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Believe Me: A Netflix true crime series too far

Katie Douglas, as Lisa McVey, in Believe Me - Credit: Netflix

Megan Nolan on Believe Me, a show which seems to stray the wrong side of the fine line trod by true crime series

In Tampa, Florida, in 1984, 17-year-old Lisa McVey (now Lisa Noland), suffered an unimaginably extreme trauma after being kidnapped by the serial killer Bobby Joe Long.

Over the course of her 26 hour captivity she was continuously sexually assaulted, tortured, and subjected to the expression of Long’s obsessive hatred of women.

During her ordeal and despite the panic she must have been experiencing, she also employed remarkably accurate powers of observation and diligently mentally recorded any details about her surroundings or Long’s physicality she could perceive through her blindfold which would become useful later on.

Indeed it was these details which would eventually lead police to Long, who they would find was not only McVey’s tormentor but also the killer and rapist they had been seeking for months. First though, McVey needed to convince them that she was telling the truth.

The 2018 film Believe Me based on these events recently arrived to Netflix and soon became the most viewed content by its UK audience. It is in fact the second major Netflix success which has to do with the victim of a severe sexual attack not being believed.

In 2019 the mini series Unbelievable centred around another true story, this one about a young woman named Marie in Washington whose confused recounting of her rape led to police bullying a recantation out of her and eventually, disgracefully, to her being charged with making a false report, before eventually being vindicated by physical evidence. 

Unbelievable is a comparatively sober and artful endeavour, where Believe Me is a straight forward schlocky affair with that distinctive ‘made-for-TV’ feel to it.

Flashbacks in hazy half-light abound, and Lisa’s family context – one of white-trash abuse and negligence failing a bright spirited teenager – is portrayed through a series of oafish imagery tropes.

The strung out mother smokes bitterly in her tight outfits, the abusive boyfriend sneers lasciviously beneath a cowboy hat. Katie Douglas, who plays Lisa, gives an almost unnecessarily good performance, but that aside it is not a film which leaves one particularly glad to have seen it.

There are scenes, too, which I watched queasily, unable to avoid the feeling that what I was seeing was built for titillation. 

To be candid, I am a longtime reader and listener of true crime. I have no ethical high horse in this regard. It’s undeniable that some of the true crime I consume is not particularly considered or insightful or revealing of anything meaningful about the human condition other than our capacity for sadism.

Not all of it, but some certainly, is just trash, is just entertainment, and that surely is questionable behaviour – to seek out the very worst things we are capable of doing to one another, the most unthinkable, the most inventively cruel, and to ingest them as just another way to kill an hour.

I had this feeling during the winter lockdown when I would walk aimlessly for three or four hours a day listening to podcast after podcast about crimes, most of them crimes against women, crimes about sex.

This was not new but the intensity was, the proportion of my day given up to the pursuit of that thrill of nausea. But the thing is with words, with the books I read and the audio I listened to, there is still a crucial gap which you are left to fill in by yourself, and my imagination would never work very specifically or productively, would leave these crimes abstracted and shadowy. It would leave them as ideas of acts rather than as visceral acts.

A corny, unapologetically simplistic movie, does not deal with abstracted acts. I watch a lot of corny simplistic movies but they tend to be about dating mishaps or underdog sports teams, not sexual violence.

For this reason the tone and the visual quality of Believe Me shocked me. Could they really be showing his imposing, demanding man’s body semi-nude descending onto an unclothed and tiny teenager as she screamed? Was this normal? Was it ok?

It didn’t feel ok, it felt as though it was inciting excitement of one kind or another, either the excitement that someone who finds violence and sadism sexually appealing would experience, or the excited outrage of the more average, compassionate viewer who sees these repellent scenes and marvels at the injustice of Lisa McVey not being believed after managing to survive such depravity. 

That, I think, is what makes me uncomfortable about being invited to tut at these appalling stories in which victims are disbelieved. It’s how different they are from the vast majority of other rape victims who are not believed.

Here, the extremity of the injustice is what makes it worth caring about. We have to witness the full spectacle of horror and torture in order to really truly get angry about the useless police and judgemental family members. And in addition to this, Lisa McVey was not only attacked but was even a sort of preternaturally gifted sensory sleuth whose brilliance led to a serial killer being captured.

There is something in this dynamic which inadvertently reinforces the idea that there are good and bad victims, that there are ‘real’ rapes and then the less real kind. The less real kind, the kind which many people insist can simply never be verified one way or the other, are perpetrated by people known to their victims, perhaps in pre-existing relationships. They lack the concrete dramatic force of kidnap, captivity, struggle, escape. They would make for terrible films.

But these less bombastic crimes do have something crucial in common with the sensational sort. In all cases, a reluctance to engage in physical combat with the person who holds your life in his hands counts against you.

To lack cuts and bruises, to have kept your mouth shut in order to hurry it up and end sooner, means that the presumption of truth is withheld from you. No matter how it happens, whether it is a stranger or an intimate partner or a friend, a victim’s pragmatic will to endure quietly, compromises their later ability to seek justice. The choice to live is often what ends up counting against you the most. 

Believe Me is streaming on Netflix UK 

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