What Doesn’t Destroy You

The judge explained the selection procedure to us before revealing the charges. Each potential juror would answer nine questions before the other two hundred or so others waiting in the courtroom; if we wished to answer something privately, we could approach the bench. It was only then that the judge told us the case on trial was sexual assault in the first degree. Perhaps hearing that felt like being punched to everyone in the room, but some of us were punched harder than others.

This procedure — where each possible juror otherwise being publicly interviewed might approach the bench in the interest of discretion — coupled badly with a sexual assault case. The common statistic, that somewhere around 1/5th of all women experience attempted or completed rape, hovers around most of our minds variously, somewhere on the spectrum between abstraction and painful resonance. But rarely is it so perversely, perfectly embodied as it was in court those two days each of us in the room waited to be questioned.

The last of nine questions asks whether you’ve ever been the victim of a crime, and if so, which crime? A pattern began: woman after woman requested to approach the bench when asked the ninth question. Often she’d leave the courtroom sobbing while a mass of strangers silently watched her. The pattern evolved: approaching the bench takes more time than simply answering from your seat in the juror box, and somewhere around late afternoon of the first day, people got tired. A woman would ask to approach the bench, and the whole room audibly groaned.

For two days I wondered what I’d say when it became my turn. The prospect of answering yes, avoiding the bench and its hassle, started appearing to me like the more triumphant path. It might be healing, cathartic, winning, I thought. It would mean something, somehow, to openly own being raped in front of all those people. When the moment finally happened, it was at the end of the second day; I ended up being the very last person called. My heart was beating rapidly and my voice shaky when I started answering the questions, when I said that yes, I’d been the victim of a crime. I waited for the follow up question from the judge. But he didn’t ask, just said thank you and began speaking to us all about what came next. He was tired, too, and just wanted to finish the proceedings. After everything, nothing really happened.

* *

After everything, nothing. If, this summer, you’ve seen Michaela Coel’s visionary, unsettling, ingenious I May Destroy You, then you know how the series finale both punctures and expands the particular kind of silence inflected with unmet hope that lingers after trauma. I May Destroy You’s twelve-part series follows Arabella, a London writer struggling to make good on her book commission, after a stranger brutally rapes her at the first episode’s end. But I May Destroy You seems like a very different show than the one it ends up being. The pilot finds Bella in Italy, about to fly home to London after a weekend with her noncommitted, ambivalent sort-of boyfriend Biagio. Bella has to finish a draft of her manuscript that night, but Terry and a few other of her friends are going out. After spending hours in her agents’ office trying to churn it out, googling “writers’ block” and glaring at her screen, Bella decides to join them. 

In these early moments, I May Destroy You has the feel of a millennial-sex-and-dating-in-the-city show, generically a bit like Girls minus the latter’s glaring whiteness. Crucial to what Coel does with genre, and the accompanying truism that genre fosters viewer expectation, is the first episode’s threesome subplot. Bella’s friend Simon and his long-term girlfriend Kat, trying to spice things up, interview a girl from Tinder to be their first ever threesome partner, or so it seems. By the episode’s end we learn that Simon’s been sleeping with the Tinder girl, Alissa, for months, and the “interview” is really part of their own play; Kat, not Alissa, is the actual object of exploitation and deception. The real story, embedded in the episode’s narrative motions, is how exploitation, just like Alissa innocuously pretending to be a nervous Tinder date, hides in plain sight, disrupting linear narrative so that what seems like a story’s end is only its beginning.

The other, inseparable story latent in the episode’s form, then, is how little control we have over our own stories, how our expectations are so often shattered in and through various degrees of cruelty. Watching this show felt like being punched again to me, many times over, because Coel constructs the viewer experience so that we are joined with Bella in her shock and in the loss of control that characterize the moments in which Bella experiences her own story transforming into something she didn’t see coming. Somewhere during the pilot’s depiction of Bella’s night out, the events start to blur for us just as they do for Bella. She’s dancing with her friends and then the room begins to turn upside down. We see flashes of her taking shots, of her hitting her head somewhere, of a bathroom stall and a stranger’s eyes. The episode jumps to her at home in bed the following morning. How did she get there? What happened last night?

These are questions we’re as much in the dark about as Bella is as she attempts to retrace her steps from the night before. She calls Terry, who was with the group but left early; she revisits Ego Death, the bar she was in when things started to get blurry. She returns to the address listed on her Uber receipt, which turns out to be Alissa’s home. That subplot reappears around when Bella begins to grasp just how little power she had over the previous night’s events, so that the two storylines amplify and reverberate through each other. Bella’s emerging realizations are some of many moments in this series that are striking to the viewer. By striking I mean the sense of being hit, of being hurt, and with emphasis on its participle form as an action or experience that can continue indefinitely without end in sight.

They’re also, again, moments that attach us to Bella, disoriented as we are too, watching a story shift, complete, giving birth to a new story whose beginning has nothing to do with the old story’s end. When the memory of rape returns to Bella, you see what she sees: a strange man viciously fucking her, staring down at her while she looks up at him through near-unconscious eyes. This visual is punctuated by Bella in the present registering the memory through an almost slapstick exclamation, a verbalization that seems to belong to the last remnants of the show you thought you were watching. In that moment, rape’s sheer brutality alters the show’s original terms: Bella’s new reality brushes against and overwhelms her old one, with the contrast visible in the jarring tonal shift between the rape’s memory and Bella’s instinctive reaction to it.

**

The narrative concretization of brutality persists throughout the rest of the series, so that in both content and form, I May Destroy You embodies harsh realities of being newly traumatized. Undergoing one trauma does not insulate you from undergoing another. Yoga, meditation, and a general immersion in self-care might not exterminate horrific flashbacks. And most of all, the show confirms a telos-oriented vision of healing is ultimately elusive, contingent on an idyllic and impossible world that would afford closure and justice, abstract and ill-defined as either of those terms can be.

Bella, as well as Kwame (another of her friends) and Terry to different degrees, are repeatedly met with disappointment, rejection, cruelty, indifference, and violence. Bella pursues a criminal investigation, but after an elongated subplot that sometimes disappears and then briefly reappears across episodes, it goes nowhere. The kind, sympathetic officers don’t find a match in their system to the semen sample collected from Bella’s clothing, and that’s that. Absent of any concentrated dramatic suspense that would have us nervously following the investigation throughout, the realization that nothing more can be done swings at us out of nowhere as a violent reminder that even after months, and after doing all the right things, nothing is guaranteed.

Bella endures more than the investigation’s failure. Her publisher and agent drop her. She sleeps with Zain, who tells her during sex to turn over so that he can remove his condom without her seeing. Biagio and Bella break up, and when she flies to Italy with the hope of reconciliation, he forces her out of his apartment at gunpoint, all love lost. Moments of redemption and catharsis do happen, like when Bella publicly outs Zain for his history of assault at a publishing industry event. Yet especially in the show’s earlier half, such moments are double-edged swords that simultaneously invoke both healing’s possibility and its precarity. One of the show’s most devastating scenes concerns Kwame, whose Grindr habit has been a point of playful humor up until an encounter goes terribly wrong – a man rapes him, pinning Kwame’s hands down, while he registers what’s happening with horrified shock. When, soon after in the series, he’s met with other forms of romantic and social rejection, it feels too much to bear.

We’re primed to expect something differently, narratively. We expect the rape of only one character, not several; or their gradual healing, unpunctuated by further devastation; or the satisfaction of revenge, like Zain’s downfall, briefly held up to us as a moment of triumph (though its placement midway through the series implies it won’t represent the end of Bella’s journey). This is, in part, because a conception of trauma as such works best with most narrative formal conventions, and is thus what those conventions show us. (I’m not going to talk about Sally Rooney, Normal People, or Marianne’s sexual masochism working as a more or less one-to-one finite expression of the abuse she’s endured, but I’m not not going to either.) But violence in this show tends to multiply rather than taper off toward resolution. It’s hard to know what to do with form like this, when it’s like the narrative itself is traumatized, oscillating wildly in time, tone, and feeling. Meanwhile, individual trauma, we tend to think, might be vast but at least it’s discrete.

**

This is what I thought, too, for myself. After an aborted attempt at legal action, I decided to pursue recovery along different lines: I had a vague, hazy, inherently undefined idea when I applied to serve as a rape crisis advocate that this work would represent, and thus bring about, the final stage of healing. I did primarily want to serve other victims, providing them the kind of care that had once been provided to me. But this desire wasn’t incompatible with the hope that something final might come about. I was obsessed with the promise of coming full circle, in this case literally back to the emergency room, and what that could mean for me.

You can guess that this didn’t end up happening. I had no illusions that advocacy work was easy, comfortable, or anything less than wrenching. But what I didn’t understand was that you are all wrenched together, time and time again, with no reprieve. Every single night, people are raped and beaten, and another call comes the next night. As an advocate, it seems you’re there to offer yourself, but instead you brush up against the limits of how much you can actually give. There’s no catharsis, not for an advocate, certainly not for any one of the long line of victims she meets only to never meet again. I hate to admit that I didn’t last long. I anticipated the hospital shifts with dread, and in that anticipation, experienced waves of depression I’d thought were far over. Like watching the violent events whose growth sometimes feels exponential in I May Destroy You, to witness trauma from a helplessly limited vantage point is to understand that brutality is arbitrary and meaningless, without an internal coherence that some narratives of rape or assault would have us believe exists.

The series finale stages what I felt to be a related affective experience: a paradoxical type of nonclosing closure. For several episodes before the finale, Bella begins returning to Ego Death, staking out the bar to jog her memory of that night and possibly find the man who raped her after the police were unable to do so. In the first part of the last episode, Bella finally finds him, or so it appears. The episode travels through what becomes increasingly obviously another genre, a revenge fantasy; it starts off semi-naturalistically, with Bella spotting him and calling Terry and another friend, Theo, to help her in an entrapment and capture scheme. The fantasy soon reveals itself as such (even the three women’s clothing is exaggeratedly noir-esque, encoding into the fantasy plot its own illusion). Even as Bella mentally plays it out to exhaustion, murdering her attacker, it could never really be more than fiction.

Next, Bella steps into another alternate possibility, in which instead of vengeance, she practices what Coel has elsewhere called radical empathy with David. The two end up in Bella’s bedroom, where she listens to David recount being incarcerated for a host of different forms of rape. The conclusion plays out competing fantasies, from murderous revenge to reconciliation to a sex scene that dissolves gender roles, a loose intimation of sex and power dynamics antithetical to the ones we, more realistically and with more trepidation, are always carefully negotiating. But finally, David’s various selves depart together. They ultimately belong in the realm of what didn’t happen, as much as we might wish otherwise. Each scenario, each healing imaginary, is attached to the others; to let go of one, Bella must let go of them all.

To step away from any one possibility, then, is all the more liberating and sorrowful at once. That coexistence is what characterizes the finale’s last few moments for me: a peculiar blend of exhilaration and sadness. There’s the moment where Bella sits in the garden with her roommate, having just tried on each and all of the fantasies, and they both hear a bird nearby. “That’s such a loud bird,” says Simon, the roommate, and Bella agrees. The moment isn’t metaphor. She really is just noticing the bird, and how loud it is.

A second later Simon asks her if she’s heading back to the bar as is usual, as has become her habit, and Bella says no, she won’t be going back. She seems to realize this as fact only as, or even after, she’s said it: when Bella asks Simon what his plans are and he, crouching among the plants, hearing the bird, reminds her endearingly that he doesn’t go out much, her affectionate response to him coincides with a very different realization than the one that concludes the pilot. Once more, we are seeing things at the same time Bella sees them. It’s a kind of being together without metaphor – and perhaps without much meaning – that, being all there really is we have, briefly somehow feels like enough.

Anna Krauthamer is a PhD student in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where she works on contemporary literature and disability studies.