American Nightmare asks a crucial question: when a woman reports being kidnapped and raped to law enforcement, what does it take for them to believe her? An eyewitness? Physical evidence? Literally being stolen from her home in the middle of the night? For Denise Huskins, the answer, astoundingly, was none of the above.
Huskins’s unbelievable story is now being told in a three-part docuseries on Netflix, which has rocketed up the charts to number one since being released a week ago. While it's not unusual for a true-crime saga to be popular on the streaming network, the story of Huskins’s ordeal is resonating on a deeper level with women, who are horrified by the egregious example of how sexual assault victims are maligned and mistreated.
In March 2015, Huskins and her then boyfriend, Aaron Quinn, were asleep in his home in Vallejo, California, when they were awoken by strange lights flashing in his room. A masked intruder told the couple they were being robbed and that he was with a group who had broken into the home. The man forced them to drink sedatives, then told Huskins he would be kidnapping her for 48 hours. He forced her into the trunk of his car, telling Quinn not to call the police and to wait for further instructions.
American Nightmare, made by female filmmakers Felicity Morris and Bernadette Higgins, tells what happened next. First, the police in Vallejo were convinced Quinn had something to do with Huskins’s disappearance, interrogating him for hours and claiming that the strange details of the kidnapping (the man’s outfit of a wet suit and his insistence they wear goggles; the fact that Quinn passed out for hours due to the sedatives and called police the next day) were lies.
But it was the law enforcement’s treatment of Huskins that has taken the series to the next level of horror. Her mother claims in the series that, while her daughter was missing, one of the detectives told her that, because Huskins had been sexually assaulted as a child, it was possible she was faking her disappearance to “relive the thrill of it,” a comment that left her mother “aghast.”
When Huskins reappeared nearly 400 miles away two days later in her hometown of Huntington Beach, the Vallejo Police Department made up its mind. It publicly denounced her as a hoaxer and a fraud in a press conference a short while later, and the media began calling her the real-life Gone Girl, referring to the 2012 Gillian Flynn novel in which a woman fakes her own kidnapping to frame her husband for her murder. This was despite the fact that Huskins’s story matched Quinn’s exactly, and that she shared with law enforcement that she’d been raped by her attacker, submitting to a sexual assault exam.
The latter two episodes of the series, which feature interviews with Huskins, Quinn, and both their families, tell the story of how the couple fought to clear their name from these allegations. Eventually they were helped by Detective Misty Carausu of the nearby Dublin Police Department, who had arrested a man named Matthew Muller for attempting a strange home invasion in her jurisdiction and then had a hunch that it wasn’t his first crime.
Carausu was able to link Muller to Huskins’s kidnapping and the attack on her and Quinn, the details of which, it turns out, were true (Muller is now serving 40 years in prison for kidnapping, robbery, and rape for the crime, and is suspected of engaging in multiple other home invasions for years prior to the attack on Huskins and Quinn). The filmmakers also interviewed a woman named Tracey, who was attacked in her home in nearby Mountain View in 2009, in a case suspiciously similar to that of Huskins. Tracey recounted how the intruder in her home told her he had a change of heart and decided not to rape her. When she called law enforcement, she said one officer asked her whether she was sure the experience wasn’t “a dream.”
Adding to viewers’ anger is the fact that the main detective on the case, Mat Mustard, was named Officer of the Year the same year that Huskins was kidnapped and was promoted in 2018. While the department did apologize to the couple, who were awarded a $2.5 million settlement for their ordeal, six years later, it declined to speak to the filmmakers for the series.
“We think that's a real shame because it's kind of just turning their backs on the situation when it could have been an opportunity for them to be humble and to say, ‘We are fully aware of how mistakes were made and this is what we've changed since and this is how we now approach victims of crimes,’” Higgins told the Mirror in an interview.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in a series full of them is when Huskins shares that the kidnapping was the third time in her life she had been sexually assaulted. After being molested as a 12-year-old, she said, she never reported it because she was too afraid. When she was assaulted at a friend’s house at a party at 19, she said, she tried to report it to the police, but they told her they did not have enough evidence to pursue it.
“And then here I am, literally taken in the middle of the night, my body stolen and violated, and they still don't believe me,” she said. “I don't know what needs to happen to me, what needs to happen to any woman, for them to be believed. It just seems hopeless.”
That’s the question on the mind of all the women who are watching the series too. Because it’s 2024, yet women are still fighting an uphill battle to get men to believe them when they report being raped, even if it fits the “stranger rape” scenario.
“This is mostly a large lesson to the majority as to why women don’t fucking report shit, even being abducted and raped,” wrote one woman on Twitter. “Nobody believes us.”
Huskins and Quinn, who are now married and have two young daughters, released a book about their experience in 2021, and say on their Instagram accounts that they continue to talk about their story with the hope of changing the way rape survivors and other survivors of violence are treated by law enforcement. They remain close with Carusu, who said the same on her own account.
“I hope this series changes how law enforcement, the judicial system, and the world view survivors of horrific crimes,” she wrote.
Originally Appeared on Glamour