Chanel Miller, in her new memoir, “Know My Name,” situates victimhood as a conduit to expertise, and trauma as a mode of human insight.
Photograph by Jared R. Stapp / Contact Press Images
The mugshot put down roots. A fact: whether you believed Brock Turner to be a good boy, ensnared by the confusing lures of hook-up culture, or an entitled élite, cornering women like game, you knew his face. The nostrils flared, the neck thick, the eyes shocked and orb-like, the mouth tight with some strain. I could trace in the air the curl of his hair, still unkempt at the time of his booking for the sexual assault of an unconscious young woman on Stanford’s campus in January of 2015.
You knew about his life. That he was the son of a nice white couple in the idyllic town of Oakwood, Ohio, that he had been heavily recruited to a swimming scholarship at Stanford, and that he was an Olympic hopeful. The interest in Turner was voraciously cultural. The fleshing out of his identities was useful to apologists, and it was instrumentalized by activists. It was important to make Turner famous. It was important, if you were invested in the promise of his innocence, to stress the toxic bacchanalia of the American campus, to mourn his future, to call him “the Stanford swimmer.” And it was crucial, if you saw him for what he was, to uncover how affluence safeguards abusers.
In cases like this, the perpetrator is a dense magnet, intentionally or incidentally becoming the center of a grand discursive field. In literature, we might call him the protagonist. What narrative attention do we pay to the victim? The anonymity of Emily Doe, in the Stanford rape case, protected her, while situating her in a void of identity. In the media coverage of the case and of the trial, for many months, we knew her only as the “unconscious woman,” as an assemblage of violated anatomical parts. Women may have harbored a fear of knowing her. She is the proof and yet the third rail. Habituated as we are to the preposterous scrutiny that a victim of sexual assault must endure, both in the legal context and in the public sphere, we are careful to stay excruciatingly close to the facts of the crime. Each extra element of biography that is introduced, each flare of individual color, may become a liability. We have tensed in awe and preëmptive concern watching victims on the stand, growing emotional. The courts need her poised, showing the level of anger that makes her seem believable but not hysterical.
This is why the victim statement of the then twenty-three-year-old Emily Doe struck millions of readers like it did. Published by BuzzFeed in June of 2016, after Turner was sentenced to six months in jail, the voice was unhindered. The sentences accrete and snap like water meeting hot oil, the conversational voice is dam-breaking, surging with annoyance, anger, and fatigue; we did not know the author’s identity, and yet we might imagine a speaking voice, young and gaining courage as she went on. “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside of me, and that’s why we’re here today” was Emily Doe’s first transportive address to her assailant. Emily Doe unwound the literary problem; she eclipsed the narratives that hinged on appraisals of the social worth of her assailant; she wrote the strongest story of what to her must have felt like nothing so crafted.
Earlier this year, with the announcement of a memoir, “Know My Name,” the identity of Emily Doe was revealed. She is Chanel Miller, now twenty-seven. She is Chinese-American, and an artist and a writer. And “Know My Name” is the product of rigorous writerly attention. In the introduction, Miller is stern, in stating that her book is “not a personal indictment, not a clapback, a blacklist, a rehashing.” It reads like a disclaimer that Miller has directed partially to herself. If “Know My Name” had been shaped in these slicker forms—a corrective, a tell-all—readers sympathetic to Miller would have readily received her rage, whatever her tone. But Miller situates victimhood as a conduit to expertise, and trauma as a mode of human insight.
Versions of Miller’s story, from the measured to the uninformed, have weeded the media for nearly four years. Miller is a gifted storyteller who establishes her authority by stacking details, setting scenes. Often, she uses italics to represent a chorus of intrusive thoughts, the devil’s-advocate thinking that presses on her best judgment. In 2015, Miller was a recent college graduate, working at a startup, and living at home with her parents in the Bay Area. We meet her artful mother, a writer who wins awards for works that she publishes in China; her younger sister, Tiffany, who Miller feels a bracing need to protect; her gentle father, who cooks a meal of broccoli and quinoa for Tiffany, Miller, and Tiffany’s friend Julia, on January 17th, 2015, the night they decided to attend a party at the fraternity Kappa Alpha at Stanford. “I, to this day, believe none of what I did that evening is important, a handful of disposable memories. But these events will be relentlessly raked over, again and again and again,” Miller writes.
In what feels like slow motion, Miller pieces together what happened to her, first at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, where she awakes to find herself sore, the backs of her hands crusted with blood. Two Swedish grad students had found Turner on top of her by a dumpster at Kappa Alpha; he fled when they yelled at him, but they detained him until police arrived. She was found, according to intake documents, with “no wallet, no I.D.” She fills out paperwork, administrative flotsam that unceremoniously informs of her new identity: “I stopped when I saw the words Rape Victim in bold at the top of the sheet.” For a few days, Miller doesn’t tell her parents; she dreads telling her long-distance boyfriend, Lucas. She learns that Turner had also harassed Tiffany at the party. Later, as the case becomes a national story, Miller develops a coping strategy, a bifurcating of the self. It is the actions of Emily Doe that are dissected in the news. Emily Doe complies with the investigation, producing herself for court at the drop of a dime. Emily Doe goes to Kohl’s, searching for the proper blouse for trial. Emily Doe endures demeaning treatment from Turner’s defense attorney during cross examination. Emily Doe finds out that photos of her naked body were shown in court.
The perverse ideal of the perfect victim pervades the book. Chanel Miller upends her life, conscripted into chasing an increasingly elusive justice. She goes on long bike rides to clear her head. She quits her job. She moves to Rhode Island to attend a print-making class at RISD. Men catcall her on the street; she breaks down, in one instance, and screams. Some days, living with Lucas in Philadelphia for a spell, she barely leaves her bed. She is caught in an endless scroll, consuming commenters’ opinions of her conduct. We get to know her anger, and her cheek. I was surprised to find myself laughing, reading about Miller at Kohl’s, looking for court outfits, joking about wearing a graphic T-shirt that said “BLESSED.” Miller has recognizable contemporary politics, and she is radicalized by her gruelling two-year experience in court—in particular, by Judge Aaron Persky’s lenient sentencing of Turner, after the verdict is returned guilty. “I wondered if, in their eyes, the victim remained stagnant, living forever in that twenty-minute time frame. She remained frozen, while Brock grew more and more multifaceted, his stories unfolding a spectrum of life and memories opening up around him.”
The survivorship of Chanel Miller is irrepressibly political. In “Know My Name,” she observes her own ordeal by adopting the stance of a reporter, a media critic, and an activism-minded theorist. She is heartbreakingly resourceful, marshalling her subjectivity as evidence of a system set up to protect the potential of a boy like Turner. Miller sketches a network of complicity, the rough fringes of a larger cultural crisis. We learn that Miller was on lockdown during Elliot Rodger’s misogyny-driven rampage at the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara. She locates the through line connecting her case to the murder of Philando Castile, to the election of Donald Trump. Prosecutors would do well to read Miller’s discernments. “Instead of a nineteen-year-old Stanford athlete, let’s imagine a Hispanic nineteen-year-old working in the kitchen of the fraternity commits the same crime. Does this story end differently? Does The Washington Post call him a surgeon?” Miller asks. (The paper had quoted a letter from Turner’s sister, pleading for leniency at his sentencing and mourning Turner’s dreams of becoming a surgeon.) She reproduces questioning from the transcripts of the trial, in effect, giving readers the most comprehensive summary of the legal proceedings. “Know My Name” contains a forceful critique of the complicity of liberal institutions like Stanford, which seem more afraid of upsetting sensibilities than they are concerned with doing right by survivors like Miller. Despite how she was treated by Turner and by the justice system, no person is a monster in Miller’s eyes. At his sentencing, Miller observes that “he stood hunched, holding a single sheet of paper,” from which he reads his vacant apology. “He had lived shielded under a roof where the verdict was never accepted, where he would never be held accountable,” she writes. Miller humanizes Turner. Anything less would be absolving him of responsibility.
“Anything I do in the future will be by the victim who wrote a book,” Miller writes. “I did not come into existence when he harmed me. She found her voice! I had a voice, he stripped it, left me groping around blind for a bit, but I always had it. I just used it like I never had to use it before.” There prevails an expectation that survivors maintain their tact. That they emerge to expose their wounds, retreat when the bleeding comes. “Know My Name” reminds me of E. Jean Carroll’s book “What Do We Need Men For?” In Carroll’s list of “hideous men,” which includes the President of the United States, Carroll is indirect, slightly fugitive. She shirks expectation with a deliberately detached tone that may mirror how she has processed the events of her life. Miller’s writing début may have been precipitated by her assault, but the final work devitalizes its horrific beginnings. No narrative is as persuasive as Miller’s. There is no more self-effacing sobriety, no more conclusions plastering confusion and fury. Know her name, know her voice.