Chanel Miller’s Story Needed to Be Told in Her Own Words

Chanel Miller. Photo: CBS/Youtube, Amazon

The day after Chanel Miller was attacked, she and two nurses at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center set to work pulling dozens of sharp pine needles out of her hair, some of which had become embedded in her scalp after she was pushed to the ground behind a dumpster at the Kappa Alpha fraternity and sexually assaulted by Stanford student Brock Turner. “[We] slid the pine needles out one by one, placing them into a white bag,” she writes in her new memoir, Know My Name, out tomorrow. “I felt the snags of pieces getting caught, a sharp twinge when threads were plucked off my scalp. Pulling and pulling until the bag was stuffed to the brim with sticks and hair.”

Two years into the #MeToo movement, the countless stories of violent assault that have emerged sometimes seem to blur together, lost in a sea of recurring tropes and images. So when I picked up Chanel Miller’s memoir of being assaulted on the Stanford campus in 2015, I didn’t really expect to feel anything new. I didn’t expect her images to stick in my head the way they did, or for the book to unlock reservoirs of emotion and empathy I thought had long since dried up. And I can’t stop thinking about the pine needles.

In Know My Name, Chanel Miller tells us the story of the past four years of her life. You probably know some of it from the headlines: from “Stanford Swimmer to Face Charges for Publicly Raping Unconscious Woman (2015)” to “Here’s the Powerful Letter the Stanford Victim Read to Her Attacker (2016)” to “California Voters Remove Judge Aaron Persky, Who Gave a 6-Month Sentence for Sexual Assault” (2018). Know My Name tells us not just what it was like to live through these major cultural flash-points, but also all the moments in-between. The book is Miller’s attempt to reclaim her identity after Turner sexually assaulted her and she became “Emily Doe” — a naked body without a name, a context, a history. In how much she reveals of herself, Miller provides one of the most moving and humanizing depictions of sexual assault I have ever read.

At the time of the attack, Miller was 22 years old, working at a tech start-up in her home of Palo Alto, when she and her younger sister Tiffany went to a party on the neighboring Stanford campus. She blacked out and woke up in the hospital, learning that she was found next to a dumpster with her underwear removed. She writes about finding out the details of her assault the same way all the rest of us did — by reading about them online one day at work. “Google finally sat me down and broke the news. I slouched in my rolling chair, listening to the clacking keyboards, someone refilling their water.” As she makes this horrifying discovery, Miller brings us into the room with her, and makes us feel the discomfort and dissociative shock of having your most intimate bodily violation turned into a news story. When she scrolls past a photo of Turner, she writes “I stared at this man while he smiled back at me. I had been told I was found passed out with a man around me. No one had ever said, The man was found inside you.”

Initially, she decides to keep her assault a secret from her family and friends, attempting to separate herself from the “Emily Doe” in the news. “Emily and I lived separate lives,” she writes, bringing vivid color to descriptions of her daily life. “My days were wonderfully ordinary, full of movement and texture; fresh salmon dinners with crispy skin, long talks on the phone with Lucas [her boyfriend] … Emily lived in a tiny world, narrow and confined. She didn’t have any friends, appeared only occasionally to go to the courthouse, police station, or make calls in the stairwell. I did not like her fragility, how quietly she spoke and how she seemed to know nothing. I knew she was hungry for nourishment, to be acknowledged and cared for, but I refused to recognize her needs.” Any woman who has been assaulted — indeed, any person who has suffered a trauma — recognizes this sort of coping mechanism, how we keep our inner selves tucked away in order to present a strong face to the world. We see how Miller does this too initially, letting her loved ones access only a small portion of her suffering.

The story of Know My Name is in part the story of Chanel reconciling herself with Emily, and of learning that her vulnerability is a strength. She is raw and exposed, and her openness feels like a revelation. At times it’s like reading the diary of a friend. We get to know her through her sense of humor and her artistic vision, and even in the book’s darkest moments, I came to love the way the world looked through her eyes. When Stanford turns the site of her assault into a pathetic memorial garden, absent other meaningful institutional interventions (like putting lights up around campus, as she requested), she envisions a series of other artworks she would create on that site instead. One might be a piece called Construction, where each assault victim is given a nail for every day she has lived with what happened to her, and they drill them into a pile of wood in the center of campus whenever they please, so everyone can hear the drilling all day long. Or, maybe a light instillation, with lanterns to illuminate all the dark and unsafe corners of campus. “I’d call this piece All I Wanted,” she says, wryly.

We also learn of her nightmares, her anxieties, her moments of shame and weakness, as well as all the other normal-girl stuff that’s happening in her life, like her blossoming relationship with her boyfriend Lucas. It’s a fairly new relationship, and she’s still trying to put on her best face for him. Yet reading the statement Lucas has to submit to court about her mental state, Miller realizes how much her assault has affected the people she cares about. “I ached from the way this ugly event had reared its head in our relationship as we struggled to incorporate it into our lives,” she writes. “But mostly I was touched … He could’ve kept my pain at arm’s length, a safe distance away, or removed himself entirely. Instead he had been on the other side of the bathroom door, listening, trying to figure out how to care for the new me.”

Know My Name features the kind of intimate, coming-of-age storytelling that you don’t find in a typical story about a crime and its aftermath. We learn about the insecurity Miller dealt with growing up, the years of Sally Hansen spray tans and peach-colored pantyhose she wore to cover her eczema, and how any comfort she had gained with her own body was ripped away from her after the assault. “During sex, my body began asking my mind, What’s happening? Where are you? Who are you with?,” she says. “My body kept asking permission, is this okay, will we be blamed? It was inhibiting, did not allow for stallion-riding, flower-blooming, rooster-crowing, paper-shuffling, passionate lovemaking. Instead I had a small finicky secretary I was reporting to.Since #MeToo, we talk often about the tangible costs of trauma — financial costs, for example, or a PTSD diagnosis — but it’s rare that we talk about the way it robs women of their own bodies, the way it takes away the freedom to be sexual, and how that is just as much of a loss. Later on in the book, as Miller begins her journey to recovery, it’s powerful to watch her fight to reclaim those things. “I wrote out a collection of sensory memories from childhood, recalling how it felt to be nourished and soothed. Rice steaming, rain outside … The scorch of cocoa, the sticky film of melted marshmallow … I am reminded what I am capable of feeling.” Miller shares with us the small survival tactics that get her through each day, like how in one very low moment, she goes and gets a haircut just to feel hands touching her body. It’s deeply moving to see how she tries to remain open to beauty, and how she is the kind of person who takes the time to notice small kindnesses and to return them. “My neck was craned back … The woman had back bangs and wore an orange apron,” she recalls. “She cradled my head beneath a hot stream of water, my hair wet and heavy and full of lavender. I asked her questions about her life and each one of her answers pulled me a little up out of myself, her worries, her relationships, her pregnancy, her bunnies … the day was saved.” There are so many little moments like this.

Some of the most affecting parts of the book are about the legal system and the grueling trial that Miller underwent, which ultimately resulted in Brock getting a six-month sentence (of which he served three). I wrote recently about the show Unbelievable, and how it represents a new type of #MeToo artifact, one that goes beyond the shocking moment of violation and provides a more holistic understanding of how our system sets victims up for failure. Know My Name is an excruciating account of the myriad indignities and inconveniences it took to arrive at such an unsatisfying result. It shows how what Turner’s dad glibly dismissed as “twenty minutes of action” can go on to affect every moment of a victim’s life. “In swimming, one-hundredth of a second is the difference between victory and loss,” writes Miller. “Yet they wanted to write off twenty minutes as insignificant. Who counts the six hour flights we took back and forth across the country? Who counts the doctor visits, the hours spent wringing my hands in therapy, the nights spent lying awake? Who counts the trips to Kohl’s, wondering is this blouse too tight? Who counts the days devoid of writing or reading or creating, instead wondering why I should wake up in the morning. Who counts it?”

Miller does. She lets us see her in quiet moments and jubilant ones, in moments of doubt and moments of strength. She lets us know the tedium of unpacking her suitcase after a canceled court date, the indignity of seeing fragments of her naked body projected for a courtroom full of people, the joy of connecting with other survivors online after her statement goes viral. In giving us the gift of knowing her, Miller has written a singular testament to the human cost of sexual violence, and a powerful reminder of why we fight.

Chanel Miller’s Story Needed to Be Told in Her Own Words