From the moment I cracked open Chanel Miller’s memoir, Know My Name, I’ve been struggling to find the words to capture its essence and its beauty. For more than three years, Miller has been known to the world as Emily Doe, the woman sexually assaulted by Brock Turner, the victim who saw her rapist make headlines when he was given a lenient six-month sentence. As I read Miller’s book, I couldn’t imagine anything I’d write being enough to describe her singularly breathtaking, gut-wrenching, and affirming work. Miller’s voice first shone through in a victim-impact statement that went viral after it was published by BuzzFeed News, but she still remained anonymous even as the case sparked a national outcry—one that eventually led to the recall of Turner’s sentencing Judge Aaron Persky.
The case dominated news headlines as various publications lamented Turner’s fall from Stanford University swimmer to convicted rapist. Favorable coverage of Turner—the Washington Post described him as “baby-faced” and “All-American” and included several paragraphs about his preternatural talent for swimming—made his wasted future, rather than Miller, the victim of the story. It was both a disgrace and just another chapter in America’s storied history of disbelieving rape victims and botching their paths to justice. But Miller’s statement shook the conscience of the nation, forcing a much-needed reckoning with what it means to be violated by a court system that doesn’t believe or care about you.
Miller’s impact statement reached further than she ever expected it to: More than three years later, I still remember whole sections of the statement, like her description of pressing refrigerated spoons to her eyes in the middle of the night to “lessen the swelling so that I could see.” Elsewhere, she wrote, “I used my savings to go as far away as I could possibly be. I did not return to work full time as I knew I’d have to take weeks off in the future for the hearing and trial, that were constantly being rescheduled. My life was put on hold for over a year, my structure had collapsed.” With Know My Name, Miller takes the might of that statement and embeds it in a larger story about how she arrived in that courtroom.
The book opens not on the night of Miller’s assault, but during elementary school, when Miller was so shy that she was given the role of grass during a school play about a safari. “I’ve never thrown my own birthday party,” she writes. “I’ll put on three sweaters before I ask you to turn on the heat. I’m okay with losing board games. I stuff my coins haphazardly into my purse to avoid holding up the checkout line. When I was little I wanted to grow up and become a mascot, so I’d have the freedom to dance without being seen.” We get to know Miller as a self-effacing and fervent protector of her younger sister and a keeper of her family’s emotions. She didn’t tell her parents about the assault for weeks because she wanted to shield them, and by extension herself, for as long as possible, keeping their home a place unaffected by this ordeal.
In describing the moment she finally tells the truth to her parents, Miller compares it to the dynamics of geese flying in a V formation: The one at the front bears the brunt of the wind, and once that becomes too grueling flies to the back so another goose can share the burden. “This was the only way to make the journey… I had spent two weeks pumping my wings, keeping a calm face, to protect my flock from brutal conditions,” she writes. “But resilience takes rest.” The descriptions of Miller’s family also serve to illustrate the way life marches on even in the face of unimaginable pain. She writes in a way that evokes a visceral empathy: As she talks about getting ready to go out in front of her bedroom mirror, you can see yourself doing the same.
She talks about how she would bring desserts to her sister at recess whenever they got them at school or about reaching over to catch her vomit on a plane and you can feel yourself doing the same for a loved one. When she writes about being catcalled on the street before being assaulted, you can also feel their eyes and hear the slow creep of their tires on the pavement. “Walking down the street was like being tossed bombs,” she writes about life after the assault. “Women are raised to work with dexterity, to keep their nimble fingers ready, their minds alert… when a woman is assaulted one of the first questions people ask is Did you say no? This question assumes that the answer is always yes, and that it is her job to revoke the agreement. To defuse the bomb she was given. But why are they allowed to touch us until we physically fight them off? Why is the door open until we have to slam it shut?”
Know My Name allows readers to breathe in universal experiences, but Miller’s weaving of her day-to-day life with the lingering trauma of her assault also illustrates the singular way sexual-assault victims are asked to move through the world. They are tasked with carrying not only the weight of the violence they suffered, but the expectations imposed on victims, the conversations we have about sexual assault, and society’s repugnant insistence on holding steadfast to tropes about the “perfect” victim. Miller recalls panicking during a routine pap smear, sitting paralyzed with anxiety after the exam and after watching a serial sexual predator being elected to the highest office in the nation. “I was hit with the same feeling I’d had when the judge said six months,” she says. “Blindsided. Blindsided. Wrecked.”
Both the assault and the subsequent police investigation are detailed in the book with profound clarity and resonance. Miller offers vivid details about her hospital visit, the long and drawn-out process of having a rape kit performed, and the spectacle that accompanied a trial where she was referred to only as “Emily Doe.” Moments from the book stick with you: Miller describes, for instance, stepping away from detectives to use the bathroom and realizing that she’s alone for the first time since waking up in the hospital. “My thumbs grazed the sides of my thighs, touching skin, catching nothing,” she writes of the numbness and shock. “Odd. I repeated the motion. I flattened my hands to my hips, rubbed my palms along my thighs as if they’d materialize, rubbing and rubbing, until heat was created and then my hands stopped.”
Miller also recounts police, nurses, and advocates fluttering around her, taking swabs and samples with compulsory explanations, never stopping to detail what had happened to her. And at that moment, perhaps they didn’t have all the answers. But Miller’s account of that night starkly underscores that victim’s bodies are treated like evidence, but victims themselves are rarely embraced with the same urgency or care. “No one explained why my underwear was gone,” she says of that night in the hospital. “Why my hands were bleeding, why my hair was dirty, why I was dressed in funny pants.” One of the book’s most striking revelations, in fact, is how Miller came to learn the details of her assault in an online article that she read, days later, while sitting at her desk at work: “I was at my desk sipping a mug of coffee, scrolling through a sandwich menu for lunch. I clicked back to the news on my homepage, saw Stanford athlete, saw raping an unconscious woman,” she writes. “I clicked again, my screen filed with two blue eyes and a neat row of teeth, freckles, red tie, black suit. I had never seen this man before. Brock Turner.”
Her retelling of the trial is unrelenting, critical, and painfully clear-eyed about how much of an ordeal these experiences are, and how baffling it is that the legal system puts victims through invasive ordeals that many times compound the violence they’ve already experienced. We force them to relive trauma after trauma to prove that they’re traumatized enough to be believable or sympathetic. This revictimization, as well as the way survivors are expected to perform exactly how the court and society needs them to is on full display in Know My Name. We demand a lot from sexual assault victims: We demand they behave, remember, respect authority, and dress with consideration of the monsters who are flush with hormones and reaching for them, grabbing at them, violating them.
We demand they perform grief, but not too much, lest they come across as unhinged. We demand they work hard and stay sane—but not so sane that they seem callous or unaffected. We demand they be strong—not for their own comfort but in order to forge through trials and public humiliations. We demand they lay bare the most upsetting the most personal, the most excruciating of moments in as much detail as they can recall. But Know My Name is a crucial reminder that no one is entitled to a victim’s story. Bearing witness is a privilege that we should only ever access at the victim’s will, on their time, and on their terms. Know My Name stands as a testament to the inherent strength of survivors who are often reduced to the worst traumas of their lives. “I am a victim,” Miller writes. “I have no qualms with this word, only with the idea that it is all I am.”