Coping with pandemic has been tough but for the past three months, one of my lifelines has been waiting every Tuesday morning to watch Michaela Coel’s show– I May Destroy you. It replenished me, dispelled the ennui induced by living through days where nothing new happened. It was a disturbing interruption, one I needed. I watched it play out slowly, observed the exquisite writing, and at the end of each episode, read essays and interpretations, taking note of what I had missed.
‘I May Destroy you’ follows the story of Arabella Essiedu, a writer living in the London, who goes out one night with a friend to escape her writers block and is raped after her drink is spiked. Arabella experiences a blackout after the incident, and then struggles to reckon with her memory while moving on with finishing her book due to her agents. Flashes of the man thrusting in a bathroom stall haunt her, but all she can do is report the case, wait for news of a possible perpetrator, and hang on to her friends’ and room mate’s support till then.
Michaela Coel wrote the show from personal experience, after she was sexually assaulted at a bar when she took a break to have drinks with a friend while working on the second season of Chewing Gum. She channelled her energy into writing nearly 191 drafts of ‘I May Destroy You’, using the creative process to heal, while also creating a fluid map for other abuse survivors.
Michaela has taken hers and countless such stories and distilled it into a singular idea – how trauma induced by sexual abuse or violation affects your sense of self, whether you remember what happened or not. Consent is at the core, but she piles on the layers deftly, like a well-buttered croissant that looks simple enough but requires finesse at each step. We get tastes of solid friendships being tested, social media as a dangerous coping device, memory as a powerful ally that can both empower and destroy, cancel culture, race and victimhood.
As a writer, she delights in navigating the grey world; she skates across it with panache, taking her time and slicing through with disturbing humour. The plot does not move in a linear pattern and the sub-plots are equally packed with surprising insights. We get to see Arabella’s best friends – Terry and Kwame – manage their own dilemmas while forming a fortified support system. Weruche Opia who plays Terry is so spectacular and easily my favourite performer in this entire show. She evokes the conflictions so well – of being confident and fearful, sassy and sensitive, wild and rational. Apparently, Weruche had a problem with nudity and nearly backed out of taking on the role but Michaela onboarded an intimacy co-ordinator to help her work with a body double and ensure the comfort of her team.
Wow, how wonderful it can be when unapologetic and responsible women take control?
Each of the twelve episodes provokes a different question without giving any answers. Do those who choose to have fun without being overly cautious deserve less attention when they are violated? Can a promiscuous man who hooks up with a stranger under the subtext of ‘open to everything’ be raped? What is the scope of responsibility of a social media influencer on delicate topics? How much time does a survivor need to put themselves back together to function?
Episode six is especially complex, which opens with Arabella joining a support group run by her high school friend Theo, where she utters, “I am here to learn how to avoid being raped.”. Then we’re taken to a high school flashback that gives us Theo’s story. She is the inconsistent victim, who gets caught while trying to falsely incriminate a black boy for rape. It is a disturbing episode where we are forced to see how young teenagers can be manipulative, using race and sex in powerplay. Terry and Arabella form an alliance with other black students to cement an us versus them strategy that requires not looking at the picture too closely.
There are so many details that show how Arabella evolves while retaining the essence of her wildness; her wigs keep changing colours and style till she abandons them eventually, the difference in the way she dances in the beginning gleefully to the season finale where she moves aggressively to ‘Firestarter’, the symbolism of the bed and what lies beneath it, her maturity in redefining boundaries with people in her life that she cares about. You’d have to watch it all over again, if you could bear it, to take her fine
The finale is so phenomenal that I could write pages on it – painful, surreal, replenishing to the inquisitive soul. It does not give us the conclusion we would like because it refuses to offer a pacifying escape to the possibility of true justice. Arabella shows us that in the end that only she can choose how she wants to let that one night define her and what it means to let go.
In an interview, Michaela said, “We need to be kinder to ourselves a bit more and forgive ourselves for the times when we didn’t say no loud enough.”
I remember this one day when I was in high school, sitting with a friend in the evening in our dorm. We were laughing and sharing a pack of chips. A short while later, a counsellor came and called us all for a meeting in the common room. She began talking to us about our bodies, sex, and consent. Even today, I remember that talk so clearly because it was the first time someone was telling me what it meant to be in control of my body, how I could defend it with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I also remember it because of what happened next. My friend began to sob and shake uncontrollably. No words escaped her mouth. Some of us tried comforting her, some of us cried, some of us just left the room. Collectively we acknowledged her pain and absorbed it into our own dammed secrets, nestled away shamefully in our bodies.
The trauma never truly leaves us. Perhaps that is the question and impossible truth in the title.
Who is ‘I’?