Like Arabella and Hannah, I am a writer, a millennial, and a young woman living in a big city (L.A. now, but New York in my late teens and twenties). The summer following my freshman year of college, 12 years ago, I had an internship at a glossy fashion magazine headquartered in New York City.
All of my college friends had gone back to their respective homes for the summer, so I socialized with the girls in my department, bubbly blonde Oklahomans who kept trying to bring me into their church. I went with them to a party our magazine was throwing for its summer issue, a big Chelsea nightclub takeover with gift bags and an open bar and free bottles of a new ginger liqueur to bring home on your way out the door. I was 19. Somehow this didn’t matter.
I got drunk on sugary cocktails and by the time the lights were coming up and the crowd had thinned, I was near blackout. The Oklahomans and I left the club, liqueur bottles in hand. They hailed a cab and invited me in, but I told them I wanted to walk home. I lived in the Village; the walk seemed doable, preferable even, in the tepid midnight heat of a Manhattan summer. They closed the cab door and drove away, leaving me, a drunk teen girl in the middle of the night, in the middle of Chelsea, alone. I’d told them to.
I was close-dancing with a strange man, alone in the middle of his closed-for-the-night bar, high on class A drugs when it crossed my mind something bad might happen to me.
On my walk, I passed a couple of strangers who invited me to their friend’s bar. I figured, why not? This is where I first tried cocaine. Then the couple left, and left me, a teen girl, alone with their friend, the bar owner. At some point in the night, I’d cut the palm of my left hand on a jagged piece of glass, the chipped rim of that free bottle of ginger liqueur, so my hand was wrapped in a dishrag, bloody. I was close-dancing with a strange man, alone in the middle of his closed-for-the-night bar, with my bloody hand throbbing, high on class A drugs when it crossed my mind something bad might happen to me. I told the bar owner I had to leave. He said okay and opened the door. It could have been much worse.
The pilot episode of I May Destroy You brought that night back into sharp relief. And it continued to bring other even worse experiences to mind, as the season progressed. This is one of the points the show aims to make: Sexual violence is a much more common experience than we may realize, and can take many forms. It can be subtle, like a removed condom, or it can be consensual sex that spirals into violence that won’t end, or it can be deceit, or a drugged drink, or a relentless begging that wears you down.
Not every show on television needs to have a serious engine driving it forward. Seinfeld, a show famously about nothing, is a much-loved case in point. But it is hard to imagine a show like Girls, a show about nothing much, being made today, nor receiving the glowing response it did nearly a decade ago. We are disillusioned, we are post-Weinstein and peri-#MeToo, and we want to watch what we know.
Which I guess brings us back to the idea of writing what you know. Dunham famously once said she wished she’d had abortion, arguably so she could speak and write about women’s reproductive rights from a place of greater personal resonance. In season one of Girls, one friend ends up considering abortion but then not needing it after all, another has a boyfriend who is, God forbid, too nice, and the third can’t find a guy willing to sleep with her, a virgin.
By the end of I May Destroy You, it seems like everyone has been raped or tricked or taken advantage of in one or another way. Arabella is assaulted twice, the second time by Zain, the man hired to help her finish the book she can’t seem to write; he ends up removing the condom during otherwise consensual intercourse, transforming the act into one she had not consented to and that in the U.K. is increasingly seen as grounds for prosecution. And Kwame is attacked by a man from a hookup app when he tries to leave after a consensual evening. Even Terry begins to view her seemingly spontaneous Italian threeway differently when a new partner suggests that perhaps the men she slept with had orchestrated the whole thing ahead of time, with her their mark. And then Arabella is tricked again when she falls in love with a book written under a female nom de plume she later learns was actually written by the now-canceled Zain, whom she has publicly accused of rape at a reading of works in progress.
The smallest Russian nesting doll inside of this all is that the finale closes with Arabella’s book launch — she’s managed to finish her work, finally. (Does Hannah, ever?) Its title, January 22, is a reference to the date she was assaulted, and the cover design, an X overlapping an A, is a reference to the trauma self-integration diagram — an A, representing Arabella, over a straight line with an X beneath, representing her unresolved trauma — drawn earlier in the season by her therapist one haunting Halloween night. Like Michaela Coel, Arabella has written from her experience and used her work as an opportunity to heal and help others. In this moment, Coel’s show and the borrowed-from-life fictional story its protagonist tells come together, a finished project within a finished project, the ultimate catharsis, for the character and her audience and her creator, too. An X overlapping an M.