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Olivia Benson's Entire Law & Order: SVU Backstory Explained

The world of network television doesn't tend towards subtlety. Comedies are broad and punctuated by laugh tracks, while dramas feature mournful piano scores and shadowy lighting. Given the space to stretch out, however, long-running shows  find themselves with characters boasting years upon years of complex backstory. So it is with Olivia Benson, star of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a character encompassing tragedy, triumph, and everything in between.

Benson's life has been a hard one. All police procedurals involve humanity's dark side, of course, but the "especially heinous" nature of sex crimes makes SVU all the more intense. Benson's abusive childhood, experiences with sexual assault, and career as a cop involved in some of the most sensitive crimes around have shaped her irreversibly. But despite the horror and calamity that define her personal and professional life, Benson remains committed to justice. She has seen the worst the world has to offer, hundreds of times over, and she still believes in confronting it at every opportunity. It's so wonder audiences adore Benson, who embodies SVU more than any other character. From the darkest shadows to the most dazzling victories, this is her story.

A rough start in life

Benson is relatively tight-lipped about her childhood, but occasionally shares snippets of truth while comforting victims. She was raised by her mother, an alcoholic English professor named Serena. Serena was emotionally and physically abusive, in part because of her own trauma: Benson is the product of a rape. 

When Olivia was 16, she began to date one of her mother's students. "He asked me to marry him," Benson recalls in season six's "Intoxicated," "and I said yes. Because I wanted to get away from my mother." News of their relationship so enraged a drunken Serena that she attempted to stab her daughter with a broken bottle: "She was halfway through a bottle of vodka and she dropped it. It shattered all over the floor. And then she picked up the jagged edge of the bottle and ... she came at me, screaming, 'I'll never let anyone else have you.'"

Benson kicked her mother in self-defense and fled the house. Their relationship remains strained until Serena dies in season two's "Taken," having fallen down a flight of subway stairs.

A half-brother, lost and found

Benson's curiosity about her own parentage leads to her illegally running her DNA through a database in season eight's "Haystack." She finds a match: Her half-brother Simon Marsden, who has been accused of several rapes. Marsden is ultimately found to be innocent, victim of an attempted framing by a police officer who believed he raped her younger sister. While his name is cleared, the legal trouble it causes him wreaks havoc on the rest of his life. 

When Child Protective Services and the terms of Marsden's probation force him to be separated from his children, Marsden and his fiance kidnap the kids and go on the run. After they are apprehended, Marsden is forbidden from seeing his children for three years unsupervised. This causes his relationship with the kids' mother to disintegrate, and he turns to heavy drug use. 

After years of silence, he reaches out to Benson in season 21's "Murdered at a Bad Address," but subsequently stands her up. Benson leaves a nasty voicemail on his phone, telling him she never wants to see him again. Shortly afterward, Marsden dies of a heroin overdose. Benson blames herself for his fate, and is haunted by the idea that her voicemail might have been the last thing Marsden ever heard.

The circumstances of her birth

Benson's father is a man named Joseph Hollister, who raped Benson's mother, Serena, resulting in Benson's birth. Though Benson emerges from her rough childhood with remarkable tenacity, her decision to pursue sex crimes springs directly from how haunted she is by her own origins. As show writer Neil Baer shared in an interview with TV Guide, that clarity of purpose is intentional. Benson and Stabler embody the pure emotions people feel when they hear about the sort of horrific crimes at the heart of SVU: Stabler is righteous anger, while Benson, because of her experiences, is empathy. "That's why," recounted Bauer, "they work so well together."

Benson shares the truth of her conception with few beyond her trusted colleagues. Throughout the series, the audience learns that Hollister used his job as a salesman to college cafeterias to prey upon young women. Justice does not find him — his assaults were halted by antidepressants that dampened his libido. He settled down and had a family before falling into alcoholism and eventually committing suicide.

Going the extra mile

Benson's empathy for the victims she works with frequently leads her to make decisions that other officers wouldn't make. While this intensity can cloud her judgement, it also pushes her to go the extra mile. A prime example of this came in the season nine episode "Undercover," in which Benson poses as a convict in a women's prison in order to catch a sexual abuser serving as a corrections officer. 

While Benson pretends to be a convict, Detective Fin Tutuola poses as a new guard. When Benson is cornered by one of the guards in the basement of the prison, things quickly spiral out of hand: The guard grabs Benson and very nearly assaults her before Fin discovers the two and intervenes. Fin and Benson arrest the man and lead him out of the prison. Though this experience is traumatic, it doesn't derail Benson from being the open-hearted detective she is — and that's exactly why fans love her.

Her nemesis

Given Benson's obsessive dedication to seeking justice for victims of sexual abuse, it was only a matter of time before she found a nemesis. Enter serial rapist William Lewis. The man who would come to haunt Benson is himself a victim of abuse, though he sees the experience (involving his father, his babysitter, and a trip to Dairy Queen) as a positive one. He is, as you might have already surmised, a deeply twisted individual.

As an adult, Lewis rapes, kidnaps, and kills several women, always beating whatever charges he ends up facing on technicalities. He moves around the country and changes his name repeatedly, all in an effective effort to confuse any lawyers or detectives looking into his history. After being arrested for indecent exposure in New York, Lewis taunts Benson with stories of his previous crimes, before declaring the entire story hypothetical. In this case, Lewis is able to beat the charges by questioning the testing of his DNA by the authorities. While most SVU storylines would end there, William Lewis could not let Benson go. In the season 14 finale, "Her Negotiation," he breaks into Benson's apartment with a gun.


Lewis spends hours torturing Benson. He burns her, beats her, and forces her to ingest drugs and alcohol. Benson offers Lewis an out, saying that she would not pursue him if he lets her go and flees the state. Rather than taking her offer, Lewis feels emboldened to take Benson along on a horrific spree of rape and murder. 

He attacks the parents of the attorney who helped him beat the charges, killing her father and raping her mother. Lewis then takes Olivia to an empty home and ties her to a bed. Lewis makes it obvious that he is going to assault Benson and kill her when he's finished. The steely detective breaks and begs for her life.  

Lewis is interrupted by a maid coming to clean the house. He decides that he will rape and murder the woman and her young daughter, which snaps Olivia back. While he is distracted, Benson breaks off the iron bar that she's handcuffed to and hits Lewis with it. She breaks Lewis' arm and takes his gun, handcuffing him to the bed. Benson puts the gun to Lewis' head, but decides not to kill him ... until he taunts her. She beats him mercilessly with the broken bed post.

Another showdown

Lewis lives, and is put on trial for rape and murder, including the kidnapping and attempted rape of Olivia Benson.

During the trial, Benson lies about her attack on Lewis. If she admits on the record that she lost her senses and attempted to bludgeon Lewis to death, she stands to lose her job in the SVU. She says that she acted in self-defense when she beat the man within an inch of his life, a story that nearly falls apart under questioning. Lewis serves as his own counsel, leading to several tense confrontations between Benson and her would-be rapist on the witness stand. 

He prods at Benson, claiming that she was sexually attracted to him and that her issues with relationships and lack of children might have led her to act out in anger. He has an expert testify that one blow to the head with the force that Benson exerted could incapacitate a person. Lewis eventually closes his arguments by proposing that Benson acted on a sexual obsession with him, claiming that all of their time together was consensual. 

Several of Lewis' charges are dropped, but he is ultimately sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Putting it to rest

Lewis has one final trick to play. He seduces the forewoman of the jury and brings her into his ploy to escape. She slips him a spiked pastry that forces him into a seizure, from which he appears to die in the prison's hospital. After his apparent death, Lewis comes to. He rapes a nurse and kills a police officer, escaping in the nurse's clothes.

He goes on another spree of rape and murder, kidnapping a woman and using her as leverage to get Benson to admit she lied on the witness stand. Benson admits to perjury on live television, which pleases Lewis enough that he messages her and asks her to meet him. He specifies that she come alone, and forces her into a game of Russian roulette. After five shots, the final turn comes to Benson. Rather than letting her shoot herself, Lewis picks up the gun and taunts Benson. He promises to haunt her for the rest of her days, saying that this will be the final image she thinks about before she dies, then kills himself in front of her.

Her closest friend

A person can't go through the parade of horrors Benson is subjected to without having someone to lean on. For Benson, that person is her partner, Elliot Stabler. The two are, for vast portions of the series, basically attached at the hip.

In a 2007 interview with TV Guide, Mariska Hargitay shared why she thinks the two characters are so drawn to each other, in spite of their polarized reactions to the crimes they confront. "[Their] relationship is very complex. Sometimes it's like brother-sister, and sometimes there's a lot of sexual chemistry. I think their passion for the same job is what makes them so close. The average lifespan of an SVU detective is four years, and here are two cops who have been in it so long that they're basically isolated from the rest of the world. It's just so loaded and layered."

In the season 12 finale, "Smoked," Stabler is forced to shoot a young woman who opens fire in the SVU's squad room. Stabler retires off-screen during the season 13 premiere, "Scorched Earth." Benson is visibly upset ... but in keeping with her character, soldiers on regardless.

An accomplished cop

Through it all, Benson has remained a professional. Her numerous brushes with assault, the psychic weight of her job, and the retirement of her closest friend all shape her, often traumatically — but none of them force Benson away from the Special Victims Unit. After the retirement of Sergeant John Munch and Captain Donald Cragen, she is promoted to sergeant. Just two seasons later, she becomes a lieutenant. Then, in the season 21 premiere, "I'm Going to Make You a Star," Benson is promoted to Captain of the Special Victims Unit.

Benson has put in the work to earn the title ten times over: She is by far the longest-running character in the Law & Order franchise. That's not the only record she's broken, however. Her incredible tenure on the fictional force has made her the longest-running prime-time live-action character in the history of television, surpassing her fellow law enforcement officer Marshall Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke and Cheers and Frasier's Frasier Crane for the honor.