If you turn your trauma into the most talked-about show on Netflix—are you still a victim? Kat Rosenfield on Baby Reindeer for The Free Press.
Richard Gadd as Donny Dunn in Baby Reindeer. (Netflix)

Baby Reindeer Is a True Story—But Whose True Story?

If you turn your trauma into the most talked-about show on Netflix—are you still a victim?

This article contains spoilers.

Nora Ephron’s famous line, “Everything is copy” has often struck me less as advice for writers than permission to indulge one of our baser instincts: to search for the good story inside every bad experience. The classic journalist’s response to tragedy, so common it’s practically a cliché, is to reach for a pen—as if grief or loss or horror are physical spaces from which you can escape through the secret trapdoor of the storyteller, repackaging and reframing your own pain as something meant to be experienced by other people. This story, the one the audience is laughing or crying or cringing at: Is it even about you anymore? Or is it about a character who just sort of looks like you?

These questions loom large in the new Netflix series Baby Reindeer, written by comedian Richard Gadd. This, as a title card informs us in the very first episode, is a true story. Names have been perfunctorily changed: Gadd plays himself in the guise of a character called “Donny,” who strikes up a conversation with “Martha,” a middle-aged customer at the pub where he works. Martha has a gift for squatting in the liminal space of being weird enough to make people uneasy but not quite sinister enough for them to say anything about it; her earnestness can even be sort of charming, until it’s very suddenly and alarmingly not. Soon after their meeting, she begins stalking Donny, sending him hundreds of emails per week, turning up uninvited at his home, and harassing his friends—online at first, but eventually, things get violent. 

On its face, this is a cautionary tale about the hazards of kindness: Donny takes pity on Martha, and Martha immediately takes advantage. But though her bizarre behavior drives the plot, this is actually the story of Donny’s self-discovery. He is wrestling with his career, his sexuality, and his traumatic abuse at the hands of a trusted mentor, and it’s this last thing—which has nothing to do with Martha—that Gadd is clearly, desperately trying to twist away from. As Ephron also once explained: “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh, so you become a hero rather than the victim of the joke.” 

Gadd’s own banana peel becomes obvious in the fourth episode of Baby Reindeer, which flashes back to Donny as a failing stand-up comedian seeking the attention and affirmation of his mentor. A pattern develops: he takes drugs, passes out, wakes up to find the older man’s hands and mouth roaming roughly over his body. He leaves disgusted, but he also always goes back, and here, too, things eventually turn violent. It’s hard to say what’s more disturbing: the scene depicting Donny’s rape, or the realization that Gadd has recreated and restaged this horrific experience for our entertainment. He’s not just a victim; he also plays one on television.

The existence of Baby Reindeer itself, as much as this particular scene, speaks to Gadd’s willingness to go to desperate lengths for the sake of his career. He tells us as much: his motivations are revealed in voiceover. Martha’s, on the other hand, remain opaque. For all the color she brings to the screen, at the end of the day, she’s a supporting character in someone else’s story.

Unfortunately, Martha is also a real person, which predictably led the Baby Reindeer audience to engage in a little stalking of their own. As the show’s popularity surged, the hunt for the real Martha was treated not as a sobering reminder of the show’s impact on actual lives, but rather as a crowd-sourced spin-off drama—one for which the audience was rewarded with still another spectacle, this one starring the real-life Martha, who insists she’s been the victim of a slanderous and perverse lie. Last week, in an interview with Piers Morgan—notably, another professional narrativizer of other people’s tragedies—a woman named Fiona Harvey said she was the woman Gadd had depicted on TV, but suggested it was Gadd who had pursued her. “I gave him the brush off big time,” she said, going on to add: “I don’t fancy little boys without jobs.”

If these competing claims make it difficult to know what to believe, they do at least illuminate the limitations of the “everything is copy” ethos as a vehicle for accuracy. Baby Reindeer is presented as a true story—but whose true story? If history is written by the winners, then who writes the comedies and tragedies that weave drama out of despair? Nobody is denying that Gadd experienced something terrible, but nor can we deny his position of power in its aftermath: he who can tell the most compelling story gets to control the narrative. He gets to be the hero, and the victim, and the omniscient narrator telling you who’s who. He gets to write the TV show with the title card saying this is a true story, which swiftly becomes synonymous in the public consciousness with this story is the truth.

Much of the fervor surrounding Baby Reindeer stems from its enthusiastic reception by viewers as something closer to a documentary than a scripted drama. So too does much of the discomfort of critics who seem to be unsure exactly what to make of the show, or whether it’s possible to condemn the behavior of its fans without condemning Gadd for inspiring them. This is a story about his trauma and sexual abuse, which means that to challenge the way he tells it would be victim blaming—but it is also a story that has resulted in the public humiliation of an apparently unwell woman, in real life. And isn’t that bad in its own right?

One gets the sense that Gadd isn’t too comfortable with all this, either. When he talks about Baby Reindeer (which he says he’d rather not), his tone seems almost pleading: “It exists in a sort of fictional realm; even though it’s based on truth, it exists in a fictional realm. Let’s enjoy the world that I’ve created.” It is, of course, too late for this, as any memoirist could have told him. When you release the story of your life into the wild, it takes on a life of its own. Not even the omniscient storyteller can stay in control of the narrative forever.

To be fair, Gadd has never attempted to style himself as a pure victim. As he notes, in character as Donny, his relationship with Martha wasn’t entirely one-sided. Sometimes he takes pity on her; sometimes, he baits her. As much as he was repulsed by her attention, another part of him was fascinated by it, and still another craved it. Why? Because everything is copy, that’s why—and also because in some ways, this woman has given Gadd the thing he most clearly, desperately yearns for: an audience. One who doesn’t just watch you but wants to consume you; a gallery of rapt sin-eaters, ready to transform your pain into something you don’t have to feel anymore.  

It’s this dynamic that makes Baby Reindeer so terribly uncomfortable to watch, and also highlights the uncomfortable truth that once you believe that everything is copy, it’s a short distance to also believing that copy is everything. Did Gadd simply make the best of a bad situation by refashioning it into a narrative? Or did he also make a bad thing worse, on purpose, because it made for a better story?

These are questions worth considering, as we watch the real-life Martha battling for a fraction of the same power, to have her own version of the story taken, if not as the truth, then at least as seriously and credibly as the version we all watched on Netflix. 

Of course, this will never happen, because we all think she’s crazy. It has occurred to me, though, that we think this mainly because Richard Gadd told us so. 

Kat Rosenfield is a columnist at UnHerd and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Follow her on X @katrosenfield.

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