Baby Reindeer creator asks fans to stop hunting down the real people from the Netflix show

Baby Reindeer creator asks fans to stop hunting down the real people from the Netflix show
  • PublishedApril 25, 2024

Baby Reindeer, the Netflix limited series from comedian Richard Gadd, has become an unlikely hit for the streaming service. In two weeks on the platform the series racked up 52,800,000 hours watched. It’s currently the most watched TV title globally.

The true story is centred around struggling comedian Donny Dunn (a narrative stand-in for Gadd) who enters into a tangled relationship with Martha, a stalker who would end up sending him 40,000 emails and leaving hundreds of hours of voice messages over a few years.

Critically, Baby Reindeer is being praised for how skilfully it unpacks trauma and prods uncomfortably at the audience’s need for an evil villain and a perfect victim.

But in the short time since the series release, online sleuths have launched a mission to find the “real Martha” without regard for the living people behind the unbelievable true story.

It’s gotten so bad that Gadd took to his Instagram story to request fans stop their speculation.

Donny stares into the camera as he sits at the back of a bus wearing a yellow jacket, with antlers photoshopped behind him.
Richard Gadd as Donny Dunn in Netflix’s Baby Reindeer.(Supplied: Netflix)

What is Baby Reindeer about?

Baby Reindeer begins with a kind gesture. Donny is working in a pub while waiting to strike gold with his comedy. Martha (Jessica Gunning) comes in one day with ruddy cheeks and a big smile, but not enough money to afford a drink. Donny makes her tea on the house and thus starts a warped and sometimes physically dangerous connection between two people.

Martha starts coming into the pub every day to tell Donny fantastical lies about her career as a lawyer to the stars. She lavishes attention on Donny that is not entirely rejected. Martha begins to send Donny dozens of emails a day, they take a darkly sexual turn after Donny is peer pressured into lewd banter by his brash workmates.

A woman in a pink shirt laughs while sitting on a bar stool, a man in a green shirt stands behind the bar
Donny fist meets Martha at the pub where he works.(Supplied: Netflix)

For seven episodes Donny and Martha continue their disturbing dance, with the former always insisting he demands distance. But whether by a sense of guilty sympathy or a need for adoration, Donny keeps Martha revolving around his unsatisfying life.

At the same time Donny is grappling with uncomfortable emotions that arise when he begins dating Teri (Nava Mau), a trans woman.

Donny’s decisions that keep Martha around while also alienating Teri seem baffling, until you arrive at episode four. Through flashbacks we see Donny’s first trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, an event that’s notorious for making and breaking comedians in the industry.

With bracing honesty and using Donny as a proxy, Gadd shares that he was groomed and repeatedly sexually assaulted by a powerful man that promised him the keys to the industry.

The rest of the series revolves around Donny finally removing himself from Martha’s grasp and also coming to grips with the trauma lying in his past.

Is Baby Reindeer a true story?

Yes, but with a caveat. Gadd did indeed deal with an older woman who stalked him for a period of six years, leaving him 41,071 emails, 744 tweets and 350 hours of voicemails.

Gadd used this as inspiration for his 2019 one-man show of the same name, which was so critically and commercially successful that it was set for a run in the London West End before COVID ruined the plan.

Gadd told Variety that Baby Reindeer is “emotionally 100% true” but that characters had been altered for legal reasons.

The comedian expanded on these comments to GQ, saying that such lengths had been taken to disguise Martha, her real life counterpart wouldn’t recognise herself.

Gadd also pulled on his 2016 show Monkey See, Monkey Do where he first detailed the experience of his grooming and assaults while running on a treadmill trying to escape an invisible monkey. It won the Edinburgh Festival Award for Best Comedy Show that year.

Trauma shared with millions

In his promotion of the show, Gadd has gone to great lengths to explain that Baby Reindeer is not a black-and-white cautionary tale or a “victim narrative”.

“I think art is quite interesting when you don’t know who you are on the side of. I wanted it to be layered, and I wanted it to capture the human experience,” he told Netflix.

“The human experience is that people are good, but they have bits of bad and they make mistakes.”

Martha sits at a cafe table wearing a pink jacket and lipstick, holding a menu as she looks at Donny.
The character of Martha is not treated as a traditional villian in Baby Reindeer.(Supplied: Netflix)

Clinical and forensic psychologist Dr Ahona Guha says that narrative depictions of trauma like Baby Reindeer can allow survivors to reckon with their own experiences.

“It can be a way of finding solidarity and learning from other people who have experienced and survived the same thing,” Dr Guna says.

“We all need mirrors for ourselves, and media depictions can support this process.”

Dr Guna says that Baby Reindeer nailed “the fear, hyper vigilance and anxiety” that come from being stalked and the mind frame of someone who feels compelled to stalk.

“While we didn’t learn too much about Martha’s backstory and her mental health difficulties it provided a compelling view into the way in which mental illness — such as erotomaniac beliefs, or the delusion that someone loves you — can drive offending behaviours,” she says.

But there are ethical concerns when broadcasting such a story to a mass audience.

“As a psychologist, I would always be concerned about things like identification, ensuring a sensitive and accurate portrayal and not presenting mental illness, trauma or victimisation as a joke or light entertainment,” Dr Guna says.

Hunting down ‘the Real Martha’

At the time of writing, if you plug Baby Reindeer into Google Trends three names will pop up as the top searches from the last week.

They are all women that numerous social media users have identified as “the real Martha”. Multiple TikToks with millions of views and tens of thousands of likes dredge up old tweets and court cases to validate their finger pointing.

“I suspect this is driven by a desire to know more and simple unchecked curiosity, or a misplaced desire for retribution without recognition that the destabilisation caused to someone by being hunted down like this might be quite profound,” Dr Guha says.

a composite image of three tiktoks claiming they've found the 'real martha'
Many Tiktoks claiming to have found “the real Martha” have tens of thousands of likes and often identify completely different women.(Tiktok/ABC News: Velvet Winter)

This kind of complete blame is in direct antithesis to the sympathy Baby Reindeer affords Martha even as she commits abhorrent acts. At one point after assisting a freezing and disoriented Martha home, Donny clocks the grubby law degree attached to the fridge in Martha’s festering hovel. It’s a heart wrenching indicator of a promising life derailed by illness and a confirmation that Martha is also suffering.

Screenshot of a text post Instagram story.
Fans were so convinced Sean Foley was the man who abused Gadd that the comedian was forced to public(Supplied: Instagram)

“There’s nothing to be gained and no further answers to be elicited from the real Martha, and it’s ethically very problematic if people try to track her down,” Dr Guna says.

“It’s important to recognise that these are real lives being portrayed here, and to treat this with dignity, instead of as simple entertainment.”

But it’s not just the real Martha the internet desperately seeks, it’s the real Teri and the real Darrian, the high-profile figure that assaulted Gadd in real life. Internet detectives soon falsely accused British director Sean Foley of being the real life Darrian. The accusations got so strong that Gadd had to publicly dispel the rumours.

“Please don’t speculate on who any of the real life people could be. That’s not the point of our show,” Gadd shared to his Instagram stories.

Hours later Foley confirmed that police were investigating the “defamatory, abusive and threatening posts” made about him.

Dr Guna says that humans have a bias to split things into “good” and “bad” and when people perpetrate offences it’s tempting to write them off as wholly evil.

“The reality is that offending happens for a wide range of reasons and many of us would behave in a similar way in the right confluence of circumstances,” she says.

“Believing that a perpetrator is somehow ‘bad’ and fatally flawed allows us to separate from our own faults and flaws and gives us an illusory sense of safety and comfort.

“We tend to forget that people can be victims and perpetrators, and that many people who hurt others have been hurt themselves in a range of ways.”

In an essay written for Netflix, Gadd expresses the fear he felt when he was first performing Baby Reindeer for live audiences. He worried that people wouldn’t believe him, would say he encouraged Martha, that his sexual assault wouldn’t be seen as ‘valid’ but feedback confirmed that crowds were as morally confused and moved by his story as he was.

“All I ever wanted to do was capture something complicated about the human condition,” Gadd says.

“That we all make mistakes.That no person is ever good or bad. That we are all lost souls looking for love in our own weird way.”


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