“Know My Name: A Memoir” by Chanel Miller. Viking, 368 pages, $27.
In January of 2015, a 23-year-old woman was sexually assaulted while she lay unconscious behind a dumpster outside a Stanford fraternity party. Throughout the high-profile trial of her attacker, the woman was known only as Emily Doe. Many more details were known about the perpetrator, Brock Turner, a “star swimmer” at Stanford with a high GPA, as some in the media seemed keen to tell us.
Turner, who ran from the scene after being caught by two Swedish graduate students, was found guilty of three felonies — including assault with the intent to commit rape. His sentence was six months in county jail, probation and registration as a sex offender. Turner served three months. Many people were incensed at the leniency of Turner’s punishment, setting off a debate over sexual assault, justice and privilege.
A day after the sentencing in June 2016, we heard from Emily Doe, when a 12-page, wrenching letter she had read at the sentencing hearing was made public. “My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me,” she wrote. “You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.” A CNN anchor read the statement aloud on air, and a group of Congress members, led by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., read it on the House floor. More than 11 million people read the statement online; thousands wrote to Emily Doe.
Last week, Emily Doe came forward for the first time as herself — Chanel Miller — and gave voice to her statement on “60 Minutes.” She revealed not just her name but also details about her life: that she is half Chinese, grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., and is a writer and artist who received her B.A. in literature from the College of Creative Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She also released a photograph of herself and disclosed that she lives in San Francisco.
In a full interview on “60 Minutes” on Sunday she also shared a dream — to write children’s books — and a fear: “No parent is going to want me as a role model, if I’m just the discarded, drunk, half-naked body behind a dumpster.”
Her new memoir, “Know My Name,” is a deliberate act to reclaim her story. She writes that part of the reason she finally divulged her name is because the story of her assault began so differently, when she was found as a “half-naked body, alone and unconscious.” Yes, she tells us, she is a victim, but she is not Brock Turner’s victim, because she does not belong to him. In the book, she gives us a fuller picture of who she is, about the case that unintentionally put her in the spotlight and what she (and we) can learn from her experience.
The book begins with what Miller remembers of that night — how having drinks at a college party with her younger sister devolved into a nightmare. She describes the horror of waking up in a hospital with no underwear on, no memory of what happened and no one willing to tell her.
First, she felt a deadened calm like a “still dark ocean,” and then panic that “would arrive like a fish,” leaping out of the water again and again. It is the first of many sentences that will haunt the reader.
Using her case’s court documents, police records, her own experiences, media coverage of the event and more, Miller draws a clear-eyed portrait of how difficult it is for a rape victim to get justice, and how the process serves as its own kind of re-victimization.
She describes the suspended state of waiting to see how it would all play out: “I felt like a lone cow, a rope around my neck,” she writes, unsure of whether she’d be ground into meat by the defense or if the judge would deliver justice and set her free. She expresses alarm over the way photos of her naked body were splashed in court for everyone to see. When her father saw a police photo of her lying behind the dumpster, she writes, it seemed to him that she was dead. It is details like these that convey the true horror of sexual assault.
But more powerful still is Miller’s ability to coalesce her experience of what came after the assault — the long court case, the intense media coverage, the light sentence — into something larger. She writes that she views her role as being a “a pair of eyes” who could see, feel, document and report what others could not. When she looked, what she found was a broken system, or several, which her book indicts one by one.
The objects of her critique include the media, among them The Washington Post, which she argues portrayed Brock as a champion athlete and her as a nobody; America’s culture of victim-blaming and shaming, both in court and online; the “institutional betrayal” by Stanford, which she describes as offering her only platitudes and no meaningful change; and the corrosive arrogance of class privilege. Some might remember the judge citing Turner’s good character references as reasons for the charitable six-month sentence; the judge was later recalled.
“Know My Name” is an indictment of the criminal justice system, which in the beginning failed to inform Miller of the details of her attack — and in the end failed to deliver justice. She saves an especially pointed critique for the intensive process by which rape victims are questioned, and even smeared, as she relates being painted in court as a liar and a drunk.
“It never occurred to me that the system itself could be wrong,” she writes. She’s sure of it now.
The system did bend some to the national backlash over her case, when, in September 2016 then-California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that imposed new mandatory minimum prison sentences for some sexual assault offenders.
As for Turner, Miller treats him with a kind of arms-length contempt, first because she sees that he is not going to take responsibility for his actions, instead citing alcohol as the culprit, and then because he claims she had enjoyed the assault. It’s an assertion that makes her first crawl on the ground in pain, then laugh in disbelief, then rage and cry. “Brock would say and do what he needed,” she writes. “He had given himself permission to enter me again, this time stuffing words into my mouth.”
Though Miller often writes with anger, she also aims to comfort, offering others who have been affected by sexual violence a path to survival. She recounts trying to put the details of the assault away in a kind of mental jar to cope, and then realizing that “our bodies kept it in storage no matter how many times our brains took it to the trash.” She imagines all the other women out there — 1 in 4, if the statistics are right — who feel the same way. “The slivers we show, the mountains we hide,” she writes.
“Know My Name” is a gut-punch, and in the end, somehow, also blessedly hopeful. For every one Brock Turner out there, she tells us, there are two Swedes. Miller urges us to encourage in boys the “instinct” to call out what’s wrong. Be a “tiny flame” of truth that can spread, she writes. She implores us, too, to challenge and question the systems that aren’t working. As we examine how to prevent and prosecute sexual assault cases, this last lesson may be the most important of all.