In 2015, Chanel Miller was sexually assaulted by Turner on Stanford University’s campus. Know My Name is a devastating, immersive memoir of her sexual assault and its aftermath.
Know My Name
by Chanel Miller
Hardcover, 357 pages |
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Editor’s note: This review includes graphic descriptions.
Her name is Chanel Miller.
For four years, she has been known publicly as Emily Doe, “an unconscious woman” or simply “Brock Turner’s victim.” In her memoir Know My Name, she wants to set the record straight: “I am a victim, I have no qualms with this word, only with the idea that it is all that I am,” she writes. “However, I am not Brock Turner’s victim. I am not his anything.”
In 2015, Miller was sexually assaulted by Turner on Stanford University’s campus. Two Swedish graduate students were passing by on bikes and chased Turner off an unconscious Miller. Turner was convicted of three felonies but served only three months of a six-month sentence in county jail. The case became notorious for its illustration of the race and wealth gap in sentencing, and for the stinging eloquence of Miller’s victim statement, which went instantly viral when it was published by BuzzFeed.
Know My Name is a devastating, immersive memoir of her sexual assault and its aftermath. We live with Miller minute by minute, thinking and feeling with her. At points, particularly during the account of her testimony, it is hard to read it and breathe at the same time.
Know My Name is an intentional title: Miller knows that releasing her own name comes with its own fraught baggage. “Names are sacred,” she writes at one point, when mentioning the victims of a mass shooting at her university. “I do not want them identified solely by what he did to them.” By the same principle, Miller doesn’t just tell us her name; she tells us what it means, and shows us the people for whom the name Chanel is sacred.
If you want to know her name, you also need to know that her Chinese grandfather pronounces it like xiao niao — “little bird.” That she does stand-up comedy, that she likes to cook, that she has a little sister and that on the night she was attacked, her dad made her quinoa and she made fun of the way he pronounced it. In other words, that she is a full person, a loved person, a named person.
Miller is an extraordinary writer: plain, precise and moving. The memoir’s sharpest moments focus on her family and their grief over her attack. Before she tells her dad, she writes, “Every time it rained, my dad said, The plants must be so happy! How would it feel when he’d learn his daughter had been raped?”
Miller also documents the smaller — sadly and frustratingly expected, and not unimportant — humiliations of walking the earth while female: the catcalls, harassment and the resulting paranoia. She wants to be able to walk down the street, sit on a bench or talk to a stranger: all things that are so often considered invitations to harassment. At one of her low points, an old man on a bench offers her a slice of bell pepper. She falls into a familiar spiral of fear: “I stared at the slice. What if he’s poisoned the seeds? What if he’s a pervert and rubbed his penis on the bell pepper and wants to watch me eat it? What if he slits me with his pocketknife?” She accepts the piece of bell pepper anyway.
Miller also covers some of the same ground she went over in her statement: the media’s grotesque focus on Turner’s swimming career (they “counted my drinks and counted the seconds Brock could swim two hundred yards”). And the way she was told that she shouldn’t have expected anything better: “You went to a frat and got assaulted? What did you expect? … I understand you are not supposed to walk into a lion’s den because you could be mauled. But lions are wild animals. And boys are people, they have minds, live in a society with laws. Groping others was not a natural reflex, biologically built in. It was a cognitive action they were capable of controlling.”
Miller writes that before her assault:
Stanford emerges as a sharp example of institutional cowardice: its failure to meaningfully follow up after it became clear she was not a student, and an offer of money for therapy on the condition that she not sue the school. “I finally understood I was visible not as a person, but a legal threat, a grave liability,” she writes. The conflict comes to a head around a memorial garden Stanford put in the place she was attacked. They wanted to put up a plaque, and she suggests quotes from her victim statement. They reject her suggestions, hoping for something reassuring and inane, something that implied all was forgiven. After a protracted negotiation, she says no.
Here again we see her insistence on the sanctity of holding your own when the world wants to sand away your edges, make you a symbol or a target, an anonymous body or a perfect victim. “I encourage you to sit in that garden, but when you do, close your eyes and I’ll tell you about the real garden, the sacred place,” she writes.
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