Chanel Miller, while under the pseudonym Emily Doe, read a 12-page victim impact statement out loud during the sentencing of Brock Turner, the man who sexually assaulted her. It was published online and immediately went viral, read by millions of people around the world.
Emily Doe left her mark.
Chanel Miller could have stayed Emily Doe forever, but she chose not to. Tired of being dubbed the “unconscious, intoxicated woman” in the media, she decided to write a book, aptly titled “Know My Name,” out today. In this book, Miller gives us not only her real name, but also her identity, her story, and perhaps most importantly, her storytelling. Some books succeed because of the gripping events described within, or else because of their literary merit: This book accomplishes both. Miller takes what we as a culture are beginning to realize about sexual violence and the criminal justice system and articulates it back to us with precision and narrative force. This book is a necessary read to understand — and fight — rape culture in America today.
One of “Know My Name’s” greatest victories is its refusal to be reduced or summarized neatly. Instead, it interweaves Miller’s unforgettable story with equally powerful reflection and analysis. The book’s message is far too complex to simmer down into a single article — you’ll have to read it yourself — but here are some key takeaways.
In the hours after a man assaulted her, Miller witnessed firsthand the measures in place to handle sexual assault: the rape kits, the police reports, the stacks of sweatsuits for rape victims to wear out of the hospital since our clothes are taken as evidence. We have built a system that, in a way, accepts, even accommodates the fact that many people are raped every day. Our society would look very different if we had such a seamless system of prevention or punishment. We lack effective prevention measures, especially education for young people, and particularly men.
The system does not send perpetrators to prison nearly as often as is necessary. During legal proceedings themselves, victims seem to be put on trial as much as or even more than alleged perpetrators — or even convicted perpetrators, as Miller witnessed during the sentencing. Miller does a wonderful job drawing our attention to the little things: how a victim mistakenly confusing a small, insignificant detail paints her as a liar, while a perpetrator changing his story completely between arrest and hearing goes unquestioned. Miller also points out the inequity of a legal system that is lenient toward the wealthy and the white.
When we talk about consent, we often emphasize the importance of a “no.” But as Miller writes, why do we assume a “yes” in the absence of a no? Women are sexualized so extensively that our default answer to sex is assumed to be yes. Miller notes that the fact that she had a boyfriend played to her advantage in court — but being “claimed” by another man shouldn’t change anything. Bodily autonomy, no matter relationship status, should be what matters.
Just because sexual assault is common doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to each survivor’s story. At so many moments throughout Miller’s book, we come back to the same essential message: Rape happens to individual people with full lives and loves and dreams. So often the media focuses on what a perpetrator stands to lose if convicted, and this was especially true in Miller’s case, with so much media attention on her assailant’s education, accomplishments and future career potential. We take the victim out of the picture because empathizing with a survivor’s trauma is too painful for us. But Miller shows us her own full life: her childhood, her family, her past and present loves, her talents and dreams for her future. In doing so, she makes us understand how much the assault and the legal process cost her. “Know My Name” humanizes Miller throughout an otherwise dehumanizing process of pursuing legal justice.
We hear the word “shatter” when referring to what happens to a trauma victim’s identity. But what does this actually mean? In the wake of trauma, many survivors feel like our selves separate. We become disconnected from our bodies, from our past selves, from the person who was raped. We cannot reconcile what has happened with what we know, and we fragment at our very cores. Miller relied on the persona of Emily Doe to get her through the trial at times, and this experience is common to many.
“Know My Name” makes an often overlooked point: that seeking legal justice slows down, if not stops altogether, the victim’s healing process. Immediately after the assault, Miller knows she never wants to see the man who raped her again. And yet in order for him to be punished, again and again she had to face him. In order to stay available for ever-changing court dates, Miller felt like her life was on hold, and shied away from making future plans.
We cannot heal in a vacuum, or check out of the real world while we heal and move forward. No matter how much we may try to avoid future victimization, we live in a misogynist world. Miller points out many times that while trying to rebuild her life, she was forced to deal with microaggressions and threatening men, experiences that reinforced her already intense fears. This extends beyond street harassment, and into harmful portrayals of sexual assault in pop culture and the way the news cycle impacts a survivor’s healing.
Miller writes about forgiveness in a fresh way: She hopes all people grow from their experiences, and hopes this growth prevents others’ future pain. It is an admirable and hard-earned point of view. Miller does not believe criminal behavior should go unpunished, but rather, that part of that punishment is to rehabilitate perpetrators and help ensure they do not go on to hurt anybody else.
We can take back our futures and extend our lives past the pain. Victims are told we are not the kind of people to create narratives about our pain, to write stories, to create art. Miller defies this and other stereotypes, making art again and again in the face of trauma — writing this very book. She does not believe that healing means moving away from the trauma, or acting like it doesn’t exist, but rather, growing around it — acknowledging that it is there, that it has changed us and continues to impact our lives, but that we can be more than just the trauma, too. This defies the current message about sexual assault victims: that either we stay broken forever, or move on as if the trauma never happened.
We need stories like “Know My Name” because in order to better serve survivors. We need to see exactly where we’re going wrong and exactly what impact the flaws in our current system have on victims and communities. We need these stories, but only from people who are willing to give them.
Victims of sexual violation should not have to bare our wounds and scars in order to receive justice or even compassion. We do not owe anybody anything of ourselves, and saying otherwise is in and of itself a secondary form of violation against us. But some of us do choose to share our identities and our stories.