“What is so scary about not being believed? Is it the humiliation? The degradation? Having to confront all the things wrong with you that make you unbelievable?” Wendy Heard poses these questions rhetorically in her CrimeReads essay “On Mental Health, Disbelief, and the Psychological Thriller.” “Yes” to all of these proposals. Not being believed is humiliating and degrading, and it casts an uncomfortable spotlight onto one’s self-consciousness. That is why the condition of not-being-believed fits well into thrillers.
From the real world, Heard says, “we know the criteria of belief.” Before a woman can even be believed by others, she is expected to achieve some impossible balance in her presentation. She must be smiling, warm, and convey assertiveness but not appear “frivolous,” not reveal her “actual interiority,” and not “actually assert” herself. She must also maintain her appearance in a conventionally beautiful way without leaning toward either a “prudish” or “whorish” side. If she doesn’t do this, her claims about important matters (especially about threats to herself) are likely to be dismissed.
The writer Megan Pillow Davis describes her own sexual harassment and attempted rape by a coworker while she was working as a bartender:
“I bolted from the truck and into the bar. There were at least ten people from work inside, and I started toward my manager, Paul. But what could I say? That Daniel showed me his dick? I knew from the cant of his smile, the lilt of his voice, the way his hand gripped his shaft and stroked it that he was angling for a blow job or sex, but there was no way I could prove that. Everybody loved Daniel, and Daniel would make the whole thing out to be a joke. Nothing he’d said was actually a come-on. I wasn’t as popular as he was. No one would believe me.”
Eventually, she says, her coworker “was arrested after a half dozen women at the restaurant accused him of harassment and assault.” In this case, the criterion of belief by the authorities (whether restaurant management or law enforcement) was hearing the same report from multiple people. No individual woman on her own met the criterion to be believed.
Each of us likes to believe that we are rational individuals and that we believe other people’s claims largely on the merits of the claims and not on some spurious basis. What really happens, though, is that so often we are persuaded (or turned off) by something about the speaker’s identity and the exact type of presentation and charisma we expect from them because of our own stereotypes and prejudices. If we aren’t willing to provisionally accept someone’s claim—that is, to treat the speaker as someone who deserves to be believed—how can we proceed to fairly evaluate the truth of the claim?
Fiction writers should consider how their characters interact with each other. Part of this is assessing the “criteria of belief,” to use Heard’s term. Who is predisposed to believe whom? Who expects to be believed, and who fears not being believed? Why? And what comes to pass as a result?