On Sunday evening, I sat down to watch the new Netflix documentary, American Nightmare. The three-part series examines a case dubbed “the real-life Gone Girl”, in which a woman’s abduction and subsequent rape allegation was dismissed as a hoax by local police. I stayed firmly on my sofa as each episode rolled into the next, reaching the part where the victim, Denise Huskins, in an emotional interview with the filmmakers, says, “Here I am, literally taken in the middle of the night, my body stolen and violated... I don’t know what needs to happen to me, what needs to happen to any woman, for them to be believed.”
Her words set me back to an incident in my own life, one I’ve tried hard to leave in the past.
The police arrived within the hour. A man and a woman, sitting across from me in my living room, a mixing bowl of half-eaten spinach and ricotta ravioli between us. The female officer was the first one to use the word “rape”. She said it quickly and assertively, like it was a coffee order.
The incident in question happened after a party six months previously; I was drunk, high, and to my knowledge went home alone. But that evening, midway through my pasta, I’d received a phone call from a man I met at that party who insisted he’d slept with me that night.
There were a few reasons why this was so alarming. The first was that this man knew where I lived. The second was that, for various reasons, I’d already blocked him – he’d called me on a different number. The third was that I had no memory of him being in my home, let alone anywhere near my body, and when I expressed this, he got cagey and hung up. That’s when I rang the police.
“If you can’t remember having sex with someone, it’s rape,” the female officer said. I nodded silently as she explained the process. I would be given a crime reference number and a dedicated officer who specialises in sexual violence cases. I would need to come into the station for a video interview. So would my alleged rapist. They’d gather any evidence they could (although this would be slim given the assault happened so long ago) and then an investigation would begin, possibly resulting in a trial.
I was impressed at the efficiency, and how seriously my claim was being taken. Having been sexually assaulted before and not reported it, it felt like the right step to take this time around. A step that would protect me, and possibly other women too. A step that might make a difference. Having said goodbye to the police officers that evening, I felt confident about the process. At least I did, until I spoke to my dedicated officer one week later.
An older woman with ample experience in this area, she explained I had very little chance of a conviction and that, in all likelihood, going through the reporting process would mean I’d have to relive the experience over and over again, while answering probing questions about my body and something that may, or may not, have even happened to it. After all, I was wasted that night, wasn’t I?
It would be difficult and traumatising, particularly if I couldn’t corroborate my account. Then there was the fact, if and when the investigation was dropped, this man would still be out there, knowing my name, my address, and also that I’d accused him of rape. I changed my phone number and dropped the case.
The details in American Nightmare beggar belief. In 2015, an intruder broke into the Vallejo, California home of Denise Huskins and her boyfriend Aaron Quinn, drugging them both before abducting Huskins, holding her for ransom and sexually assaulting her twice. Quinn was interrogated as if he had murdered his girlfriend and hidden her body. When Huskins was released out of the blue 48 hours later, the police and local media accused her of staging the abduction. They ignored crucial evidence to paint her as a scheming monster who had faked her own kidnap to screw over her boyfriend because, well, it was the more compelling story. One that had already been told in a Hollywood film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.
The truth was that Huskins was abducted by a man named Matthew Muller. A disbarred, Harvard-trained lawyer and ex-marine, he is currently serving a 40-year sentence after pleading guilty to robbery, burglary, and two counts of rape. But that sentence might never have been issued had it not been for a female police officer, Misty Carausu, who arrested Muller for a similar break-in that happened 10 weeks after he abducted Huskins in the nearby town of Dublin, California.
If and when the investigation was dropped, this man would still be out there, knowing my name, my address, and also that I’d accused him of rape
She subsequently linked him to two incidents of attempted rape in 2009 and a series of peeping Tom allegations. While Muller was never charged for these cases, the stories had similarities that eventually led Carausu back to Huskins, whose blonde hair she’d found on a pair of blacked-out swimming goggles in Muller’s home.
Later, documents detailing the investigation showed that law enforcement primarily saw Huskins and Quinn as criminals rather than victims. While in police custody, Quinn said the kidnappers were going to contact him on his phone. However, the police simply put the phone on airplane mode and didn’t turn it on until the next evening, when they noticed two missed calls, which, had they answered, would have led them to the location where Huskins was being held captive. “If they had actually monitored his phone, they could have saved me from the second rape,” says Huskins.
All this is incredibly upsetting to watch, particularly because, as Huskins recalls in the series, she had been sexually assaulted twice before. The first time, she didn’t report it. The second, she did, except the police officer talked her out of moving forward. And, as we now know, on the third occasion, she wasn’t believed. A video clip of Huskins being interrogated by law enforcement shows her detailing the rapes only to be asked, “Did you make any noise?”
It’s questions like this that led Huskins to tell the filmmakers, despairingly, that she doesn’t know what it will take, and what horrifying evidence is required, for women to be believed.
Frankly, neither do I. Five in six women who are raped don’t report it. But it seems that even those who do are seldom taken seriously, which is perhaps why nearly 70 per cent of rape victims drop out of investigations just like me. Meanwhile, out of the cases that are seen through, only a small number lead to conviction, with just 1.3 per cent of rapes resulting in a charge in England and Wales, according to the latest data.
To see this play out in real-time, take a look at the news. Just last November, the Derbyshire police force said it failed a 23-year-old woman, Gracie Spinks, who was stabbed to death by a former colleague, Michael Sellers, who had been stalking her. Spinks had previously reported Sellers to the police, expressing concerns he was “obsessed” with her. There was no investigation and a few months later, he killed her.
Elsewhere, there was the case at the centre of another Netflix series, Unbelievable, a dramatic retelling about the Washington and Colorado serial rape cases that came to light in 2015, whereby an 18-year-old woman accused a man of raping her at knifepoint, only to retract her claim following police interrogation. It wasn’t until years later, when two female detectives noticed a pattern in subsequent rape cases, that the pieces were put together, and a rapist was ultimately caught and charged with multiple crimes. More victims whose bodies and minds could have been spared.
If it’s not these women, it’s women you know. Maybe it’s you. And the violence we’re all threatened with, and blamed for or disbelieved over on a regular basis, spans the gamut. Just last week, I met someone who was having to move house because she and her flatmates were being harassed by a stalker who was sending threatening letters through their postbox. The police were refusing to do anything “until he acted”.
“It’s like they’re waiting for him to kill one of us before they do anything,” she said.
Watching American Nightmare, I felt defeated. Angry. Horrified. Devastated. Why is it that despite having been described as endemic, violence against women is still not taken seriously? It’s mocked by lawmakers. Promoted by YouTubers. And used for humour by high-profile columnists.
Misogyny aside, perhaps part of the problem is that people don’t really understand what sexual violence does to someone unless they are a survivor themselves. To them, rape is simply a smattering of stats and stereotypical snapshots of strangers dragging women into alleys – most perpetrators are actually known to the victim – but the reality is quite different.
Being raped changes the way you move through the world. It’s as if you’ve been covered in glass, and all it takes is one tiny tap for it to shatter, scarring every part of you. The way you see, hear and feel everything is drastically different. Even the air seems thicker and harder to grasp; every breath is accompanied by an intensity and discomfort that wasn’t there before. Sometimes you reach for it quicker than you should and find yourself stopping entirely. Your senses are constantly on high alert, too, your body a fragile, flimsy thing that bruises far too easily. At times, it doesn’t even feel like it belongs to you any more. Maybe it doesn’t.
Looking back, I’m pleased I didn’t go through with my report. For all I know, the experience would have only served to re-traumatise me, digging up old memories from my previous assault, and creating new ones by dint of not being believed. But that shouldn’t be the reality survivors face. It can’t be.
Huskins and Quinn are happily married with two children now, but it’s clear to any viewer that what happened will stay with Denise for the rest of her life. If you take one thing away from American Nightmare, let it be that. And then, to reiterate the gravity of this issue, consider the remarks allegedly made by Vallejo police chief, Andrew Bidou, who, when briefing colleagues before a press conference in which they planned to discredit Huskins, told them to “burn that b****”.