“Nobody wants to be defined by the worst thing that’s happened to them”
In January 2015, in a frat party at the campus of Stanford University, Chanel Miller was sexually assaulted by a man named Brock Turner. Her 12-page victim impact statement went viral but she was reduced to “Emily Doe.” It would take years for her to be given justice; reputation, money and influence would play a heavy role in it.
For years, she chose anonymity. In her memoir Know My Name, she reclaims her identity and declares her presence. Make no mistake, Chanel Miller refuses to be Brock Turner’s victim—or anything; she refuses to belong to him.
She describes the sexual assault in harrowing detail, “He filled a cavity in my body with his hands. I believe he is not absolved of the title [rapist] simply because he ran out of time.” She adds, “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. What I did, what I said, will all be sliced, measured, calculated, presented to the public for evaluation.”
Because she had alcohol in her body that night, Brock Turner was freed of moral culpability. She was upheld in an impossible standard of purity to appease the public—but why are victims to blame? “I didn’t know that being a victim was synonymous with not being believed,” she writes.
While writing her memoir, Chanel was always illustrating as a way of letting her mind breathe. In her short film she co-directed called I Am With You, she shares, “When you are assaulted, an identity is given to you. It threatens to swallow up everything you plan to do and be. I became Emily Doe. Nobody wants to be defined by the worst thing that’s happened to them.” Creating, in this sense, was her way of healing.
Reading her memoir is difficult; it’s like being punched in your gut every other page. It’s every woman’s worst fear come to life—while she walks alone at night in dark-lit areas—having that familiar unease buried inside her chest. It’s having that reflex in crowded rooms to be cautious and sober, even amid this post #MeToo era. This dread never goes away.
On being a survivor of sexual assault, she writes, “I always wondered why survivors understood other survivors so well. Why, even if the details of our attacks vary, survivors can lock eyes and get it without having to explain. Perhaps it is not the particulars of the assault itself that we have in common, but the moment after; the first time you are left alone. Something slipping out of you. Where did I go. What was taken. It is terror swallowed inside silence. An unclipping from the world where up was up and down was down. This moment is not pain, not hysteria, not crying. It is your insides turning to cold stones. It is utter confusion paired with knowing. Gone is the luxury of growing up slowly.”
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As part of TIME’s 100 Next List, Chanel Miller believes it’s possible to achieve justice without fully dehumanizing the victim. She hopes that her memoir would undo what many sexual assault survivors start believing about themselves and, ultimately, illuminate life after trauma. There is no space for shame, isolation and oppression here.
Gold veins adorn the book jacket of Know My Name. This represents the centuries-old Japanese art of kintsugi or “golden repair,” wherein broken pottery is given new life by mending cracks with powdered gold and lacquer. Although one cannot return to its original state, fragments can be made whole again.
Art Alexandra Lara