Trigger & content warning // sexual violence, sex, some mention of blood.
When you think of closure, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Maybe it’s feeling a natural end to a chapter – metaphorically and literally. Or is it thought of in more abstract terms? Does closure take the form of justice, liberation, violence, or a messy mixture of all of the above? It can look different to everyone, especially if you’ve been subjected to some kind of trauma.
The reality is that for survivors of sexual violence, closure is often something we’re told we need and we’re also told what it should look like. Often, we are told this through the media where characters go through the justice system and achieve legal justice, or they go through different healing processes revolving around family. On the other hand, we are fed this notion of unattainable closure where the media focus on the failure of our justice system in providing legal closure for victims and perpetrators. Whilst this is sadly often the case, the reality is that closure is complicated and can be more of a process that doesn’t live up to the resolute narratives generated in the media.
This is a theme that actress and producer, Michaela Coel, fervently pursues in the BBC drama series ‘I May Destroy You’ (IMDY). As we acknowledge a year since the show started and Cole’s win at the Baftas for Best Leading Actress in 2021, the team at GINA HQ wanted to explore how this show encapsulated the complexities and nuances of ‘gaining closure’ as a survivor of sexual violence. I think it’s fair to say that IMDY has a unique take on this theme as it doesn’t shy away from the difficult and ugly ramifications that our different understandings of closure for survivors can have, most notably Cole examines how revenge, violence and empathy are often unavoidable facts of healing from sexual trauma.
The final episode of this series explores different forms of closure, from vigilante style violence that the media often conditions us into believing is more satisfying. However, the viewer is left with a realization of the grey areas that don’t fit into neat narratives.
Using the form of fantasy, Cole uses this device to first depict lead character Arabella searching justice through revenge. After drugging her rapist, David, she beats him up and keeps him under her bed, where we see his blood spilling out into her room and she writes what she sees. Cole depicts the superficially satisfying expression of anger and pain through violence towards those who have wronged us but quickly acknowledges the unattainability of living in such a clean-cut binary. Arguably, by leaving David’s body under her bed, he still exists then as a perpetual monster under the bed that will keep her up in the night. Cole highlights here how when we seek these revenge-filled fantasies of justice and take ownership of neat narratives in real life, they disappear and we discover a more nuanced reality of closure.
The episode swiftly moves onto the second fantasy – coming face to face with her attacker, David. Arabella refers to David in this section as her ‘raper’, using the present tense of ‘rapist’, forcing us to see the attack as an action done by David rather than an identity. This is where Cole starts to explore the uncomfortable realities of closure and reveal the unavoidable role empathy can play in gaining closure. Now faced with this uncomfortable theme, viewers go on to learn about David’s history as a victim to multiple types of rape and we are shown how trauma endured can have the potential to manifest as trauma enacted in violence against others.
Highlighting perpetrators as previous victims can be a difficult narrative to digest, especially for survivors, however, it is important to acknowledge that having these discussions does not absolve perpetrators from responsibility for their actions. I think it is interesting to explore to what extent these kinds of revelations help or hinder the healing process and finding closure after an attack. Everybody is different, but Cole is clear with her message to people watching IMDY, closure isn’t something we can grab hold of but is instead a journey of possibilities that will look different for everyone.
The third fantasy of the episode pushing boundaries even further, as Arabella has consensual sex with her attacker, David, and tells him to leave afterwards. As he does, the bloodied version of David under the bed also gets up and leave. At first, I interpreted this as a depiction of survivors reclaiming their power and taking back control where they once had none. However, I think it is also important to consider this as a representation of forgiveness. Not for her perpetrator’s benefit, but for her own. Cole is persistently dedicated to the notion of empathy throughout all the fantasies presented in this episode, showing viewers that closure doesn’t always look like the neat binaries presented in the media and that having empathy for ourselves stretches beyond self-care and therapy and can be an uncomfortable and often radical act to healing and feeling peace after sexual trauma.
Cole never reveals the true reality for Arabella, which evokes a few questions. Can closure be reality? Can all three fantasies co-exist? Is closure an attainable narrative for survivors of sexual assault?
The episode ends with Arabella at a reading of her new book. As she opens her mouth to tell her story, it cuts to a scene of Arabella running along the beach. I believe Cole is making a statement that telling your story, taking ownership of your own narrative and sharing it with others is how we can feel peace. Through Arabella’s creation of her book, we see how Cole illuminates the antithesis and antidote to trauma’s destruction of the self. We need to grow and evolve this need for empathy for ourselves and others. In a world that is trying to feed us tidy explanations and stories of how to heal after trauma, the notion of empathy that Cole presents becomes radical.
Trauma is messy. It doesn’t have a clear start and a clear end. It’s woven into our lives and into the lives of those around us. In IMDY, Cole highlights the importance of using empathy to create open spaces for discussion. The show’s ending portrays how using your voice to tell your story can be essential in pursuing peace and closure, and arguably, if David had spoken up about his sexual trauma, he may not have turned it into a weapon to cause harm to others. Ultimately, when Arabella let’s go of fear in the second fantasy, she is naturally more peaceful. By not letting fear take over, it allows avenues for peace and empathy.
Perhaps the most important take-away from the final episode of IMDY is that closure is a process, rather than a choice. It’s a web of possibilities and fantasies. We need to be kinder to ourselves when navigating our healing processes. Moving on from trauma isn’t clear cut and can’t fit into an hour episode.
But it is possible.
All of us at GINA HQ understand how hard it can be healing from sexual trauma or helping someone on their journey. We see you. We believe you. We’re here for you, always.
This article was intended as part of a series of blog posts in collaboration with our GINA volunteers on the themes of the BBC docuseries ‘I May Destroy You’ around survivorship and sexual assault, and whether these themes can be seen in our realities.