivors. It’s the channel that brought us Game of Thrones—a series that started out casually depicting sexual assault as background color, then later escalated to using the rape of women to advance male characters’ plots. HBO gave us gratuitous rape scenes in OzCarnivale and more recently, Euphoria. It took strong female characters from The Sopranos and Treme down a peg or two with rape storylines that went nowhere. It gave a trusted journalist in The Newsroom the task of nobly telling a credible rape survivor to not speak up about her attacker. And it even had a male rape survivor in True Blood utter the phrase: “Maybe God’s like, ‘Jason Stackhouse, you have f--ked too many hot women. Now let’s see how you like it.” 

Big Little Lies was the first HBO show to break from this pattern. But the intelligent, expansive and empathetic explorations of rape and its fallout in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and I May Destroy You represent a giant leap forward for the channel.

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he Liz Garbus-directed I'll Be Gone in the Dark (which concluded Sunday) is an astonishing work of true crime documentary that’s equal parts chilling, devastating and life-affirming. Based on Michelle McNamara’s book chronicling her hunt for Golden State Killer Joseph DeAngelo, I’ll Be Gone’s six episodes are unflinching in the way they handle both the long-unsolved case and McNamara’s personal life.

The series deftly demonstrates the way rape can permanently impact not just the survivors of it—who, here, are given ample space to describe their own attacks, as well as their lifelong coping mechanisms—but also their partners, their families and their extended communities. It even gives space to the relatives of DeAngelo to talk about their own devastation, as well as the family’s history with abuse and sexual violence that may have influenced DeAngelo’s predation.

The genesis of the series is in the personal details of McNamara’s life, and her repeated run-ins with the orbits of sexual predators. When she was 14, the rape and murder of her 24-year-old neighbor, Kathleen Lombardo, prompted McNamara’s fascination with unsolved crime. She was assaulted by an older boss while working in Northern Ireland. And later, the self-medicating that ultimately led to McNamara’s accidental death was likely an attempt to cope with the details of the Golden State Killer case, an investigation that took up much of her personal time.

But the starkest difference between traditional TV depictions of rape and what we see in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is how the men around the survivors deal with it. Here, when their loved ones are assaulted, it doesn’t spur men into action, or revenge, or suddenly transform them into saviors. It merely plummets them into a pain and confusion that they overwhelmingly struggle to articulate.

One survivor, Linda O’Dell, recalls asking her husband if he wanted to know what had happened. “He goes, ‘I know what happened,’” she recalls. “And he said, ‘I don’t wanna talk about it.’ He said, ‘I got rid of your pajamas and you don’t have to see those anymore.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’” Later, she says her son didn’t want her to be interviewed on camera for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

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Another survivor, Kris Pedretti, describes her father overhearing her talking about her assault on the phone with a friend. “I got in a lot of trouble for telling anybody,” she recalls.

Gay and Bob Hardwick are the only couple whose marriage survived an attack by the Golden State Killer. (Bob utters a perplexed “jeez” when he finds this out.) As was typical, the couple were separated during the attack. Bob was left tied up in one room, plates stacked on his back and told not to move or his wife would be killed. Gay was taken in the other room and repeatedly sexually assaulted.

In Episode 2, as Gay calmly tells her story in detail, it’s Bob who looks shellshocked. He glances at his wife sporadically, mouth slightly agape. He gets flushed, he sighs deeply, he avoids eye contact with everyone in the room for minutes at a time. Eventually, he confesses: “My defense mechanisms have blocked everything out. Even some of my best friends said at the time ‘What? You couldn’t do anything?’”

The show is unique in its ability to present the impact of the attacks on the men around the survivors, without once stealing focus from the women. It is the women who are the strong ones here. That dynamic is emphasized further in the series finale when survivors get together to talk and bond over their shared experiences. In the face of their strength and grace, it’s McNamara’s husband, Patton Oswalt, who is seen with tears in his eyes. “This has made me feel a thousand percent better,” he tells the women at one point, “getting to see you living and moving around in the world.”

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here I’ll Be Gone in the Dark demonstrates how longterm survival is possible, I May Destroy You depicts rape, assault, consent, sexual morality and everything that can happen in the grey areas. It, like I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, is expansive to the point of being occasionally overwhelming. This is due in part to the story being based on the real-life experiences of the show’s star and writer, Michaela Coel.

First, Coel’s character Arabella is drugged and raped. Later, a partner removes a condom during sex without her permission. An action, she is surprised to find out, which also falls under the legal parameters of rape. She thinks back on teenage incidents where she sided with exploitative boys, and misunderstood revenge-seeking girls. Her gay best friend is assaulted by a man and dismissed by police because it happened during an encounter that began as consensual. Her other best friend ends up in a three-way with two men who’ve pretended to be strangers to facilitate it.

By the start of Episode 8, Arabella has begun to figure out that the people who exploit others for their own sexual gratification aren’t all boogiemen like the one we meet in the finale of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, or the one who drugs and rapes her in I May Destroy You’s first episode. Most who sexually assault, she concludes in a speech to her survivor’s group, walk a fine line to get away with sexually exploiting others—they push boundaries to figure out the maximum of what they can get away with. (That sentiment is paralleled in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, as we hear how DeAngelo escalated from ransacking houses, to raping at least 50 women, to murdering 13 people.)

The thing that distinguishes both I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and I May Destroy You is the fact that the voices of real-life survivors form the centers of both narratives. Everything else—details about law enforcement, friends, families—fans out from there. That allows complex narratives to obliterate old TV tropes, and it permits horrifying details without stepping into exploitative territory. Perhaps most crucially of all, both shows offer separate but similar examples of how to humanize survivors.

If a channel with HBO’s track record can manage it, there’s no reason other TV networks can’t.

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