06/24/2024

Some Crim

Track the Untold Stories

The Persistent Power of ‘Prima Facie’

The Persistent Power of ‘Prima Facie’

I am a writer driven by rape.

My first foray into fiction featured a girl charged with murder for killing her rapist in self-defense. It was about silence and the many ways society revictimizes people. It was about surviving.

My debut mystery series stars a vigilante baker who kills bad men with good pies. It’s about reclaiming power and righting the wrongs that the system won’t. It’s about thriving.

But it’s also about rape.

It has to be.

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It’s difficult to discuss Suzie Miller’s ‘Prima Facie’ without sounding hyperbolic. The ample praise the play and subsequent novelization have received is both well-earned and somehow not nearly enough.

Because it’s not a stretch, even a year later, to call it life-changing.

Prior to arriving at the Golden for one of the early preview performances, I had never set foot inside a theater – I have no business commenting on Broadway. I know that. But perhaps the most powerful thing this story does is steal your ability to stay silent and unseen.

I went in expecting to be riveted, challenged, and yes, entertained. It was, after all, Jodie Comer.

What I did not expect was the physical reality of the experience.

Reviewers love to use ‘edge-of-your-seat’ to describe particularly gripping thrillers, but ‘Prima Facie’ did the opposite. 

From the first insistent heartbeat of the soundtrack as the curtain rises, I was slammed back in my seat, body braced for an impact I couldn’t predict. 

I couldn’t move.

I could barely breathe.

Even when the breakneck pulse of that opening scene gave way, I couldn’t relax. I knew what was coming, I just didn’t know the details, the when, or the how. 

The animal part of me knew to stay ready though. It kept me rigid, alert.

It wouldn’t be caught off guard.

Not again.

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For years I have tried to find myself in stories, reading everything on offer for sexual assault and then writing it. But it took sitting in the audience of that packed Wednesday matinee to finally see myself.

Like me, Tessa is assaulted by someone she trusted. 

Like me, she snuck out while he slept.

Like me, she went barefoot. (Why do we do that, the leaving of shoes?)

Like me, her hands became claws to gouge her own flesh.

Unlike me, she called it what it was.

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The power of ‘Prima Facie’ is that it is a mirror as much as a manifesto. 

One in three women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime and in an age where women and marginalized people are being increasingly oppressed, this story allows victims to both see and be seen, sometimes for the first time ever. For many, this will be the single most validating piece of media we ever consume and that is no small thing.

But it’s more than that.

By keeping the focus solely on the Tessa, ‘Prima Facie’ opens a window to a part of the story that is so often skipped. Entertainment is rife with rape plots, but all too many leave the victim behind. This is especially true of procedurals, where detectives abandon the victim at the point of attack, following instead the path of the perpetrator. He becomes the focus, the one that matters. We delve into his psychology, his motive, his methods. The victim exists only as a conduit to his story.

Not here.

The one-woman nature of the performance has a very literal effect of shifting the lens away from the attacker. He’s there, of course. As an audience, we both feel and fear his presence, but the spotlight remains unwaveringly where it belongs – on Tessa.

Further, by specifically choosing to center date rape, the narrative forces a reckoning with modern rape culture. In 2005, my single attempt to discuss my assault was met with enough vitriol that I never tried again. I was told I “was spitting in the face of real victims”, the ones who “have strangers come through their windows with knives” and it was my own fault for even being there. In a post-#MeToo world, such a response almost sounds exaggerated, but it seared into my brain with such force that I have been unable to personally classify anything short of literal knife-point violence as trauma.

Until ‘Prima Facie’.

The unfortunate truth is that kind of victim-blaming remains appallingly common. People still ask what victims were wearing, how much they drank, if maybe they just changed their minds. The responsibility for a rapist’s actions constantly falls to the victim – especially when he’s someone they know.

The impact of ‘Prima Facie’ in the portrayal of this all-too-common kind of rape. There are people who understand that sexual assault comes in many guises, that the nightmare often wears familiar faces, and for us, the play is cathartic, a chance to nod along and say yes, that. Exactly that.

But for the others – those without firsthand knowledge and all the men who might convince themselves that it isn’t really rape if she’s drunk/there/‘asking for it’ – the play exposes the visceral reality of sexual assault. It puts a human face on the aftermath of suffering and in a society where so many men admit to only caring about women they’re related to, that’s vital.

We live in a country that elects presidents and appoints Supreme Court justices regardless of their histories of sexual assault simply because sexual violence isn’t a deal breaker here. Men watch their friends commit heinous acts of aggression and call it banter because it’s easier than calling them out. Even when the victims are the media’s favorite type – conventionally attractive cis het white women – men will worry more about the implication of charging her attacker than the effect his actions had on her life. This is all so normalized that many people don’t even think to question it.

Those are the people for whom this story can truly change the conversation, because they need to see exactly why we’re having it. ‘Prima Facie’ doesn’t sanitize things. There’s nowhere to hide. It drags the audience through the hellish aftermath of assault, humanizing a part of the process that is so often hidden away. 

And it ends exactly the way every victim knows it will.

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I’m not religious, but there’s a moment at the end of the play when the house lights come up and Tessa addresses the audience directly that felt like being called.

In an echo of an earlier moment she says: Look to your left. Look to your right. It’s one of us and the urge to speak, to stand, to self-identify was so overwhelming I had to sit on my hands to keep from drawing attention.

But it didn’t matter.

I was seen. 

Finally.

In that moment, in that theater, I felt more understood than I ever thought possible.

And that matters.

That is the power of stories.

Publishing likes to talk about the importance of representation and this is why. The bigots and book banners want to bury stories because they know that seeing yourself reflected on a page or a screen or a stage can be life-changing. It can be powerful. And it cannot be silenced. 

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