The sixth episode of HBO's "I May Destroy You" opens on a bucolic urban scene: a park under a train overpass, where three young friends are attempting some plein-air spray-painting on canvas. Terry and Kwame have come to support Arabella, whose therapist has recommended painting to help her heal from a recent sexual assault. But Arabella doesn't paint. She stands apart from her friends, engrossed in her phone. Terry, concerned, points this out to Kwame, but he shrugs: Arabella looks fine to him.
This sets Terry off. She launches into a monologue about how trauma acts on the body, overwhelming the nervous system and causing it to shut down for safety. "She's not fine," Terry says, as Kwame stares at her blankly, flinching occasionally. "She's vacant, she's empty. She's a shell of herself. She's dying inside. But if you aren't looking for it, you ain't gonna see it." The irony here is that Terry is proving her own point: She delivers this lecture without ever noticing that Kwame is exhibiting the very same behavior. He, too, was recently raped.
"I May Destroy You," created by the British-Ghanaian writer and actor Michaela Coel, has been described as a drama about consent, but mostly it's a show about trauma — how mutable and contagious it is, how insidious and pervasive. The story doesn't build so much as it burrows, digging into crevices to reveal an infinite regress of damage. With each new trauma its characters endure, another is set off, or uncovered, or recalled, revealing a system of abuse so ubiquitous, so normalized as to be invisible, hiding in plain sight.
Arabella, an up-and-coming East London author of Ghanaian descent, starts the series trying to avoid a looming book deadline. The night before her draft is due, she decides to meet up with a friend, and she's at a bar with him — she thinks — when somebody drugs her drink and rapes her in a toilet stall. She wakes from her fugue with a cut on her forehead, a smashed phone and no memory of how she made it back to her publisher's office. Soon, despite her best efforts to repress her feelings, she is suffering from classic symptoms of PTSD — flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, hyperarousal and insomnia, avoidance and withdrawal. She even disavows her own memories of the event, describing them to the police as images in her head that don't belong there.
The carefree, independent sense of herself Arabella is trying to protect — the safe, salable self she's carefully constructed and put forth in a book called "Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial" — is perhaps not as solid or secure in the world as she would like to believe. Her beloved friends are not always trustworthy. We learn that she is estranged from her family. Her long-distance boyfriend — sweet but traumatized himself — refuses to talk about their relationship. After the assault, her anxious editors pay for therapy and hire a more established writer to help with the book, but he resents and belittles Arabella's success, which he sees as fluky and undeserved. (He went to Cambridge, while she got a book deal based on a popular Twitter account.) He ends up raping her himself, then gaslighting her into thinking he hasn't — which she nearly goes along with, because she, too, wants to believe everything is fine.
The person Arabella is texting during that spray-painting session opens up the door into an especially fraught chain of guilt, complicity and emotional damage. It's a former classmate, a white woman named Theo, who has formed a support group for survivors of sexual abuse, which Arabella joins. In high school, we learn, Theo was incensed when the Black classmate she thought was her boyfriend took her picture during sex and, when she asked him to delete it, offered her money instead. She then falsely accused him of trying to rape her — an echo of the lie her mother once forced her to tell about her father during a custody battle.
All this pinballing of trauma is not just confined to the world of interpersonal relationships. Six episodes in, Arabella is coming to understand how trauma works not just on the body, but on the body politic — how it ricochets through populations and generations, transforming everything it touches, revealing the world to be a scarier and more complex place than she had allowed herself to imagine. "I May Destroy You" is about consent in the sexual sense, yes. But it is also about the broader sense, the one that encompasses any proposal, desire or situation we are asked to agree to — negotiations that grow complicated in a society whose norms don't favor everyone equally, and where your standing can be shifting and unstable. We talk about cultures of abuse, but this show is about nothing less than what it's like to live in an abusive culture: a system of dominance in which almost no one is safe, in which everyone's trust is violated, in all kinds of ways, all the time.
To be a person in this world is to be subjected to all sorts of unwanted desires, expectations, rules and systems of coercion. Our bodies — more so for some of us than for others — are not entirely our own, a reality the overlapping horrors of 2020 have laid especially bare. Strip the veil of familiarity off the world, as Percy Bysshe Shelley once put it, and you expose a dark map of corruption, abuse, predation and precarity underneath the veneer of civility. The threats Americans feel right now, both real and perceived, act on us like trauma: As a nation, as a social body, we're activated, hypervigilant, anxious, triggered. We're exhibiting all the symptoms of complex PTSD.
In that sense, "I May Destroy You" is perfectly suited to the moment; it is possibly the most emblematic show of 2020. It examines how, by avoiding the truth, we pass fear and suffering on to others. It reminds us that everyone is vulnerable, that nobody is entirely above avoidance or self-delusion. It makes the case for facing even those truths that, when confronted, might reveal an altogether different reality from the one we thought we inhabited. But as Terry tells her friend: If you aren't looking for it, you ain't gonna see it.
In an earlier episode of "I May Destroy You," Arabella tracks down someone else who was with her the night of the assault: Alissa, whom her partnered friend Simon has been seeing on the side. Alissa is sure her drink was drugged as well, but when Arabella suggests that Simon may have had something to do with it, Alissa explodes, calling Arabella crazy. Her image of Simon as safe and trustworthy trumps her own bodily experience; the alternative is too overwhelming, too annihilating to handle. It's hard to confront the truth when it forces us to re-evaluate everything we think we know about who and what we are. We struggle with this every day. We run away and avoid it. It may destroy us.
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