The final moments of the Netflix documentary Audrie & Daisy, about the near-impossibility of punishing sexual violence in America, put a hopeful end on the film’s dual narratives. Daisy Coleman—who survived both a sexual assault and then allegedly being dumped on her front lawn, unconscious, in just a t-shirt and sweatpants in freezing temperatures—graduates high school and tells the camera that she doesn’t want to be angry anymore. “I want to be happy, and I want to move on with my life,” Coleman says. Meanwhile, Audrie Pott, who died by suicide following her own attack, gets an honorary high school diploma as her mother smiles through tears in the audience. Immediately following these scenes, several other women, raped when they were girls, share stories of survival at the National Press Club just ahead of a montage of Coleman’s smiling, hopeful selfies in the final seconds of the film. The editing creates a warm contrast to the darker, unsmiling images previously used to evidence Coleman’s post-assault frame of mind. That positive finality is well-meaning, but it’s also a lie.
Coleman’s recent death by suicide is a grim reminder that stories around sexual assault—even responsibly told ones like Audrie & Daisy—are narratives crafted for audiences, not reflections of the real experience of surviving sexual assault. Grieving sexual assault isn’t a ladder, elevating the survivor until they overcome the horrible thing that’s happened. Grief born of sexual trauma is a ball of knots, the cycle beginning and ending afresh without warning, overlapping and intertwining so that the lines between emotions become difficult to parse and the edges begin to fray. “Why can’t you just get over it,” is a heartless refrain from rape apologists and deniers in the beginning. But over time, the push for a final, permanent move to acceptance comes from all sides, not just the wrong ones. A story has to end.
In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, based on interactions with terminally ill patients, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the five-stage model of grief: denial, followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. The model, though never intended to describe the experiences of those beyond the terminally ill and unsupported by anything more than anecdotal evidence, has become a Freytag’s pyramid of sorts for the ways anything traumatic is portrayed in pop culture. And narratives around what happened to Daisy Coleman, including Audrie & Daisy, follow this model closely. Framers of the story paint a picture of an idyllic world where it’s an anomaly for a handful of teenage boys to text the 14-year-old sister of a high school buddy, inviting her and a friend to binge-drink to unconsciousness, as the schoolmates of Coleman allegedly did, then (allegedly, of course) film her rape. What follows is a narrative that builds audience anger at the alleged rapist and the sheriff who protects them, bargaining as we follow a case that ends in a plea-bargain for the accused rapist, depression over the sad state of our culture, and finally a positive note about survivors, acceptance, and moving on.
But the meager statistics around sexual assault do not support a clean-cut path from trauma to healing for survivors. The best statistics currently available analyzing the link between suicide and sexual assault are from 1992 and study only women. That study states that 13 percent of those who are raped attempt suicide (as opposed to .6 percent of all adults) and 94 percent experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A more recent 2014 survey found that 38 percent of victims of sexual violence experience problems at work or school, while 37 percent experience an increase in arguments with loved ones and an increased inability to trust even those they trusted before the violence. The very nature of PTSD means that the body is locked in a prolonged state of fight-or-flight response, playing out the trauma in fits and starts. Even the term survivor is inefficient, indicating that the person who has experienced sexual violence experienced it in the past and survived—not that they are currently surviving, day-to-day, an experience that is still happening irrespective of the actual date of the violence.
The idea of “moving on” is one posited by authorities, but also, inadvertently the film itself. “The boys are the only ones who have decided they want to put this behind them,” Darren White, the former sheriff of Merryville, Missouri, who half-heartedly investigated Coleman’s case, tells the camera in Audrie & Daisy, “and try to move on and try to make something of themselves.”
“In this particular case, the crimes were committed by boys,” someone says off-camera.
“Were they?” White asks, laughing.
White seemed to believe that no crime was actually committed against Coleman. And while national media coverage has been far more sympathetic, those final images of a smiling, forward-looking Daisy Coleman are heartbreaking in the wake of her death—particularly when coupled with the numerous suicide attempts she survived in the aftermath of her assault.
There’s no reason the man she accused of attacking her is completely free to move on. Matthew Barnett, grandson of a Republican state representative, bargained his way down to two years’ probation on the charge of endangering the welfare of a child in the second degree. His sentence is rare in that he got one. Fewer than one percent of rapists get a felony conviction in America. In addition to surviving the assault, survivors must also survive the knowledge that law enforcement, the court system, their neighbors, and lawmakers simply don’t care about their rapes or even believe that they happened.
It’s a cultural gaslighting—we applaud victims for coming forward while maintaining a legal system meant to protect rapists. But we also fail them in terms of mental health services. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly half of the 60 million Americans living with mental health conditions, including PTSD, go without treatment, and even a third of those with health insurance report difficulty finding a provider that accepts their insurance. Documentaries, Pulitizer Prize-winning works of nonfiction, and news outlets like Time laud those who “come forward” with their stories, but once those stories are out there, for many survivors, that’s the end of the line. In the wake of Coleman’s death, those closing shots in the film are more evidence of the ways the American legal and medical system failed her, but also those who watched her story and forgot about her. Applauding these women for sharing their first-hand knowledge of sexual assault is not the same as taking action, and eight years after most of us were outraged by Stubenville, Maryville, and all the similar small-town attacks that don’t make headlines, nothing has changed really except the fact that these narratives are now common. Even as we culturally elevate people like Daisy Coleman, applauding her courage while making her rape a highly visible representation of a greater problem, we erase the reality of rape survivors—rendering their long-term suffering invisible, even in a national conversation about their rapes.