By Harriet Gray
It is not the purpose of this blog to offer reviews of the cultural products with which I engage. I am not here to pass judgement on the quality of artistic expression that characterises the cultural products discussed herein – firstly because I am not qualified to do so, and secondly because attempting to rank the quality of, in particular, cultural products made by survivors, from a position of academic privilege would be…. yuck.
That said, it is difficult to talk about Chanel Miller’s memoir, Know my Name, without emphasising that it is a truly brilliant, searing piece of writing. It is stunning. Indeed, one can’t really discuss Miller’s story without at least noting the quality of her writing, because if she were not such a good writer, her story would likely have ended differently. It was because her powerful gut-punch of a victim impact statement – published in full on BuzzFeed news in the aftermath of her attacker’ sentencing – went viral (the post was read 11 million times in the first four days alone) that Miller’s story ends, as it does, in changes to California law, the recall of a judge from the bench, and a fire lit in bellies around the world.
In January 2015, Chanel Miller, then aged 22, attended a party at a fraternity house on Stanford campus with her younger sister Tiffany and friends. She was later sexually assaulted behind a dumpster outside the frat house by Brock Turner, a 19-year-old Stanford student who was also at the party. Turner had been making aggressive advances towards multiple women at the party, including Tiffany, whom he had tried to kiss, clearly against her wishes, on two occasions (p. 26). Like many people at the party – and indeed at student parties in many places around the globe – Miller was drinking alcohol. At some point during the party, she became separated from her sister and friends. Turner found her, highly intoxicated. She fell down behind a dumpster outside the fraternity house, too drunk to walk. As she lay passed out on the ground, Turner pulled her dress down over her breasts. He took off her underwear and put his fingers inside her vagina. When Miller came to, she was in a medical centre, her underwear gone, her hair full of pine needles, debris in her vagina, waiting to be examined to document evidence of sexual assault.
Turner’s assault of Miller was interrupted by two Swedish graduate students – Peter Lars Jonsson and Carl-Fredrik Arndt – who were cycling across the campus. The two Swedes spotted Turner and Miller on the ground and, noticing that Miller was unconscious, confronted Turner, asking, not unreasonably, “What the fuck are you doing? She’s unconscious.” In response, Turner got up and tried to run away but, while Arndt checked that Miller was breathing, Jonsson chased Turner, and the two men were then able to hold him down until law enforcement arrived.
Turner was eventually convicted at trial of three felonies: assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object. Miller wrote her victim impact statement, the one that would later go viral after being published on Buzzfeed news, to read at the sentencing hearing. While the prosecutor recommended a six year prison sentence, however, Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to just six months in county jail (of which he served three months), followed by three years of probation. In addition, Turner will be a registered sex offender for the rest of his life.
For all of this time, Miller was known in public only as Emily Doe. In 2019, however, she gave up her anonymity and published her memoir. The memoir details Miller’s experiences in the years following the assault, focusing on her navigation of the court system and her gradual rebuilding of her life and her sense of identity. This blog post discusses the key themes that stood out, for me, in reading Miller’s book. First, I discuss how Miller compellingly takes the reader with her into her everyday life, showing us in vibrant detail how the tendrils of the assault and her subsequent engagements with the legal system wrapped themselves around so many mundane areas of her day-to-day existence. Next, I consider the devastating failings in the court system that her experiences bring to light. Finally, I reflect on how Miller’s work highlights and pushes forward some of the changes that, I hope, are characterising dominant narratives around victimhood in our contemporary era; emphasising the complexities and contradictions of victim identities, and most beautifully, in my opinion, a growing space for searing anger.
Descent into the ordinary
For me, the most compelling element of Miller’s account is the skill with which she takes us with her on her journey through the legal system and through rebuilding her life, putting into fine-grained context how she navigated everyday existence life within, alongside, and in the aftermath of Turner’s assault. In this, the memoir reminded me of anthropologist Veena Das’s powerful book Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. In her discussions of the 1947 partition of India and the 1984 assassination of Prime Minster Indira Gandhi, Das explores how the violent event “attaches itself with its tentacles into everyday life and folds itself into the recesses of the ordinary” (p. 1). Das asks questions such as “What is it to inhabit a world? How does one make the world one’s own?… What is it to lose one’s world?” (p. 2), and “What is it to pick up the pieces and to live in this very place of devastation?” (p. 6). Das’s anthropological fieldwork taught her “that life was recovered not through some grand gestures in the realm of the transcendent but through a descent into the ordinary”; and, drawing upon it, she seeks to understand “what happens to the subject and world when the memory of such events is folded into ongoing relationships” (p. 7-8). I do not mean to conflate the violence of partition and of the riots that Das takes as her focus with the violence that Miller experienced on Stanford campus: these are different forms and realms of violence, albeit no doubt connected along interlinked continua. Nonetheless, Miller’s book strikes me as a compelling exploration of how she, as a survivor, had to fold the violence of rape into her everyday life in the contemporary USA.
Chanel Miller takes us with her into her new ordinary. We walk with her through the minutia of her experiences after the assault. The experience of waking up in the hospital, of the gradual realisation of where she was and why, and every difficult, courageous step afterwards. We cannot of course truly feel what Chanel felt, but her writing gives us a window onto how the assault and the trial wove themselves into her everyday life. Through her writing, we get a glimpse not only into the drama of the court scenes – the stuff that makes it into the TV shows, the stuff that Miller herself said she was expecting from the system (p. 126) – but also the into the listlessness of the waiting: “the floating formless months,” the “treading water” that seemed to go on and on (p. 126). We sit with her in her frustration and her helplessness when hearings kept getting postponed, requiring her and her sister to repeatedly rearrange their lives, refusing to give them the space to move on, to breathe (pp. 102, 138).
She tells us how her mindset, her way of engaging with the world, changed. She became alienated from her body (p. 262); dependent on her boyfriend (p. 130); and fearful: she lost the feeling of safety, the freedom to be spontaneous, the ability to enjoy being alone (p. 260-261). She was afraid of Turner himself and of the possibility of violent retribution; unable to sleep, fearing the vulnerability that sleep might bring (p. 87-92). She became watchful of herself, second guessing her choices through what she calls “the lag”:
“I am always asking permission, anticipating having to present myself to an invisible jury, answering questions before a defence. When I reach for a piece of clothing, the first thing I think is, What will they think if I wear this? when I go anywhere I think, Will I be able to explain why I am going? If I post a photo I think, If this were submitted as evidence, would I look too silly, my shoulders too bare? The time I spend questioning what I am doing, turning things over and talking myself back to normalcy, has become the toll” (p. 270)
And, as well, she takes us into her coping mechanisms: running “for miles, winding through thin trails, past hills with barrel-bellied horses” (189); finding spaces – an art class, a comedy club – in which, slowly, she can “regrow” (p. 134).
The dance of the courtroom
Our descent into Miller’s everyday continues through her experiences with the legal system. We feel her bewilderment as her attempts to tell her story in court are clipped, limited, by the rules and conventions of the court that allow her only to directly answer the questions that are posed to her by the lawyers: “I watched my words fall like birds shot out of the air… I became wary of overstepping my bounds, wanting to avoid being cut off. He was teaching me to be afraid of speaking freely” (p. 111-112). This was not just a telling of her story, this was a complicated dance: Miller trying to get her story out between the cracks while Turner’s defence attorney tried to corner her into saying what he wanted her to say (p. 181). The disorientation caused by the interruptions, objections, and misleading questions (p. 180) posed by Turner’s defence lawyer made her feel suffocated: “I was suddenly aware of the defence’s palm wrapped firmly across the top of my head, holding me underwater, saying, Don’t you come up.” (p. 165; 162-173).
Miller takes us with her on her slow realisation that the system is deeply, devastatingly flawed. Money, she learns, can be used to twist the truth (p. 150); systemic privilege amplifies some voices and silences others (p. 273). Privilege, and the assumption of potential that is its gift, mitigates against the consequences that might apply to less privileged others (p. 281-282). Survivors of sexual violence were eliminated from the potential jury pool (p. 152) – this is a jury, the reader might wonder, of whose peers? Miller tells of her disillusionment as Turner lies on the stand: “swearing under oath was just a made-up promise. Honesty was for children” (p. 192). Even when Turner was found guilty (a victory which, she knows, most survivors will never experience), justice is not done. Judge Aaron Persky finds that Turner is genuinely remorseful, despite him refusing to accept the guilty verdict, despite him still saying that Miller had consented, despite him hiring a new lawyer to try to paint Miller as a drunk and a liar at appeal (p. 216-237). Miller’s fear of Turner’s potential for future violence, her will to see him re-educated and not just punished in the hope that he will not harm women in the future, is twisted (p. 216-220). In the end, Miller’s conclusion on the court system is damning: “A system does not exist for [victims]. The pain of this process couldn’t be worth it… This was not one bad sentence. This was the best we could hope for” (p. 241).
But even though the court system is a mess, there are victories. She realises, in the end, that she doesn’t just have to play by the rules – she can ask for more, victims can ask for more (p. 139). At the trial, she got to say no to Turner, “answering the question he’d never bothered to ask” (p. 171). No, no, no. “No,” she reminds us, “is the beginning and end of this story” (p. 171). And more than this, she changed the law. Following Miller’s case, and the outrage that accompanied it, bills were signed into law that changed California’s definition of rape to include digital penetration, and that introduced a new mandatory three-year prison sentence for the penetrative sexual assault of an unconscious person (p. 254). In addition, Judge Persky was recalled from the bench by voters in a 2018 state election. This was the first time a judge had been recalled in California for 80 years (p. 254).
The evolving victimhood ideal
In a previous post on this blog, I started to think about how dominant ideas about sexual assault victims might be changing. While this change is far, far from done with, it is increasingly recognised that the classic picture of the ‘ideal victim’ (virginal, sober, devastated, reports instantly, young, attractive, white, able-bodied) does not, never did, represent most experiences of sexual assault; that victimhood experiences are much, much more complicated and conflicted than this. Miller’s book picks up on, and beautifully crystallises, many of these shifts in the way that we think about victims, as well as about perpetrators.
She skewers the idea that perpetrators of sexual violence always and only monstrous:
“During the trial, the jury was forced to pick; is he wholesome or monstrous. But I never questioned that any of what they said about him was true. In fact I need you to know it was all true. The friendly guy who helps you move and assists senior citizens at the pool is the same guy who assaulted me. One person can be capable of both” (p. 194).
She points out that we communicate consent and non-consent all the time, without thinking about it:
“We act as if there is a single traffic light, red or green. But sex is a road lined with intersections, which way to go, when to slow down, to yield, to stop, to speed up. Verbal consent is often mocked for killing the mood. But think of how much organic communication we do in life. A sampling table at the grocery store; you pick up a cracker, make eye contact with the vendor, May I? and they nod, Enjoy. Subtle and swift” (p. 263)
She reminds us that drinking alcohol to the point of blackout is not a crime; that having a chaotic dating life or a broken heart or a succession of one-night-stands is not a crime – that none of this, ever, makes it OK for someone to touch a person against their will (pp. 66-67). Having been asked in minute details about her relationship with her boyfriend – how they met, when it became serious, when she last spoke to him, whether she had met his parents, whether they were exclusive – and about her actions on the night of the assault – what she ate, what she drank, where she peed, how she danced – she knows, and she makes sure that her reader knows, that none of it is relevant. That the only deciding factor in the fact that she was assaulted last night was the presence of a sexual predator (p. 4): “My answer to all of these questions was Brock Turner fingered me while I was unconscious” (p. 65).
Perhaps the part of our changing views on women and victimhood that makes me want to jump up and down on the sofa the most is the growing space for female anger. There is a long history of women’s anger being silenced. Miller knows this – when writing her victim statement, she thinks carefully about how to use her boiling anger: “how to make them listen? I did not want to be written off as a ranting victim” (p. 222). But she also sees how necessary, how freeing it can be – she talks of the “beautiful anger” that she witnessed at protests in Palo Alto in support of Christine Blasey Ford (p. 325). Women’s anger, of course, is still shamed, silenced, deemed ‘hysterical.’ But there are cracks in this, and Miller’s beautiful, glorious, righteous rage is a joy to encounter.
Miller is angry at Turner because of his entitlement, and at his family, for fostering that entitlement, and at the complete failure of any of them to place responsibility for what happened with Turner himself and his decisions. Turner’s father, he of the infamous “twenty minutes of action” statement, also said at the sentence hearing: “These verdicts have broken and shattered him and out family in so many ways” (p. 232). Miller responds:
“He spoke of the verdicts as if they were a disease that had befallen them. Verdict of what? Guilt. Guilt for what? Assault. Assault committed by whom? Brock. Your son has broken and shattered your family, but he could never say that… Brock’s stance suddenly made a lot more sense. He had lived shielded under a roof where the verdict was never accepted, where he would never be held accountable” (p. 232)
She is angry, also, that the court allowed Turner to blame alcohol for the assault he chose to perpetrate (p. 233). She is angry that the men in her life don’t understand what it is like to fear sexual harassment and yet to still want to be free to walk places (p. 82-83); she is angry that men on the street respect her boyfriend’s boundaries but not hers (p. 84), she is raging at the sexual harassment that she and her friends are just expected to tolerate (p. 95). Her anger rips beautifully through to the point, the whole point that is so often clouded by the dance of the courtroom and the muddying fog of rape culture:
“Fuck what you sipped, how you sipped, when you supped with whom, fuck if I danced on the table, fuck if I danced on the chair. You want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Your whole answer was sitting with his shoulders low, head down, his neatly cut hair. You want to know why my whole goddam family was hurting, why I lost my job, why I had four digits in my bank account, why my sister was missing school? It was because on a cool January evening, I went out, while that guy, that guy there, had decided that yes or no, moving or motionless, he wanted to fuck someone, intended to fuck someone, and it happened to be me” (p. 187).
I have read a lot about sexual violence over the past couple of decades, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like Miller’s book. I’ve thought for a while about how to wrap this blog post up, but I can’t do anything, in the end, but come back to Miller’s own words. So, I finish with two quotes, both from the viral victim impact statement. These quotes are particularly significant in that Miller proposed them to Stanford as appropriate quotes to put in the contemplative garden that was built on the site of the assault (more on this as the memorialisation research project develops). Both quotes were originally rejected by Stanford; the second was later adopted, after much public pressure and a four year delay. Both quotes capture something of what is so powerful about Miller’s book, in this moment.
“You made me a victim. In newspapers my name was ‘unconscious intoxicated woman,’ ten syllables, and nothing more than that. For a while, I believed that that was all I was. I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity. To relearn that this is not all that I am. That I am not just a drunk victim at a frat party found behind a dumpster, while you are the All-American swimmer at a top university, innocent until proven guilty, with so much at stake. I am a human being who has been irreversibly hurt, my life was put on hold for over a year, waiting to figure out if I was worth something.”
“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice — until today.”