The Netflix miniseries Unbelievable is aptly titled for a few reasons. Right off the top, it is the kind of story that really is hard to believe, but it's a tale that is sadly and scarily true. And of course the title makes an obvious reference to the fact that one of the lead characters, a young rape victim named Marie, isn't believed when she comes forward with her story even though everything that she's saying is completely true.
Like any other TV series based on something that really happened, Unbelievable is a seamless blend of fact and fiction. The show's writers were extremely committed to presenting all of the important facts as close to the reality of the situation as possible, both for the sake of the subjects and because the real story itself is insane enough. But for perfectly understandable reasons, they also took some artistic license with certain things. Here are 5 things in Unbelievable that are true and 5 things that were changed from reality.
10 Fiction: The Timeline
It would be wonderful to imagine that justice is swift and accurate, but the storylines that are presented as parallel in Unbelievable actually took place years apart. Marie's attack occurred in 2008, but her attacker wasn't actually discovered and arrested until 2011.
The real serial rapist was a man named Marc O'Leary, and he committed a series of attacks between 2008-2011 (or at least those that the police are aware of), so Marie was actually on the early end of his crime spree. He was eventually caught, but who knows what would have happened if the Lynwood police had taken Marie seriously to begin with?
9 Fact: Photos Of Marie Confirmed Her Story
Although this particular plot point might seem difficult to believe, it's one portion of the story that is 100% true. The way the real and fictional Marie were treated is horrifying, but few people could imagine that this kind of vindication would present itself later on.
The serial rapist who attacked Marie took pictures of her, including a photo with her ID, which is undeniable proof that her story was legitimate. The investigators who eventually caught the assailant did identify Marie from the photos that the attacker kept in his collection, and they provided the evidence to Lynwood police afterwards.
8 Fiction: This Story Wasn't A Story
Obviously every TV show or film requires some kind of set narrative to follow, and Unbelievable is the same as any true crime miniseries. The show is actually stunningly accurate to the real life facts of this case, however, the reality of these experiences were just a bunch of disparate threads that only formed a connection at the very end.
It's easy to see where the narrative is going as you watch Unbelievable, but the writers had to do quite a bit of work to turn this factual account of a few different people's experiences into one single story that was compelling and easy to follow.
7 Fact: Two Female Detectives Cracked The Case
On some level it feels like Unbelievable is an homage to girl power, but the show didn't just create female roles for the sake of representation. Marc O'Leary was a real serial rapist who evaded detection because his crimes were being committed in different jurisdictions, and it just so happens that two female detectives in different towns connected over similar rape cases and then went on to discover the litany of crimes that O'Leary had committed.
Police work is a field in which women are significantly underrepresented, so the fact that it was two very real women who discovered this serial predator is pretty significant.
6 Fiction: "Marie" Was Never Marie
So the story of Unbelievable is based on real events, but what thrust this story into the national spotlight was a Pulitzer Prize winning collaborative article between ProPublica and The Marshall Project called "An Unbelievable Story Of Rape."
This article interviewed most of the major players in this sprawling saga. As the victim who was victimized by both the rapist and by the police, Marie (obviously) takes center stage here. However, in the interest of maintaining her anonymity, Marie decided to use a pseudonym in the article instead of her real name. Marie is actually "Marie's" given middle name.
5 Fact: Everyone Turned On Marie
Unfortunately, Unbelievable not only accurately depicts Marie's attack, but the fallout that she experienced as well. The unjust backlash came after she was harangued into saying that her account of the attack was a lie and that she had falsely filed a police report.
Marie was charged with filing a false police report, made to pay a fine of $500, and forced to attend counseling. She was also coerced into "admitting" what she did to the community, which in turn led to one of her former friends outing her to the media and online. As a result of the experience, she quit her job.
4 Fiction: All The Names Have Been Changed
In the original article "An Unbelievable Story Of Rape," Marie only goes by one name and it's a pseudonym she used to hide her real identity. But everyone else involved in the case is identified by their real names and many of them are featured in photos that accompany the article as well.
However, the writers of Unbelievable decided to change the names of all of the people involved and instead make up new ones for the show's characters. The writers explained that they didn't feel comfortable putting out their real names to such a wide audience, and they didn't feel changing them had any impact on the story at all.
3 Fact: Marie's Foster Mom Told The Cops She Didn't Believe Her
One of the most repulsive moments in Unbelievable is when Marie's foster mother goes out of her way to call the police and say that she doesn't believe that Marie is telling the truth. Sadly, this is one of the factual elements of the series.
Marie's real life foster mom explained that she felt like Marie's reaction to the attack and her behavior afterwards weren't what she would have expected, so she told the police of her suspicions and said Marie was the type of girl to make it up. Although Marie's reaction is pretty textbook post trauma behavior, her foster mother still claims that her response and disbelief was an understandable reaction.
2 Fiction: The Police Officer Suspect
One of the major subplots of Unbelievable is about a suspect who is a police officer. Rasmussen pursues this suspect intensely, first trying to convince her husband to hand over the officer's file and then looking into other ways of investigating him.
In one particularly dramatic scene, Rasmussen approaches the officer at a bar and flirts with him in an attempt to get his DNA, and the officer figures her out and has a pretty extreme reaction. However, this confrontation was entirely fictional. The real life Rasmussen never went after this suspect and she never had this confrontation with anyone.
1 Fact: Marie Won A $150,000 Lawsuit Against The City
Obviously nothing that happened to Marie could be undone or even made up for, but it is good to know that she did win that $150,000 settlement with the city of Lynwood for all of the unnecessary suffering she had to endure because of two ham-fisted detectives.
While the real Marie said she was glad to have enough money to leave town and start over somewhere else, the vindication of the entire world knowing that she was telling the truth was more than priceless. Hopefully, the steep price for Lynwood's mistake means that they won't let it happen again.