“I May Destroy You”: The Therapy Scenes

Michaela Coel‘s powerfully told HBO series I May Destroy You is now fully available to stream. Its description on IMDB: “The question of sexual consent in contemporary life and how, in the new landscape of dating and relationships, we make the distinction between liberation and exploitation.”

Several episodes feature snippets of therapy received by lead character Bella (full name Arabella), a writer. Some thoughts on these follow. Thus, spoilers ahead.

Episode Four: “That Was Fun”

Arabella has been drugged and raped. Sometime later she meets with a counselor. Monica Castillo, Vulture, describes what we see:

She wants Arabella to start talking about her sexual assault, but unfortunately, Arabella still struggles to find the words to recount her experience…Eventually, Arabella begins to open up about how she’s coping, mentioning the flashbacks that continue to interrupt her thoughts and how she’s struggling to focus on the next draft of her book. Her therapist suggests taking care of herself even under pressure, listing a number of soothing activities like coloring…

This form of treatment is often labelled crisis intervention, in which the therapist is providing a directive response to a client’s recent trauma. The aim is to support the client’s efforts to stabilize and to feel better in her current life, not to delve deeply into the issues.

Episode Six: “The Alliance”

Meghan O’Keefe, Decider:

This week’s episode opens with Arabella visiting a sexual trauma support group run by an old school mate, Theo (Harriet Webb). She opens each session by saying, ‘I hate abusers. I think that abuse, grooming, assault, domestic violence are the most abhorrent qualities of our species.’

Group support, whether led by a therapist or a peer—in this case, a peer—can be one of the most powerful ways to heal following trauma. It decreases emotional isolation by connecting a participant to others who share common issues.

We learn over the course of the episode, however, that in addition to Theo having a history of victimization she has also been a perpetrator—not that group members are aware of this.

More on this important plot point from O’Keefe:

‘The Alliance’ might offer the clearest articulation of I May Destroy You‘s central thesis: abuse is everywhere and there is no obvious way to fix it…In most television betrayals of assault, we have an obvious idea of whom to condemn. I May Destroy You is unflinching in its refusal to give us an easy out with Theo’s story. That’s why the episode is so haunting and so necessary to watch.

Episode Nine: “Social Media Is a Great Way to Connect”

Bella freaks out late at night and shows up at the Episode Four counselor’s home. The reaction of Micha Frazer-Carroll, Independent, is similar to what I had. She also makes an important clarification about therapist boundaries.

…’Night-time therapy?’ I thought, half-expecting the scene to quickly reveal itself as some sort of metaphor, hallucination or dream sequence. But it wasn’t…

At some point in the scene, there is a faint acknowledgement that this is unusual – Arabella apologises for ‘turning up’, to which her therapist responds that that’s what the ’emergency line’ is for. This struck me as incredibly odd. Yes, in very rare cases it might be possible that therapists would allow this kind of emergency session (distinct from crisis lines). But make no mistake, in the context of the real world, rocking up at your therapist’s house in your Halloween costume after a failed night out would be highly, highly unusual.

And therefore, as Frazer-Carroll adds, this is yet another in a too-long list of annoying and/or unrealistic portrayals of therapist boundaries in TV series and movies. (See previous posts here, here, here, here, and here for some other examples).

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