T. Christian Miller has been living with the horrifying story of Marie’s rape for more than four years.
The Berkeley-based reporter for ProPublica first wrote about Marie in December 2015 and how police pressure had prompted and 18-year-old to recant her accusations of rape in 2008. That article, titled “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” won Miller and his co-author, Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project, a Pulitzer Prize, the highest accolade in American journalism.
Then the hit radio show This American Life adapted the story into a three-part radio show, “Anatomy of Doubt,” in 2016.
Miller wasn’t done thinking or writing about Marie and how police in Lynnwood, WA, a city near Seattle, did not believe her story that a masked intruder broke into her bedroom and raped her. Marie had to recount her story numerous times and two of her foster mothers grew suspicious of the calm way she relayed it. When they conveyed those doubts to police, officers became convinced Marie was lying and began to treat her like a suspect rather than a victim. That prompted Marie to recant her accusations — but also made police miss an opportunity to stop a serial rapist. So Miller and Armstrong penned a book, “A False Report: A True Story about Rape in America,” which was published in 2018.
Today, Netflix is releasing a scripted, eight-part series called “Unbelievable” based on Miller and Armstrong’s reporting. It has gotten universal acclaim from critics. New York magazine said “Unbelievable” was “one of the best crime dramas in recent memory and one of the best shows of 2019.” Rolling Stone magazine said it was “among the most brutally effective episodes of television you will see.” The Daily Beast said it was “a rage-inducing, award-worthy telling of the real story of a rape victim who wasn’t believed, and the women detectives who vindicated her.” The Guardian called it “a fiercely feminist look at the nature of truth and whose stories get heard.”
A perfect score of four: article, radio show, book and television series.
For Miller, who has covered four wars and a presidential campaign, no other story has resonated like Marie’s, nor had as much impact.
“It’s been an astonishing experience,” he said. “I’ve been a journalist for 25 years — Ken even longer — and neither of us ever expected or conceived of a reaction like this. It speaks to the power of the story. Early on, it became obvious that this story touched a nerve and that it spoke to a lot of people. It just took on a life of its own. I’m still amazed it’s carried on through as it has.”
Miller first learned about the story in the spring of 2015 when he was tipped off that the rapist received 327 and a half years in prison. The length of the sentence made him want to know more. Miller heard that the rapist (who operated in multiple states) victimized a Washington woman early on. He located and called Marie’s attorney, only to learn another reporter from another news outlet had been working for six months on an article.
News organizations are generally competitive. But not this time. Instead of rushing to get something online, Miller decided he wanted to join forces with the other reporter, who was Armstrong. Miller’s editor at ProPublica had worked for Bill Keller, the former New York Times executive editor and founder of The Marshall Project. He reached out and the two nonprofit websites decided to collaborate.
“I had a piece of the story and Ken had a piece of the story,” said Miller. “Rather than race each other and jam the story into the paper — that would have happened in the past — we decided to work together.”
It took the pair eight months of work to produce the Pulitzer Prize-winning article.
When the initial story came out, there was a rush of film producers that inquired about producing a series based on the work. Ultimately Marie (the woman’s middle name) decided which producing team would run with her story, said Miller.
Marie selected a team that included Susannah Grant, who wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-winning film, Erin Brockovich, Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly and Katie Couric, the television and web anchor. The Berkeley authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman also served as co-creators, writers and executive producers, according to IMDB.
Miller and Armstrong have producer credit for the series. They were not involved in writing the script, however, as they wanted to maintain a distance between their fact-based reporting and the fictionalized script, Miller said.
“Ken and I made a deliberate decision to keep the dramatization separate from our work and from what we did because we are in the truth business and we didn’t want anyone to ever get confused that we were in the fiction business,” he said.
Kaitlyn Dever, who first came to notice in the FX series Justified and starred in Booksmart this summer, plays Marie. (The real Marie apparently said that Dever “got it exactly right,” according to Miller). Toni Collette, the Australian actress who starred in Little Miss Sunshine and many other films, and Merritt Wever, who appeared in Nurse Jackie, star as two female detectives in Denver who realize there is a serial rapist on the loose. Unlike the Washington state police, the Denver detectives believe Marie’s story.
Miller, who currently lives in Kensington (Berkeley north, as he puts it) with his wife, Leslie Miller, and their three children (although one just left for college), has deep roots in Berkeley. He was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and grew up in Hayward and Castro Valley. His grandfather and parents both attended UC Berkeley. Miller also went to Cal, and started his journalistic career at the Daily Cal, where he served as university editor. He worked for a number of newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, until he joined ProPublica in 2008. Miller also teaches at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism
ProPublica, which has earned numerous Pulitzer Prizes in the last decade, has an office in the old Fantasy Studio building in West Berkeley. There are six staff writers there, all accomplished, award-winning reporters, including Nina Martin, Bernice Yeung, AC Thompson, Ryan Gabrielson and Abraham Lustgarten.
Martin said she turns to Miller for advice whenever her reporting or writing hits a snag.
“He’s the perfect combination of ‘Brilliant Investigative Reporter’ and ‘Brilliant Narrative Writer,’ as well as a kind, generous, generally awesome human being,” Martin wrote in an email.
Miller is still in touch with Marie, although he is circumspect about revealing too much about her. She is now 26, married and has children, he said. He would not say if she still resides in Washington state.
Miller missed the premiere of “Unbelievable” in Los Angeles because he was dropping his 18-year-old son off at college. He has seen the series and appreciates that the episodes are not sensationalistic but treat the victims and investigators respectfully.
“What’s lovely about this story is it’s been true to the facts of the case, respectful to the victim but lays it out in an eight-part series that is a woman-focused piece of work,” said Miller. “It deals very little with the rapist himself.”
“Unbelievable” starts streaming on Netflix tonight.