Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the United States, and it’s rare for a perpetrator to be prosecuted. Headlines, though, would have us believe the opposite: that the legal system is beset by a rash of false reports from vindictive and/or unhinged women. As to the dismaying disconnect between reality and perception, the eye-opening Victim/Suspect uncovers an unholy combination of factors: a predisposition to distrust the accuser when the subject is rape, a lack of motivation on the part of some law enforcement to dig up the actual evidence in such a case, manipulative interrogation techniques, and a hideously antiquated notion of consent. “He didn’t hold you down, that’s not rape,” one accuser recalls being told by a cop.
As she did in her previous documentary, the powerful and unsettling Roll Red Roll, director Nancy Schwartzman aims a damning light on the ways sexual assault victims are often more readily shamed than believed. In the cases examined in her new film, they’re also turned into suspects by police — not after an investigation finds their accusations wanting, but from the get-go. In some instances, they’re charged and arrested as criminal liars before their rape-kit results have been processed.
The Bottom Line
Measured and sometimes muddled, but unquestionably important.
The documentary is also a portrait of investigative journalism in action, focusing on Bay Area reporter Rachel (Rae) de Leon. Having noticed a nationwide pattern in stories of assault accusers retracting their claims and then serving time for filing a false report, she convinced her editors at the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting that there was something worth exploring — though it took more than one attempt to sell them on the need for a full-on investigation.
It’s good to see a hardworking reporter devoting her energies to such a significant matter, especially given the atrocious pseudo-journalism that, the film shows, factors hugely into the ordeal of some accusers. It doesn’t dilute the impact of the film’s revelations to have a de Leon-centric layer — embracing her dream job, she crisscrosses the country, pounds the pavement, literally knocks on doors to try to speak with unwilling law enforcement personnel. But it does keep things at a certain remove. The time devoted to showing her at home or biking to work, brief though it is, feels self-conscious and could have been better spent clarifying certain passages about the legal cases themselves. The reenactments used to flesh out the film are more distracting than helpful.
De Leon’s four-year investigation entailed many Freedom of Information Act requests and the involvement of other CIR journalists to comb through the resulting influx of police records. Ultimately she collected information on almost 200 cases. Victim/Suspect focuses on two of them. Both women recanted and/or apologized to police, but they maintain their innocence to de Leon and anyone else who will listen.
One of these two cases is unfolding as de Leon is reporting, and involves Dyanie Bermeo, a college student in North Carolina who was charged with filing a false report soon after she told police she’d been assaulted by someone impersonating a cop. The second accuser, Emma Mannion, meets de Leon several years after her experience as a University of Alabama student. Members of the Tuscaloosa PD began their dubious investigation of her reported rape by grilling her — in the hospital room where she was receiving a vaginal exam.
The most disturbing material in the documentary is surely the police interrogation footage. Such tapes have become a familiar element of true-crime films and series; here, as in Making a Murderer, they expose manipulative (but legal) interrogation practices, such as the Reid Technique of eliciting confessions. “I’m breaking down psychological barriers,” one detective assures de Leon. Her filmed interview with him shows her in full command, using her own impressive methods to dismantle his mansplaining stance. The cops’ interrogation practices sometimes involve false claims that they have video footage disproving the accuser’s allegations. Regarding Mannion’s case, Schwartzman and de Leon punch major holes in that line of attack.
The interrogation-room footage also reveals an outrageous divide between how accusers and accused are treated in cases of sexual assault — if the accused is even brought into that room. A Connecticut detective tells de Leon that he never questioned two college football players accused of rape because they “didn’t want to be interviewed.” In another farce, one accused man, a member of an influential family, is told, after some hey-buddy chat about fishing, that he did nothing wrong, and he thanks the officer for doing “a very thorough job.”
In contrast, the women in those interrogation rooms — sometimes for hours on end — are greeted with such statements as “I do not believe you at all.” And then, once the police deem someone a liar rather than a victim, a hideous cycle begins: They make her “false report” known on social media, divulging her name. Beyond inciting cruel comments from the usual trolls, these posts are picked up by so-called journalists and republished without the slightest attempt at corroboration.
Attorneys and other experts weigh in on the miscarriage of justice. Law professor Lisa Avalos describes a “media fascination” with Gone Girl Syndrome, and points out that the greater risk by far, for men and women alike, is not that they’ll be falsely accused of sexual assault, but that they’ll be assaulted. Carl Hershman, a retired San Diego Sex Crimes Unit detective, explains why many cops prefer to close a case — and get it off their desk — with the woman’s arrest rather than taking the time to investigate her claims.
Women Talking director Sarah Polley recently said on Marc Maron’s podcast that she believes we’re in the midst of a backlash to #MeToo. That may explain some of the cases that de Leon has investigated, but the problem is deep-seated and predates any recent social movement; the journalist’s work covers 10 years’ worth of cases. Victim/Suspect illuminates a horrific reality that has upended many women’s lives. And it offers clear validation of an essential truth that many observers have found hard to accept: Recanting is not evidence that a crime was not committed, just proof that psychological games work, especially when someone is young, naive and traumatized.