Editor’s note: There are a few spoilers ahead for the Amazon Prime show Vindication.
In a time when the American church is grappling with a steady flow of sexual abuse allegations, the co-star of a new faith-based TV show says she relied heavily on personal experience and her faith to approach the topic with gravitas.
The show begins as a toned-down police procedural, though the detective’s family life becomes more integral with each consecutive episode. Family tensions hit a climax in episode eight when Travis’s estranged college-aged daughter Katie (Emma Elle Roberts) has returned home to reveal her pregnancy. Viewers learn along with Travis that Katie had been raped.
Actress Emma Elle Roberts shared that the scene mirrors her own life. She was violated as a teen, in events that still have a ripple effect a decade later.
“I had a really hard experience where I was taken advantage of when I was about 17,” Roberts said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “To be able to retell that story and know where it’s going, it was actually really cathartic for me.”
While she appeared in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay and Insurgent, Roberts has often chosen roles that reflect her evangelical beliefs. In the recent pro-life film Unplanned, her character stands outside a local Planned Parenthood facility to pray for those entering the clinic.
Now her latest role depicts redemption—with a personal slant. “There’s a lot that I relate to with Katie,” she said. “In Revelation, it talks about: ‘By the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony we will be victorious.’ I think you can’t go wrong with that.”
Vindication began five years ago as a side project for Jarod O’Flaherty, a software designer and emerging filmmaker. He and his friends from Retta Baptist Church in the Dallas-area suburb of Burleson, Texas, pooled their resources and talents to create the pilot episode as a solo short film, which eventually developed into a full series.
The show’s push-pull dynamic between the detective and his daughter, a recovering addict, has more complexity than typical faith-based dramas.
“I get asked a lot, ‘Why do I play such dark and troubled characters?’” Roberts said. “But it’s through those characters that you’re able to show God’s grace and redemption a lot more. If any given script is not telling a story that’s going to help people grow, I don’t see a point in it.”
Her character arc in this miniseries has particular resonance. Growing up in Atlanta, Roberts was raised by two police officers until her mom decided to stay at home. “I was used to my dad going out, protecting the streets—and trying to get the bad guys off the streets,” she said.
But Roberts also knows firsthand the trauma of abusive sexual relationships. When she became intimate with a man older than her while still a teen, things went further than she intended. “I would say I agreed to it,” said Roberts. “When you’re 17, you don’t really know you have a voice. Sometimes you’re so desperate for love you say yes to anything, because you want the people you think you love to be happy and return the affection you’re so desperately searching for.”
While rape and abuse are plot points in the show, on-screen depictions remain in PG-13 territory. Roberts is always seen fully clothed, but a next-morning scene where she processes her shock and trauma after waking up in a hotel room tell a heartrending tale.
Writer-director O’Flaherty noted they did a few takes of the scene, shot in a north Texas garage, where Katie finally tells her police-detective father the truth.
Despite her talent, O’Flaherty hadn’t seen the emotion it needed. “I said, ‘Emma, what do you need for this to really pour out?’” he recalled. “She said, ‘Give me three minutes in the other room. Once it’s up, start rolling because I’ll come out and just go straight into character.’”
The actress retreated, talking herself through the difficult scene and drawing from the trauma she had experienced.
Tell your story, Emma, Roberts told herself. Tell what you’ve faced, and realize that other girls have been through this like Katie. Sometimes they didn’t always have a dad who was willing to lovingly wrap their arms around them and let them cry.
“When she came out of the other room, it’s what you see on-screen in that final scene,” said O’Flaherty. “Whatever it was she needed to pull from, it was definitely worth it. Her emotion was so real and genuine.”
“Acting really is so therapeutic for me,” Roberts said. “It’s a safe environment to talk about what I have faced. It’s a beautiful thing when you know what’s going to happen at the beginning, middle, and end of it.”
Roberts has sought out opportunities to minister through conversations. She says the process of listening and helping others heal has been eye-opening.
“Sometimes I ask, ‘Who do I know who hasn’t felt safe enough to talk about a situation?’” she said. “From experience, I know you need someone there to say: ‘You can do this.’”
Sensitivity of abuse portrayal in entertainment
As a licensed social worker and professional counselor, Laurel Shaler has worked with many women and men who have suffered from sexual violations and sexual trauma.
“A lot of therapy for PTSD has a process component,” she said. “Through this role, I can see how she was able to go through aspects of trauma processing.”
Open discussion of exploitation in a TV series reveals the honest and beneficial—and, at times, shortsighted and harmful—ways evangelicals have handled incidents of abuse and their aftermath.
“Christians want to go into a very dark world, be a light, and offer help,” said Shaler, author of Reclaiming Sanity and a professor of counseling at Liberty University. “But we need to make sure we’re handling prevention, intervention, and treatment right, including follow-through with law enforcement. Otherwise, we’re never going to be able to have a positive impact in the world.”
However, the show is not always as self-aware when wading into other multifaceted issues.
Episode six of Vindication, entitled “Reverse Traffick,” begins with a sting operation. Officers handcuff an older man who had answered an internet solicitation for sex with a minor. Yet, in flashbacks, he is revealed to be a vigilante rescuer of prostitutes working in tandem with his wife. Their unlicensed work is upheld by the show as a potential model “ministry.”
With its absence of legal and social work framework for domestic trafficking, the on-screen narrative was deemed “less than helpful” by Shaler.
“You need structures in place to get these women help,” said Shaler. “It’s not a temporary shelter for a night or a week, but a long-term plan for physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial recovery. This has become their life and livelihood. If you go in and tell them they’re a victim, they may rebut that—then it’s harder to get them the help that they need.”
Shaler referenced the work of nonprofits such as International Justice Mission and Exodus Cry, faith-based organizations that have helped thousands escape from foreign and domestic trafficking in discussing how pimps trap people in crisis, noting the importance of well-orchestrated efforts in offering them a way out—unlike the miniseries plot.
“This episode had a feel-good, all’s-well-that-ends-well conclusion, which presents two possible negative outcomes,” she said. First, viewers could be “inspired” by the fictional story to take up similar work on their own, causing more harm than good. Second, viewers could be tempted to view survivors of human trafficking as easily receiving help.
“Unless you assure [survivors], ‘I can help you long-term,’ they’re probably not going to be interested,” she said. “You can’t pull the rug out from someone and what they’re used to without helping them to see that there’s a different and better way.”
Shaler urges fellow believers not to prejudge what they may need to learn on such complex issues, specifically referring to the #MeToo movement.
“Even if a movement didn’t get started by the faith community, Christians should be able to ask, ‘Where is the merit in this?’” she said. “Sexual trauma, sexual abuse, and coverup happen within the church as well as outside the church. Let’s look at our own house and work to get it in order.”
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy issues for media outlets including The StreamandThe Federalist and previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family.