Like over fifteen million other people, I read Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement when it was first published. Like many others, I wept as I read it. Because even though it wasn’t my story, it was the story of so many women around me. A story I sometimes wonder if I have walked the edges of…If I had drunk a little more that night. If the young man who got off the bus after me and followed me down a dark street hadn’t called out, “I’m not following you, I live down this road.” If the taxi hadn’t pulled to the curb at just that moment. I cried because I have two daughters and this is so much of what I fear most for them. Because I want to believe they are growing up in a changing, better world but the evidence says, maybe not. I cried because Miller was so raw, so honest, so brutal in her telling of her own story. Because her story had been told over and over again in the media without her voice and here she was, taking it back, showing the world a glimpse of who she was. At that time, Miller was still protected by a media black-out, hidden behind the assumed name of Emily Doe. Her identity was protected but her rapist’s name and pictured had been splashed across newspapers and websites. Brock Turner. The Stanford swimmer found sexually assaulting an unconscious woman beside a dumpster. The assault and the case was already in the media but Miller’s victim impact statement catapulted it to viral status, her words speaking for so many who had been kept silent. Infamously, Turner was found guilty but only sentenced to six months. He ended up serving three.
In Know My Name, with incredible bravery and ferocious honest, Miller takes back her identity. A victim yes, but not one belonging to Turner. She takes us back to the night of her assault, getting ready for a party with her sister, acting silly with her friends. In excruciating detail, she describes waking up in the hospital, the experience of submitting to a rape kit, the slow realization of what happened to her. And then the painful and drawn out process of the courts. It takes years. Miller’s entire life is put on hold. The pain ripples out to her family and friends. This book is an answer to the question, Why don’t more sexual assault victims report the assault?
Turner was caught in the act by two witnesses (and God bless those two Swedish men who saved her) and arrested immediately. Miller went straight to the hospital, underwent the invasive process of the rape kit, gave her statement to the police that same day. Her sister and the friends present at the same party gave their statements. The case received attention and pressure from the public. Turner still received the lightest possible sentence. Miller was still dragged through the court systems, her personal history dredged up and pored over. Her clothing and her drinking was criticized. Turner, on the other hand, was consistently described by his athletic achievements, his status as a student at Stanford. His father described the assault as “twenty minutes of action”.
Know My Name is both painful and compelling. As evidenced in her initial victim impact statement, Miller is an eloquent and powerful writer. I could have read the book in one sitting, even knowing exactly how it all turned out. I couldn’t read it in one sitting because I had to pause many times, step out of the narrative to take a breath of fresh air, say a prayer over my little girls, blink back the tears. Miller doesn’t shy away from the details, from the continuing effects of that night, and she doesn’t offer easy answers for a happy ending. We see her parents, her sister, her friends – all the people who gather around to support her and who are also hurting. For the first time, we get to see Emily Doe as a complete person. A 22-year-old with a boyfriend and job, who is funny on stage but shy in person. An artist and a writer. More than just a victim.
As well, Miller does an excellent job of placing her story within our current society. Not just “campus culture” (which Turner blamed for convincing him to drink and be “sexually promiscuous”) but the larger cultural issues of mass shootings and #MeToo. Miller describes her experience during the Isla Vista shooting in 2014, her reaction to Trump’s election, and to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, among other events. It is a reminder that her assault did not occur in a bubble, was not a one-off event. In one small story she describes buying a desk off Craigslist. A couple delivers it to her apartment and offer to carry it upstairs for her. The woman expresses an understanding of why Miller might not want strangers in her apartment but her male partner can only think, “How else would she get it up there?” Miller spends pages detailing men catcalling her, yelling at her aggressively. She records some of these interactions and sends them to her boyfriend. “How often does this happen?” he asks. “Everyday” is her response, one that surprises him but would surprise no woman who has lived in a city.
Perhaps most powerful of all is Miller’s description of her growing understanding of her own place. Without her consent and against her will, she was given a place to speak. So many victims of sexual assault are not given their chance in court, are silenced before they can even speak. It’s a role she didn’t want but she comes to step into it beautifully, speaking for women everywhere, telling them, “I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you.” Now, once more, under her own name, Chanel Miller steps into the spotlight. This is a book everyone should read.