Trigger Warning: sexual assault
In January, 2015, twenty-two year-old artist and writer, Chanel Miller, was unconscious when 19 year-old Brock Turner sexually assaulted her on the ground behind a fraternity house at Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA). In June, 2016, Turner was found guilty on all charges, and Ms. Miller addressed him in court at his sentencing, with a twelve-page statement she wrote from her court alias, ‘Emily Doe.’ The statement was published and went viral. In 2019, she published the memoir about her experience during those years and publicly married her alias and herself with, “Know My Name.”
I qualified her, but not him, in my description here, because the press and the subsequent hearings gave him plenty of empathy and personhood (“potential,” “student athlete,” “loves to eat steak”), while she was just the alleged victim.
First of all, Ms. Miller is an exquisite writer and I’ll read any and everything she writes. She gingerly and thoughtfully peels back each layer, taking us deeper and deeper into her mind and the moments of those painful, terrifying, maddening years of understanding and healing from the trauma and enduring the court case. She answers every question we’ve never been allowed to ask, as bystanders, witnesses, or even victims ourselves. She potently, clearly, sometimes hilariously, explains how she felt, what she knows, how she found and maintained her sense of self in the midst of so much dehumanization. The victim never gets to be a whole person, but she is colorful, vibrant, and known. Because of her words, her courage, her generosity, we all get to know her, and what it’s been like for her, what it’s like for others. The story does not end with her on the ground where he left her, but with her rising, speaking, firm on her feet, walking herself to the podium.
The book is one of the most feminist, empowering, things I’ve read. It crushed and built me. It made me feel like “Fuck, this is what it’s like to be a woman….and also, fuck this is what it’s like to be a woman!”
Men harm us and then patriarchy tries to convince us that it was our fault; that the harm is not really happening, that we are what they say, not what we say. That we are the things done to us. It is hard to decipher who we are in the face of this, to insist on gathering all the parts of ourselves back up, when they’ve been spilled all over, torn away. Over and over, we find and put them back together, counting them, so we know we’re still here, still able to be whole. Pieces are taken, we hunt them down, count them, put them back. What keeps us counting is the women around us, or those we’ve witnessed, also counting theirs, maybe helping us count ours. And the idea that our collecting ours will give other women hope that their parts are worth finding and reassembling, too.
Similar to how I felt when watching the phenomenal show, “Unbelievable,” the power and voice here are so clearly, so uniquely, from women, and for women. In both cases, they’re from the perspective of women who have been sexually assaulted by men-then it’s all about their choices, their feelings and experiences, discovery and recovery, the backwards way the police and justice system work against them, but it shows them continuing to be. The cover art for ‘Unbelievable’ is a woman in a sweatshirt, standing, arms folded, looking down, at herself. The hurt is real, the complications of what to do with that hurt, especially in the face of a system bent on disproving that hurt, is very real, but her might is real, too. She stands.
One of the profound things about “Know my Name” is how vividly it shows the agonizing process of having the crime against you tried in court. The ‘burden of proof’ is heavy, and it’s so clear how victims of these crimes would decide they can’t/won’t endure the re-traumatizing, the body and privacy violations, the blame, OH THE BLAME, the financial cost, the time cost, the life cost of it all. Ms. Miller must have wanted to give up over and over, to just do her best to move on, but her going through, and describing, each delay, each baby step of this infinite process, helps us to understand her, each other, ourselves, and ultimately work to fix the system set against us.
Seldom do assaults make it all the way through the criminal justice system to a verdict, and even more seldom is that verdict guilty. In this book, we see all the millions of reasons why not. In this case, by what felt like a minor miracle, a guilty verdict was reached, but even then, the expected penalty of 2–6 years in prison became a mere six months in county jail, when the judge focused his concern for the consequences of the crime on the perpetrator of it. The sentence was considered insufficient and insulting, and in another miracle, the judge was voted off the bench the next year. The system is not impenatrable. This is a powerful lesson for us all to learn. It gives us courage to keep gathering our pieces, to keep telling our stories.
One out of every six women you know has been assaulted- typically by a man. You also know perpetrators of sexual assault. Some 17 million women in America have suffered completed or attempted assaults by men, the number of rapes in a year approximately that of our current COVID death number. These women are left trying to find the pieces that were taken, to put themselves together again, to live life through and around and despite this trauma. This book helped to re-frame them as warriors, as fighters, as people, instead of as just victims. Also, it helped us see how our society is hateful and untrusting of victims of these crimes, of women in general, how we re-victimize them again and again, keeping wounds fresh and flowing.
This book is such a gift of radical healing. It left me feeling hopeful and fierce, seen. Ten out of five stars. Everyone should read this.