Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You manages to comprise multiple genres and themes, seamlessly moving from tragedy to comedy and from unsettling to comforting. Coel’s character, Arabella, is a Black female writer living in London and working on her second book. The series centres Arabella and her experiences of sexual assault and the question of consent, but also her relationships with her best friends Terry and Kwame and their experiences with assault, consent and exploitation.
A recurring theme in the series is the ongoing trauma that Arabella experiences when remembering and revisiting her sexual assault. While the sexual assault is the defining event of the series, this is an incident that is revealed over time. The series includes 12 episodes, and while Arabella’s sexual assault is hinted at at the end of episode 1 the truth is only revealed in episode 11. Coel uses flashbacks to play with memory and reality, to tell the story of trauma. But as the assault happened after Arabella’s drink had been spiked she doesn’t know if it is a memory or not, and she’s not aware of her own reality.
While the psychological impacts of trauma and assault become prominent themes in the series, it is initially the physical and visible signs that highlight the incident from the night before. While Arabella doesn’t remember exactly what happened or how the night ended, there are three questions that are asked of her and that she asks herself: “How did last night end?” “Why is my head bleeding?” “Why is my phone smashed?”. Without these physical signs, would Arabella have investigated the images in her mind? It is only when she reports her drink being spiked to the police that she accepts the images and “the thing” in her head. Even at this point Arabella tells the police officers that “you can’t call it a memory.” It is the concrete details that help Arabella to “Gather the pieces. Any of the pieces.”
Later in the series when Arabella is discussing the assault with a therapist, that her publishers have paid for, her therapist talks to her about Rape Trauma Syndrome in connection with her Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault. The therapist describes possible signs of Rape Trauma Syndrome as including “frequent flashbacks, high irritability in places or situations that remind you of the assault, difficulty focussing, emotional numbing, which can sometimes be a hard one to know you have.” But if the “frequent flashbacks,” used frequently in the show, are flashbacks to an incident that Arabella can not fully remember or grasp then how can she work towards trying to recover from her trauma?
Trauma can be defined as “a very severe shock or very upsetting experience, which may cause psychological damage.” It is the flashbacks to the upsetting experience that reveal the reality of sexual assault to Arabella and also to the audience at the same time. Arabella and the audience are trying to piece together the timeline and pieces of the incident at the same time as when Arabella is dealing with the psychological damage of the trauma. She remembers parts of the incident, including her attacker standing over her during the assault which is repeated throughout the series. The scene is the same but the face of the attacker changes, as Arabella replays the incident in her mind and connects the potential attacker with different experiences in her life. The flashback is defined in Arabella’s, but also changes when she thinks back to other incidents of sexual assault in her life. Memory and flashbacks are used as a way of revisiting, reassessing and realising the effects of sexual assault and trauma.
One might benefit from viewing the series for a second time, as there are details that may be missed or underappreciated the first time round. This includes the blink and you miss it figure over the bed at the start of episode 9, but also the possible evidence of the sexual assault that is literally washed away towards the start of episode 1. Because Arabella doesn’t remember the assault from the night before, she has a shower and goes to the toilet and brushes her teeth unknowingly washing away evidence that could be used as evidence to convict her raper. It is the concrete evidence and physical scars from the sexual assault that make it possible for Arabella to recognise that an incident might have occurred, but the flashbacks and replaying of the memory of the incident that reveal the psychological damage and ongoing emotional trauma of sexual assault.
Image Credit: WarnerMedia Group.