Revising the Assault: On I May Destroy You and Writing About Sexual Trauma

Michaela Cola in I May Destroy You | HBO
Laura Radford/HBO

[content warning: this essay contains descriptions of sexual abuse]

Jersey City, 2020

There’s no way to pretty this. In the series finale of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, Arabella (played by Coel) imagines a series of confrontations with her rapist, who, at the top of the show, drugged her beverage, dragged her body into a dingy bathroom stall, and forced his penis into her mouth while she teetered on the edge of consciousness. Like the tonally erratic and gloriously messy episodes that come before it, the finale plunges the viewer into a series of fantasies which are at once, violent, empathetic, furious, and cathartic. The first Groundhog Day-configuration features Arabella enacting revenge upon her rapist with the help of her friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Theo (Harriet Webb). Together, they lure him back to the exact spot where the violation occurred.

A criminal always returns to the scene of the crime, but who’s the criminal, you or me? She asks. The trio quickly drug him with a needle to the leg, set him free, then stalk his stumbling body through the London streets. Quickly, he loses his sense of hearing, then his balance, finally careening onto the pavement with a dramatic thud as Arabella looks on.

I imagine it’s decidedly un-kosher to begin at the end when writing about a TV show. I imagine it’s even more un-kosher to start with the culminating event, a confrontation that I, as a viewer, had been anticipating over the course of the series’ 12 brief episodes. It seemed inevitable to me that Arabella and her rapist would meet again—for one, her memories are plagued with flashes of that cruddy bathroom stall, his shadowed figure looking over her from the toilet, his hips thrusting back and forth like the world’s most vicious pendulum. Towards the latter half of the series, Arabella obsessively returns to the bar where it happened, ordering wine while anxiously waiting, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. A criminal always returns to the scene of the crime.

As the show makes clear, surviving assault does not come with a set of handy instructions. Rather, the memories—those that exist—sew themselves to the fabric of the day, needling every dialogue, every casual touch, sometimes unnoticeably. And yet, at other times, the brain is an anvil, something you drag inside the skull to the coffee shop, or work, or from the couch to the bed. Some might call this a kind of anguish.

But in the first imagined scene, the rapist’s body lies frozen on the ground. Arabella and her friends approach to pluck her snipped panties from his pocket—perhaps the one true casualty of this sequenced revenge. But Arabella isn’t satisfied. I wanna see his penis, she says. He saw my thing. I want to see his. For some, this might seem like an inappropriate retaliation. A violation in its own right. An unnecessary escalation—he’s out cold, drugged out of his mind. He got what was coming for him. Isn’t that enough? I’ll admit, as a viewer, hearing this was, at first, discomforting. But as a survivor, I understood. Because countless numbers of rape kits grow mold in the dark before they are remembered, it is not enough. Because Brock Turner served only six months for digital penetration on account of his potential, it is not enough. Because if a person is raped and no one is around to see it, the question of if it happened at all becomes larger than the rape itself. It is not enough. Next to him on the ground, Arabella rains her fists into the pale flesh of her assailant until he is transformed into a pathetic, bleeding mass. She drags him home and stuffs him under her bed. You might call this overkill. But watching the scene play out, it became difficult for me to call this moment anything other than justice.  

Jersey City, 2020

It’s June. Like everyone else in my social sphere, I am stuck watering a plant I don’t actually care about because it’s something to do that isn’t exercise or pouring wine into an unwashed glass. It’s a Sunday, which means later, the garbage truck will take the Grubhubbed remains of my week from the hallway and move them to a spot in the ocean somewhere. For a moment, I will glimpse the outline of a person heaving my plastic containers into the truck’s trash-eating jaw from the window. A reminder that other people exist. As the truck screeches away from the block, I will wonder if suddenly finding comfort in trash day has made me the world’s most dramatic person.

It’s the year of overthinking, I think. Month after month I have tried to find new things to do with my hands. I turn on the TV, then turn it off. On, off, on. I rinse my hands beneath freezing water despite not having gone anywhere, then find a surface to wipe until I can see my face in it, perpetually unshaved and un-moisturized.

In the beginning, my want for escape from the day’s learned choreography would typically bring me to a movie I hadn’t seen, or a book I’d been lying about having read before lockdown. But as May arrived with the air of an unpleasant in-law, the pleasure of the screen and the page became yet another experience to pirouette around. My body remained in place, but my mind traveled about, ignoring all responsible safety procedures. It was as if my mind was waiting for something bigger to latch onto.

The revenge sequence in I May Destroy You’s finale dares us to both condemn and defend Arabella’s actions. Is it at all moral to take matters such as this into one’s own hands? If every other alternative has failed, what else is there to lose? Are we in a position to hope she just moves on? Is it even possible for her to do that?

Over the course of the series, we watch as Arabella wrestles with telling those close to her that the attack even occurred, not wanting to feel the weight of their eyes upon her, their potential for judgment or pity. We see her in moments of optimism, when the justice system appears to be on track to catch and punish the culprit, and then we see her in moments of despondence, once the system inevitably fails her. We see her lash out at close friends, miss deadlines, and latch on to anyone that can offer her momentary reprieve or distraction from the flashes in her mind, pulling her back to that stall, that figure. The violence she enacts upon his body then, at the end of it all—imagined or not, it is tangible, a visible retribution; one Arabella can feel in her bones as her knuckles break into his skin. Proof that he is real. Proof of what was done to her, without her consent. Who are we then, to tell her that his blood is not a worthy price? After all she’s been through, who are we to ask her to be bigger? 

Iowa City, 2015

What no one tells you about being drugged is that, at first, you don’t feel it, don’t even question what your body is doing. At this point, you’ve swallowed more drinks than in all your other nights combined. You figure that your body is just adjusting to all that new sweetness rushing through the bloodstream. You can’t name a single person in your immediate radius and no one bothers to ask for yours. One moment, you’re there, accidentally making eye-contact with a boy you think might be attractive—a boy who is smiling at you—and then you’re gone.

Then, suddenly, as though you’ve just emerged from a body of water, you gasp into the room. What no one tells you is that daylight can be painful. You’re not a vampire, but as you blink in the morning, the sun presses like teeth against your skin. The room is a mess of shapes—you feel around for your glasses, then give up. Your head throbs and your mouth tastes like a small animal has decomposed inside of it. In fact, there’s a general air of rot that permeates both inside and outside of you. You hear your name in a voice that isn’t yours. Cautious. Echoing. You turn towards the sound, then erupt.

It’s scary, what the mind wipes clean. What is pieced together in the afterward becomes a mosaic of questions, a collage of uncertainty sourced from images fed to you by a classmate who just happened upon you in the middle of an underwhelming hookup. She tells you about your body, how it was pulled into a shape she thought looked “funny,” like a scarecrow hanging slack from its post. Shooing her hapless date away from the door, she resolved to stay with you, in that room that wasn’t yours, until you came to. She tells you she had no clue how long you’d been there, but that you weren’t wearing any pants or underwear when she found you. She’d helped you back into the clothes—half-hazardly tossed feet away from the bed—after you were done puking.

She’s staring at you now. You can feel it. She’s asking you if you want to call the police, says she thought about calling herself but didn’t really know what to say or if you’d feel comfortable with her doing that. People get drunk and pass out all the time, she assures you. It’s hard to speak back, so you shake your head. I’ve never had someone I didn’t know spend the night before, she says, smiling. You don’t know what to say. Something in her voice tells you that she’s trying to offer comfort, or consolation. There’s concern in the blur of her face—a thing you can sense. But you are an alien now. You have crash-landed somewhere far away from your body—a kind of home—without a clear path back to it. Your wrists are sore. Why are they sore?

Jersey City, 2020

The second confronting iteration sees Arabella coked out of her mind and approaching her rapist at the bar. She knowingly downs a drink he gives her, then moves them both to the bathroom. It’s all an act of course. There, in the tight confines of the stall, she stares at him, waiting for her consciousness to be acknowledged. At first, he’s spiteful. Aren’t there more pressing issues in the world aside from what he put in her drink? Are there not homeless people freezing on the streets, hungry and neglected? Are there not wars which destroy bodies so completely, they become unidentifiable? Do they not fracture families into permanent grief? Taking these other, more pressing issues into consideration, is her drink, her “little drama” worth all this noise? She hasn’t said a word though. He grabs her face. You’re pathetic, he spits, teeth curling into a sick grin. But then, his eyes change. His lips turn down and he is crying, her head still fit in the palm of his hand. She’s watching him, wordlessly. The sound of sirens approach. Police knock on the stall door, but when they open, there’s no one there.        

At home in her apartment, Arabella’s rapist sits on her bed, confused as to why she would allow him to do so. Why aren’t you scared? He asks her. She stares, but says nothing. Then, the sound of sirens again. The room floods with red. They embrace, and he is led out by the arms, in the clutches of the law.

Arabella’s silence is what I think of most when I replay the sequence. She is not weak, or stunned, merely watchful, almost curious. Her rapist is emotionally distraught, voice shaky, disturbed by her lack of reaction. In the quiet of her gaze, he crumbles.

I consider the silence and wonder what it would mean to stare at a person who barely knows your name, but has been inside of you for months. On the surface of her bed, the rapist is not monstrous, not intimidating at all. He is a person who is scared, riddled with anxiety, questioning everything.

I think, if I want anything for those who have marked me in this way, I want—most of all—to have them feel me there, completely still, taking in every word I have not said. I want an acknowledgment that we were both there, that we know what happened. I want the beans spilled. I want my consciousness to be my weapon. I don’t want to have to say a goddamn thing.

In many ways, recovery is quiet. It looks a lot like sitting on a bed. Like waiting for someone to open their mouth and tell you what you already know to be true, because it’s there, inside of you, all around you, taped up on the walls, splayed out on the carpet. I do not read Arabella’s hug as forgiveness. Rather, I see it as an appropriate send-off to the memory that has plagued her up until this very moment. Breifly, she holds the rape in her arms, then watches as it is finally dragged away.

There’s another rape that occurs in the show, one that I think about in conjunction with this moment of silent reckoning. Arabella, who is, perhaps accidentally, a writer, is working to meet a book deadline for her publisher, but finds herself distracted at every turn. To help, the publisher hires an assistant-of-sorts to help Arabella along with her draft, a man named Zain who happens to be a “more-qualified” Cambridge graduate writer, with a published book and a handsome face. Arabella and Zain engage in consensual intercourse, right up until Zain yanks the condom off without telling her, then gaslights her into thinking she should have felt it when he did. Regardless, he buys her the pill, and all is seemingly fine. Then, she learns, via the person assigned to her pending rape case, that under U.K. law, taking the condom off during sex without telling the other person—otherwise known as “stealthing”—is considered a form of rape. (In the U.S, legally, it is not.)

Later, at a book event hosted by their mutual publisher, Arabella uses her reading time to call out Zain for raping her, in front of the audience. The moment goes viral and there’s a sense of relief in how quick everything seems to resolve itself. His career is ruined and she is positioned as a social justice hero on the internet. What makes this rape different for her is that everything reads linearly—she was consciously there when it occurred, he verbally admitted to having taken the condom off, and there were clear consequences as a result of his actions. Done and done.

Except not. Seeking inspiration for her writing, which has stalled, Arabella seeks advice from an author of a book she’s read recently and loves. She assumes the author is female, given her name—“Della”—and asks to meet, hoping to receive a spark of inspiration that will lead her to finish her own project. But who should the mystery author be but Zain, given a pseudonym by the same publishing house that Arabella is expected to honor her contract with. She hesitates—what is the correct course of action to take when your rapist shows up and reveals himself to be the hand behind the work that moves you? Perhaps unexpectedly, she tells him to sit down, but not before looking him in the eye and letting him know: I’m not scared of you.

They go back to her place—to the “scene of the crime” together, mirroring the later scene with Arabella and her other rapist sitting together on her bed. Together, she and Zain plot out her book on notecards. In essence, she uses him to complete what he, and her other rapist, have stalled. I thought you were writing about consent, he tells her. I don’t understand. Staring at the notecards taped up on her wall, she responds I do. From my couch, I smile. I do. I think, even though I can’t make out the words on the notecards, I do too. The writing process gives Arabella the space she needs to put aside her traumas—her expected subjects—in favor of the narratives she wishes to create, removed from issues of consent, or the rape itself. The notecards she tapes to her wall signal an agency that rape seeks to oliterate. In her own imagined worlds, she is able to make up the rules, the play by plays, exact her control.  

Episode after episode, we watched as Arabella struggled to put words to the page. The rape became an overarching distraction, a tight coil around the brain and its functions. The expectation—from her publisher, and perhaps even herself—was that she’d write about the rape. But how do you begin to tackle the subject which has overthrown any semblance of normalcy in your life? How do you begin to write into that monster which has grown tall enough to lock you in its shadow indefinitely?

Iowa City/ Jersey City, 2018

It almost feels too on the nose to mention here: two months before trading the cornfield flatlands of Iowa City for the industrial terrain of Jersey City, where the sound of grinding tires is a constant, and where I consider any sight of high green grass to be a coveted rarity, I was raped by a stranger in a public park on a Friday at night.

Perhaps I’m moving too fast here, even now. What is important to know is that on Fridays, Iowa City draws its people downtown to the bars like tiny bugs absorbing the cocaine-rush of a lamplight. As such, miles away from any commotion, there was no one to witness what happened to me but me, as it was happening. Here are the facts: I was stone sober. I was wearing lipstick. I had come out as a trans woman one year prior. And even with his large, dirty hand sealed over my mouth, I was able to absorb everything, every inch of my surroundings. When it was over, I laid there on the woodchip bed, scared to move. I waited for what seemed like hours—was I dead? Is this what it felt like to die? Finally, I stood, pulling my pants and underwear back towards my hips. I stumbled home. At the foot of my bed, I thought it would make sense to cry but nothing came.

The next morning, I went to work at the local independent movie theater. I filled the soda machine with ice. My whole body screamed, but I printed out tickets to whatever was showing to the four customers who came in, gray-haired and polite. I scooped popcorn like it was any other work day. I made jokes with my co-workers behind the counter. I swept the floors and vacuumed the rugs.

I couldn’t explain it then, the almost-relief churning in my gut as I locked up the theater for the night. But I can now. When I awoke in that room, at that party, years before, I had no recollection of what occurred, save for blips that came to me in the days after my blackout: the outline of a head. A bloody nose. The suspicious bruise on my waist, my inner thigh. The headache that would not cease for days. But here, I could locate every inch of me that had been touched, pulled, entered. I still had the pair of underwear, which I separated from the other dirty laundry. If asked, I could’ve pointed anyone to the spot where I was taken. I could tell you exactly what happened.

Then I went to grad school, for poetry. I mean, I settled on spending the next two years of my life attempting to obscure the world around me, reduce it to tiny lines that broke unevenly across the page. The first poem I brought to workshop was about the 1972 film Deliverance, which is infamous for its scene of graphic male-on-male rape. You wouldn’t know that from reading the poem though. There was nothing there to suggest a rape had occurred on-screen.

At the time, I thought I was only writing a poem about a movie that I’d liked. Now, I see the connection more clearly, removed from the fog of what had transpired only two months before arriving in a new city. By removing the pivotal moment of rape from the poem, I turned my attention to other details that didn’t feel overwhelming, to myself or the reader. In place of rape, there was a collage of disparate images: a decomposing hand breaking the surface of a lake. An ominous tree-line. A gun. An arrow. I didn’t know what I was doing, formally or imagistically. All I knew is that I didn’t want rape to touch those things.

In my second year, my thinking shifted. Over the summer, I’d made a quick trip back to Iowa City under the guise of wanting to see my college friends who still lived there. In actuality, what I wanted was to return to the scene of the crime. I’ll admit. I didn’t report the rape—I didn’t want anyone to ask me questions, see my lipstick smeared across my face, or wonder why I was dressed in a kind of butchered drag. I didn’t have the money for a hospital stay or a kit, which are expensive. I’m telling you this, reader, because, even now, I feel an obligation to explain myself. Perhaps that is the worst part, how I can’t even look at the blankness of a page and say, with confidence: You don’t scare me.

The series begins in Italy, where Arabella has fallen in love with an Italian drug dealer, who is neither that committed or frankly, that nice to her. Still, she is drawn to him, can’t stop turning the image of him around in her head, even at home. Once the rape occurs, she is instructed to tell him to provide a sample of his semen for testing by the people in charge of her case. For days, she puts it off, as the thought of telling this man—who she suspects she might be in love with—that her drink was drugged and she was raped at a bar is quite a terrifying prospect. She fears his anger, his judgment, yet knows these are inevitable. Sure enough, like clockwork, he spits at her through her phone, blames her for what happened. She flies to Italy to see him, hoping to patch things up. 

The details in between aren’t relevant. What matters is that his response to her is a gun in his hand, another threat, another kind of blame. 

The scene takes me back to when I could finally muster the courage to name what had happened to me. How I could only stomach relaying the events to other women. How the thought of sitting across from any of my male compatriots to tell them I’d been raped seemed, at best, a kind of darkly humorous concept, like explaining bukkake to your church-going Mee Maw. This was a shortsighted way of thinking of course, as men are not immune to rape. Even still, I couldn’t shake off the terror of seeing my own shame reflected back to me in their eyes, their questions about the state of my sobriety, their clear desire to eject from the conversation. And so, in a sense, I granted them what had not been granted to me, this tiny, invisible thing called mercy. 

End scene.

Like Arabella, I coped in a variety of ways. A few were healthy. Most were decidedly not. 

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect is that I had no Italian lover to visit. Instead, upon my return to Jersey from Iowa City for the fall semester, I began to write poem after poem about rape, putting my assaults on the workshop table every week to be disassembled and prodded by my peers, hoping, against all odds, to elicit in them the kind of rage that eluded me. My body favored numbness. I searched their faces at the table for any semblance of anger at the injustice of such an act, felt momentarily calmed by their language, their words of powerful and finished. Reader, I am embarrassed as I write this now. I thought a poem about rape could save me from the rape itself. But instead, the poem made me obsessive. I could no longer escape the subject, could no longer train my mouth to contain it as I had done before. Suddenly, I was making weird, uncomfortable jokes. I would point at the TV when a character was raped in a movie or a show and say, aloud to anyone in earshot, Same. Me. Mood. I would wait, basking in the uncomfortable silence that followed. Then I would laugh. All good. Nothing to see here.

Perhaps the most odious aspect of survival is the wanting part. What I wanted, I think, was for someone to see what had happened to me from the outside. A co-sign of sorts. For someone to shake me by the shoulders and tell me that yes, it happened, but that I was alive. That I was doing ok, considering. But what is ok? What does it look like? A poem? A fear I can touch with both hands if I wanted? 

Jersey City, 2020

In the third and final iteration of Arabella’s confrontation with her rapist, there is no violence or charged stillness. No blood to wipe off. No panties to steal back. She sees him standing at the bar, and they make polite conversation. They consensually grope in the bathroom stall. She brings him back home and they consensually fuck, him on the bottom, her on top. In the morning, she awakens to the sight of him next to her in bed. They smile—there’s a tenderness between them. He says: I’m not gonna go unless you tell me to. She looks at him. Then she says, Go.

I gasped as I watched him stand naked from her bed and exit the room. I watched as the bloodied version of him crawled out from underneath her bed and followed his naked self out. There were no sirens. No flashing red lights smeared upon the wall. In their place, the notecards detailing Arabella’s story, stretched across the room like a map.

On my first watch, I deemed this resolution too tidy for my liking. Like, ok? As the rapist exits the narrative, she is able to draw her own? That’s it? But the more I sat with it, the more I considered that there was nowhere else for this to go. The rapist hadn’t actually gone anywhere, of course. Like memory, rape lives on in the interior. It swallows the day in its terrible mouth and chews. It sinks into the skin, makes you flinch at the slightest touch. It colors your relation to men, to romance—the paradox of wanting to be held and wanting to never be held again. Despite this, Arabella’s instruction—a simple go—rings out like a salve, weakening the rape’s hold, ever so slightly. The outline she draws for herself is the agency—a way to make the narrative survivable. The only true ending. In the final scene of I May Destroy You, Arabella holds a hardback copy of her story in her hands. Surrounded in a bookstore by fans waiting anxiously to hear her read, Arabella takes a deep breath in.

The screen goes dark

and I breathe out.