Essays · TV

‘I May Destroy You’ and the Power of Vocalizing Trauma

Michaela Coel’s HBO series depicts an aspect of sexual trauma untouched by other shows in a brilliant way.
I May Destroy You Coel
By  · Published on July 15th, 2020

Michaela Coel‘s masterpiece I May Destroy You is one of the most talked-about and well-reviewed TV series of the year, for good reason. Her complete control over the production, from the writing to the acting, has enabled her to deliver a visceral fictionalized version of her own trauma regarding a sexual assault.

One unique aspect of I May Destroy You is that it shows the effect that talking about your trauma has on you and those around you. Having this played out on screen means more than you may realize, especially if you haven’t experienced sexual assault yourself. The series incorporates this part of healing into the narrative in a way that is beyond rewarding to watch.

Coel stars as Arabella, a Twitter personality turned author. As she’s struggling to finish the latest manuscript for her latest book, she’s also dealing with the effects of being date raped while out one night with friends. She works on piecing together a picture of her rapist while keeping her assault from derailing her life. Her friends support her tremendously, even as they work through their own trauma.

After a sexual assault, admitting to yourself that it happened can be the hardest obstacle when trying to heal. Sometimes it takes seeing other people talk about their rape to make you feel brave enough to speak about your own experience for the first time. Once Arabella has made a police report, she works with social workers assigned to find her rapist. Her best friends, Kwame and Terry (Paapa Essiedu and Weruche Opia), sit in the room with her as she’s updated on her case. They witness her working through her experience.

Unbeknownst to Arabella, Kwame was also raped while meeting a Grindr hookup the night before. But he hasn’t shared what happened to him. It’s clear that he is thinking about his own assault, though, as he watches the social workers talk Arabella through her memories. Fortunately, these professionals are everything they need to be for survivors of sexual assault: understanding, patient, and supportive. They never judge Arabella for the situation she was in at the time of her rape, and they certainly don’t blame it on her. Historically, police have not been so accepting and supportive.

Fear of getting the wrong reaction when reporting a rape is what keeps many survivors from talking about their assault. But Kwame sees the experience Arabella has, and it gives him the confidence to make his own report later. He’s not yet ready to tell his friends about what happened to him, but he is able to say out loud that what happened to him was rape. If Arabella had never been able to speak about her assault, Kwame may have never been able to talk about his own rape.

Sadly, Kwame’s experience is not as welcoming as Arabella’s. The police officer handling the report is uncomfortable talking about rape with Kwame and isn’t as willing to listen to what he has to say. He questions Kwame’s experience and tries to impose criteria on Kwame’s unique case, something you should never do with rape or sexual assault.

Kwame’s report mimics what many survivors go through when they try to seek help from the police. It also addresses the problem society has with helping male rape survivors, especially gay men. Kwame’s scenes are heartbreaking to watch, but hopefully speaking about his rape for the first time will help him move on as the series continues.

In some cases, survivors don’t even know they were raped until they hear someone else’s experience. As Arabella’s literary agents push her writing along, they employ Zain as a writing partner to help encourage her. He and Arabella soon strike up a sexual relationship, but Zain removes his condom as they are having sex without Arabella’s knowledge or consent. She finds out only after they’ve finished.

As audience members with an understanding of consent are fuming watching this happen, Arabella doesn’t get extremely angry at Zain. She asks that he pay for her morning-after pill, and the two continue to hang out. She even stays over at his place afterward. It’s painful to watch Zain get away with rape, especially if you’re someone who has gone through a similar experience. It’s common for survivors to be unaware they were raped. Issues with consent make it even more common since a lot of people don’t know the clear definition of what is consensual and what is not.

While listening to a podcast the next day, Arabella realizes that what happened to her was wrong. On the podcast, women talk about an instance exactly like Arabella’s and discuss how removing a condom without the other person’s knowledge constitutes as rape. The term for it is stealthing.

The podcasters even say the same thing Zain said to Arabella while they’re talking about what men have said to them afterward. Rapists put the blame on the women for not feeling the removal of a condom during sex. Hearing these women talk about what they similarly went through creates an immediate epiphany for Arabella. It makes her question what she thought was just an accident.

In this part of the series, it’s clear Arabella is craving love and comfort from a partner as she’s trying to work through her previous trauma. She tells Zain how much cuddling with him makes her feel better, just like her therapist said it would. At first, she looks past what Zain did in order to hold onto the affection he gives her.

So many women have done the same thing for the sake of not being alone. We’ve stayed in relationships with abusers or continued hooking up with someone who assaulted us because we’re afraid of being alone. Being alone means thinking about what happened. It means not being able to make excuses for that person anymore. Sometimes it’s easier to recognize that someone else’s experience was wrong than it is to realize what happened to you was wrong. That’s why talking about rape and consent is so impactful.

Speaking about rape, sexual assault, and consent on public platforms can make people uncomfortable. It should make you uncomfortable to hear about rape. But that doesn’t mean it is not necessary. When there is so much misinformation and misconception when it comes to sex, it’s important to clarify what is the truth so that people know what is not okay.

Talking about your trauma can be therapeutic, but it can also be educational. Thanks to that podcast discussion about rape and consent, Arabella escaped a relationship with a man who put her in danger because he doesn’t know what consent means. Who knows how many other women a public discussion like that can help?

At the end of Episode 5 of I May Destroy You, Arabella and Terry attend a literary summit where Terry is supposed to read an excerpt from Arabella’s new book. With her newfound perspective on Zain, she learns that she’s not Zain’s first victim while talking to Francine, one of the publisher’s assistants. Francine also insinuates that Zain has done the same to multiple women. This is no longer just about Arabella in her eyes.

When Terry gets stagefright and refuses to read, Arabella goes on stage herself. She doesn’t read from her book, though. She tells the audience that Zain is a rapist who has taken advantage of several women including herself. He runs off stage, trying to escape the crowd’s erupting anger, but Terry doesn’t let him get off easy.

So much in this scene makes it powerful for Arabella: The support from the audience. The fact that Arabella took a moment that was meant to showcase herself and her talents to use it as a platform to out a rapist. The immediate cut to Arabella, Terry, and Francine drinking together afterward. All of this paints a picture that isn’t normally shown in stories about rape. We don’t know yet what will happen to Arabella after telling the world that Zain is a rapist in the second half of the series. For now, though, the aftermath is more positive than anyone is led to believe is possible when talking publicly about your sexual assault.

The reason Arabella got the courage to talk about Zain publicly is that she learned she was not his only victim. By letting the public know what Zain did, Arabella could prevent other women from becoming his next. Her speech is courageous in its own right. The impact her speech can have on other women makes it even more powerful.

This one aspect of the series’ representation of what sexual assault survivors go through has been absent from other shows about the same subject. Talking about sexual assault within narrative television opens another avenue for people to learn what is not okay. It can destigmatize talking about rape. For someone who has gone through sexual trauma, seeing an accurate picture of what it takes to move on from something like what Arabella goes through is groundbreaking.

Seeing characters survive sexual trauma in a show can do more healing than years of therapy. We make sense of our emotions, our uncertainties about life, and our personal experiences when we witness them represented in a fictional setting. Stories can articulate and visualize what goes on inside of us better than we can ourselves. Just as vocalizing your trauma can help heal yourself and others, showing that process on screen has the power to affect countless survivors, too.

I May Destroy You airs on HBO on Mondays and is available on HBO MAX.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_