By Rachel Zarrow
Know My Name by Chanel Miller (Viking, 2019) is the untold story of the person who the world came to know as Emily Doe, the victim of a widely reported 2015 sexual assault on Stanford’s campus. Though Know My Name is a memoir, the book is many other things—a victim’s manifesto, a story of love and loss, and a close examination of the broken systems that protect perpetrators and betray victims. Chanel Miller, the woman we meet in the pages of this book is many things too. She’s an activist, a victim, a writer, an artist, a comedian, a daughter, a sister, a visionary, and more.
This story is one of duality. Miller, a visual artist, describes a richly detailed world that contains both terror and beauty. Yes, her world is marred by darkness—rape, a rape trial, pain, abrasions, a stolen freedom, a stolen ease—but it’s also full of light. It is a colorful place filled with hope: landscapes dotted with California poppies and magnolia trees, seas filled with rare fish and glowing spaghetti anemone, neighborhoods dotted with rainbow colored Easter eggs and pink and yellow houses. Though it contains a sinister underbelly, this world can also be an inviting place, one in which the reader wants to linger.
By showing us both sides of her world, Miller reminds readers that there is hope. But she doesn’t shy away from the horrors of her experience. Miller guides us into her darkest, most horrible moments, inviting readers to take a close look even when it’s hard. She writes:
Victims exist in a society that tells us our purpose is to be an inspiring story. But sometimes the best we can do is tell you we’re still here, and that should be enough.
Denying darkness does not bring anyone closer to the light. When you hear a story about rape, all the graphic and unsettling details, resist the instinct to turn away; instead look closer, because beneath the gore and police reports is a whole, beautiful person, looking for ways to be in the world again. (312)
Miller does not present terror and beauty as dichotomous, in designations of after and before or now and then, but rather as two aspects of the same world. She even acknowledges that both good and evil may exist in her perpetrator. “The friendly guy who helps you move and assists senior citizens in the pool is the same guy who assaulted me. One person can be capable of both” (194).
Know My Name opens with a brief personal history of Miller, a few pages that introduce us to different moments in her life. Then, suddenly, we as readers are with her as she wakes up in a hospital to discover that she has been sexually assaulted. This framing reminds the reader of how little Turner knew of and cared for Miller—the woman whose life he was about to irrevocably disturb, whose body he was about to violate, whose joy he was about to steal—when he sexually assaulted her near a dumpster outside of a fraternity house on Stanford’s campus. Though sexual assault can also be inflicted by intimate partners or acquaintances, in Miller’s case, her rape was perpetrated by a complete stranger.
The book moves linearly from that moment on as Miller recounts the traumas she incurred after the rape itself. She describes how she lived a dual life, alternating between the identities of Chanel Miller and Emily Doe. Before the trial, Miller and her boyfriend travel to Indonesia, where they scuba dive. Of her experience seventy feet below sea level, Miller writes:
I left the pain, the kind that blinded me, that had me dreaming of sinking into nothingness, the kind that made me want to disappear. How could you want to leave the world if this is the world. All this beauty and strangeness. I felt it had been holding a secret, that just below the surface there were neon mountains, clams the size of bathtubs. All I had to do was equip myself to go deeper, to push past the initial pains, to teach myself to breathe. (142)
Upon returning home from Indonesia, Miller experiences countless delayed hearings and interruptions to daily life so acute that she ultimately ends up quitting her job. On her life after being raped and after deciding to prosecute, she writes:
Up until then I’d envisioned a limitless future. Now the lights went out, and two corridors lit up. You can walk down the one where you attempt to forget and move on. Or you can walk down the corridor that leads you back to him. There is no right choice; both are long and difficult and take indefinite amounts of time. I was still running my hands along the walls looking for a third door, to a corridor where this never happened, where I could continue the life I had planned. (46)
Throughout the book, Miller points to the myriad ways that society blames victims:
In rape cases it’s strange to me when people say, Well why didn’t you fight him? If you woke up to a robber in your home, saw him taking your stuff, people wouldn’t ask, Well why didn’t you fight him? Why didn’t you tell him no? He’s already violating an unspoken rule, why would he suddenly decide to adhere to reason? (50)
During the trial, when Turner’s defense attorney tries to strike part of Miller’s testimony as hearsay, she becomes “aware of the defense’s palm wrapped firmly across the top of my head, holding me underwater, saying, Don’t you come up. Perhaps he realized this was the most agonizing portion, wanted to silence me before the jury could hear it. I told myself to kick, you must kick hard” (165). Miller returns to the image of the sea but this time it’s dark and menacing.
Miller explains how during the trial she becomes aware of another way that her dignity was stolen. She creates an inventory of the men who saw her naked the night of her rape. The total is fourteen. And then, in another sucker punch, she realizes that she can’t even count the number of people who have seen her naked once she considers the photographs of her body that are projected in the courtroom as evidence.
Miller’s story inundates the reader with accounts of her most gut-wrenching moments and realizations. “I said, I do. Words I thought I’d speak first at my wedding, not my rape trial” (110). When Miller discovers that Turner will face only three months in jail, she wonders “if I was waking up to a truth that I had been the last one to realize; you are not worth three months. A smarter part of me knew this was not right, but I could not pretend to know better” (242). Yet Miller’s story does not end there:
But I also knew this feeling would not be infinite. As soon as the sun came up, the worst would be behind me. When the sun rose, I’d be inside a new life. One where I would never set foot in that courtroom again. Where is the sun right now, I thought. I kept looking outside, the world endlessly black, waiting for colors to shift. (242)
Somehow, despite the injustices and assaults on her life, her body, her freedom, Miller finds hope. She explains: “I opened up my notebook. I stared at the empty page. Then I wrote, You are worth more than three months. Again. You are worth more than three months” (242).
Miller’s wry tone and lyrical prose elevate this book. It’s not just a record of an important story but a strikingly beautiful book in itself, a must-read. Miller examines her own experience as well as the cultural climate surrounding her experience. She explores the complications of race and gender in prosecution and suggests better ways for universities to react to instances of campus rape. Miller writes:
One of the greatest dangers of victimhood is the singling out; all of your attributes and anecdotes assigned blame. In court they’ll try to make you believe you are unlike the others, you are different, an exception. You are dirtier, more stupid, more promiscuous. But it’s a trick. The assault is never personal, the blaming is. (252)
Miller’s world, it turns out, is our world too, and this book is for anyone living in it—men, women, non-binary folks, parents, college students, and university administrators alike. The world contains both fear and beauty, and human life isn’t possible without both. Miller’s story reminds us that it’s still worth living, despite everything.
Rachel Zarrow writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in various outlets including The Atlantic, BUST, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is working on her first novel and screenplay. She lives in San Francisco. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @rachroobear and at www.rachelzarrow.com