UNBELIEVABLE by T. Christian Miller & Ken Armstrong
Broadway Books, 2019
Harrowing and eye-opening, Unbelievable (originally published as A False Report) strings together the stories of victims of a serial rapist, focusing on one young woman, Marie, whose rape allegation was dismissed after she was more or less forced to recant her accusation. When she went back to the police station to insist that she had in fact been raped, she was charged with false reporting. Years later, the rapist was caught and Marie’s record was expunged – Unbelievable then ties together Marie’s story, and the stories of the officers investigating this crime, with a larger commentary on the alarming way sexual assault allegations are often handled in the U.S.
I decided to pick this up after a conversation with the editor of a piece I wrote recently on the rarity of false sexual assault allegations; this book echoed a lot of the research that I had uncovered while writing that, so it was ultimately every bit as infuriating as I had expected it to be. Seeing the startlingly unprofessional behavior of the officers investigating Marie was painful; they would take minor inconsistencies in Marie’s story and blow them out of proportion, having never been trained to recognize that assault victims often have scattered recollections. But if there’s one thing that saves this book from being a total downer, it’s that T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong emphasize the department-wide changes that were instigated in the way officers are trained to deal with assault victims, that came about as a result of this incident. I think this should be required reading for anyone in law enforcement handling a sexual assault case.
I will say, one thing I would have liked from this book is more of a focus on the historical precedent of disbelieving women – Miller and Armstrong put the effort in here, but their research is essentially relegated to a footnote in Marie’s story, whereas I felt like there was room for more interrogation into the socio- and psychological factors that underscored the particular narrative that they chose to highlight.
There was also a certain discomfort in the back of my mind whenever I thought too long and hard about the fact that this book’s two authors are both male – a bit of unpleasant irony given that the book’s core conceit is advocating for the voices of women. But to my pleasant surprise, this was actually addressed in the author’s note; the discomfort has been assuaged a bit knowing that this book’s editorial team was entirely female, a number of female experts were consulted, and Marie herself was able to weigh in on the manuscript before it was published.
You can pick up a copy of Unbelievable here on Book Depository.