Processing Trauma in Michaela Coel's 'I May Destroy You' - Rolling Stone
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Processing Trauma in Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’

The writer-star’s stunning series centers on a character who uses the struggle of the creative process as a path to healing

Michaela Coel as Arabella in 'I May Destroy You'

This column contains full spoilers for HBO’s I May Destroy You, which aired its finale on Monday night.

The very first shot of I May Destroy You occurs, like much of Michaela Coel’s incredible HBO limited series, outside the boundaries of time, and possibly reality. We are in a small, cluttered bedroom, the bedspread filled with notepads, pens, and scraps of paper, the walls covered with index cards. The premiere lingers on this image for only a few seconds before jumping to Italy to meet our heroine, social-media star turned novelist Arabella (Chewing Gum star Coel). Presented so briefly, and out of context, at the start of a sad, funny, narratively intricate story about consent, sexual assault, and coping with trauma, it’s an easy image to forget. I admit that I did, and was surprised to see it when I looped back around to the premiere shortly after finishing the show’s remarkable finale.

The series is deliberately confounding in its early chapters(*), the better to capture the sense of disorientation that Arabella feels both on the night she is drugged and raped, and over the ensuing weeks and months, as she realizes what happened to her and struggles with how to live with that knowledge. The show plays around with time and memory, and in hindsight, that opening shot takes place close to the end of the story, even though it’s the first thing we see. In the penultimate episode, Arabella — with help from, of all people, Zain (Karan Gill), a fellow writer who previously had unprotected sex with Arabella without her consent, then tried to gaslight her about it — tries a different, more structured approach to finishing the novel she has struggled with all season. Part of this process involves covering the walls of her bedroom with index cards depicting different beats of the story.

(*) I watched screeners of the first four episodes months ago, simultaneously aware that Coel was doing something really compelling and that I was having one hell of a time following much of what was happening. Eventually, I decided that the show’s extreme Britishness was too much of a barrier for me without subtitles. So while a colleague reviewed the show prior to premiere, I waited until the season was close to done so I could watch it on HBO with the captions on, and everything was almost instantly clearer. But also, the deeper in I got, the more obvious it became that Coel’s much less interested in clarifying exactly what’s happening than she is in showing you how these confounding events make Arabella feel. 

As any good writer — and Coel (who wrote every episode and co-directed most of them with Sam Miller) is one hell of a writer — knows, where you choose to begin your story can say a lot about what kind of story you’re telling. So why start there?

Maybe because I May Destroy You is as much about the creative process — or, specifically, about writer’s block — as it is about assault and its many other weighty subjects.

Arabella is in Italy in the first episode allegedly to complete work on the first draft of her new book, but really she’s just there to hang out with her drug dealer boyfriend Biagio (Marouane Zotti). She has a draft due to the publisher Susy Henny (Franc Ashman) — as her exasperated but polite-to-a-fault agents Julian (Adam James) and Francine (Natalie Walter) keep reminding her — and has barely written anything. Later, we’ll learn that she entered the publishing world through the side door, leveraging her Twitter following into a book, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial, which she self-published as a PDF. She fancies herself a voice of her generation — a belief reinforced by all the fans who recognize her in her travels and insist Chronicles felt like she was speaking for them — but she’s a champion procrastinator who will seemingly do anything to avoid the computer cursor blinking accusatorily at her.

On one level, her difficulty turning her ideas into written words — or, really, figuring out exactly what ideas she wants to use, and how, and why — could be looked at merely as the inciting incident for the story of I May Destroy You. Arabella is attempting an all-night writing session to produce something Susy will find acceptable the next day, when her friend Simon (Aml Ameen) calls, inviting her out for the evening that will end with her rape.

But Arabella’s struggle to write — to turn her idealized self into her actual self, and redirect all the things inside her head so that the rest of the world can see them — is much more than a plot device. It’s at the heart of the entire tale, and particularly its resolution.

In the aftermath of her realization that she was assaulted, Arabella finds it harder than ever to make the words come out. Her publishing house arranges for her to see a therapist, and for one of its other rising stars to help her get the manuscript into working shape, but even that goes awry. The rising star is Zain, and like Arabella’s unidentified assailant from that night at the bar, he violates her in a way she doesn’t fully comprehend until later, when Susy’s assistant Sion (Ellie James) explains that he did the same thing to her. So rather than read an excerpt from her revised draft at a public summit — and continue returning to the path she wanted to be on before the rape — she instead uses the platform to call out Zain as a predator. Everything they did together is tainted, the writing included.

After that, Arabella more or less stops working on the book, instead exploring other ways to cope with all that’s happened to her. At various points in the season, she turns to the police, to a support group run by her old schoolmate Theodora (Harriet Webb), to using her social media profile to amplify the voices of fellow victims, to staking out the bar in the hopes of recognizing and remembering her attackers should they return to it, and even to an impromptu trip back to Italy to reunite with Biagio. Some of these efforts help for a bit, others not at all. (After finding her waiting, uninvited, in his apartment, Biagio threatens her with a gun to get her to leave.)

Desperate for the next portion of her book advance, and to return to being the person she thought she was before all of this began, Arabella reaches out to Della, a new author whose debut novel echoes so many of the styles and themes that Arabella herself has tried and failed to put on paper. But “Della,” it turns out, is Zain, writing under a pen name after Arabella’s speech at the summit torched his real one. Out of a sense of guilt(*), he shows her a plot diagram for the kind of book she’s working on, and soon she is not only back on track, but far more focused than we’ve ever seen her. As we saw at the very beginning of the series, her bedroom walls are covered in index cards, and Zain is quickly an afterthought to be dismissed — the match that gets her going again, but not the flame that soon roars.

(*) What passes for an apology from Zain is framed more about his failure to help her with the book than for the deception that led her to believe he was wearing a condom. It could be that he’s too ashamed to discuss that directly, or that he doesn’t regret it as much as she might want him to. But he shows up to finish the job he started before they fell into bed together.

Writing is a difficult process to dramatize well onscreen. With music, there are notes to play when the inspiration finally strikes. With art, there are images to draw or paint or sculpt. With writing, there are only words. You can show your protagonist pounding away at the keyboard, and/or have words fly across a screen — a device the show had already used often with text messages, Instagram captions, etc. Here, though, Coel goes low-fi, with the sheer volume of cards and the controlled mania of her performance telling us all we need to know about how far she has come creatively from the woman who once tried Googling “how to write quickly.” It’s a great, cathartic sequence.

And on the heels of it seemingly comes even more catharsis, as Arabella’s bar stakeouts finally pay off when she identifies both her rapist, David (Lewis Reeves), and his accomplice.

Or does she?

The apparent identification comes at the end of the show’s penultimate chapter. The finale opens up with Arabella enacting a violent revenge fantasy on David. But this is followed by other fantasies, including one where David confesses the fear and pain that drive him to attack women, and another where she has consensual sex with him in her own bed. Each time, the fantasy concludes with Arabella studying an index card — presumably describing the events we’ve just witnessed — before contemplating another scenario entirely. She’s not actually doing these things, we realize, but rather writing her way through different versions of how her story could, or should, end. In the episode’s final do-over, she doesn’t go on her fateful stakeout at all, suggesting that she never actually spotted “David,” and that her epiphany was as much a work of fiction as her savagely beating on him while he lies prone and drugged on a sidewalk.

Closure in rape cases can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible to find. The narratively safe and tidy way to conclude I May Destroy You would be for Arabella to unquestionably spot David, alert the friendly pregnant detectives who worked her case, and sit defiantly in court as he is sentenced to prison. Instead, Coel forces her alter ego to invent her own closure — several times over — and, in the process, to rediscover the gift she thought she had lost in the wake of being attacked.

Throughout the season, we see other characters try to craft fictions in the real world to help themselves. The night out with Simon is a scam designed to trick his girlfriend into having a threesome with his mistress. Arabella’s friend Terry (Weruche Opia) brags on the spontaneous threesome she had in Italy, but later realizes that the two men were friends running a game on her. Her friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) is raped by a date after the two men had hooked up consensually; following a far less helpful experience with the police, he opts to give heterosexuality a try, much to the dismay of Nilufer (Pearl Chanda), who only learns she was part of a gay man’s experiment after they’ve had sex. Theodora has a history of lying about being assaulted and molested, and the show leaves it unclear whether she’s ever actually been raped, or is running her survivors’ support group to atone for past sins (and/or because she likes the attention).

Arabella doesn’t use her own fictions to hurt others — though there’s clearly a part of her that would enjoy putting a beatdown on the real David, should she ever find him. Instead, she uses them to work through the trauma she’s been struggling with since that awful night. In turn, she finds new focus in her craft, because she knows the process is helping her heal.

In the epilogue, we see that Arabella did complete her novel — and published it independently after both Susy and her agents dropped her — and is doing a reading before an enthusiastic crowd. Sion introduces her, and suggests the new book is “similar to your previous work, but in other ways it feels like it could be the work of an entirely different writer.” She is changed, irrevocably, by the horrific events of that night. But she has found a way to live with that change, and to put it to work for her in other areas.

Coel has spoken openly about how she modeled Arabella’s ordeal on something similar that happened to her. You could look at that opening shot of the first episode and envision the entire series as a far more elaborate fiction of Arabella’s. Really, though, it’s a sign that the author and her character will be going on the same journey together, writing their way out of a nightmare no one should have to go through, and producing a masterpiece as a bit of light pouring out of all that darkness.

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