Once, when Chanel Miller’s younger sibling Tiffany became sick on an aeroplane, Miller reacted instinctively and caught the vomit in her bare hands. This is not an important fact about Chanel Miller, nor is it likely the fact you know. Most people – and nearly all Google search results – know Miller as the ‘Stanford rape victim’, the woman who was sexually assaulted by student and swimmer Brock Turner at a fraternity party in January 2015.
The ensuing media coverage made the incident infamous. Though Turner had been found behind a dumpster on top of an unconscious and dishevelled Miller by two witnesses, headlines focused on his swimming career and aspirations to join the US Olympic team. The coverage of the then 22-year-old Miller, meanwhile, focused on questioning why she had drunk enough to blackout.
Known as ‘Emily Doe’ during the trial that saw Turner sentenced to just six months in county jail, in 2016 her anonymous victim statement gained 11 million views in four days when published by Buzzfeed, helping pave the way for #MeToo. This month, Miller revealed her identity for the first time before the release of her new memoir, Know My Name.
Throughout the book, Miller exposes the hypocrisy of her treatment, questioning why drunkenness robbed her of her innocence yet somehow granted her rapist his (at Turner’s sentencing, Judge Aaron Persky declared, ‘there is less moral culpability attached to the defendant who is legally intoxicated’). She repeatedly challenges the fallacy of the ‘perfect victim’, both by admitting to her own ‘messiness’, and by referring to other injustices – like the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile, a black driver who was murdered by an officer during a traffic stop, and whose previous marijuana use was scrutinised by the officer’s defence team in court.
But I can’t help but feel that there is a reason the anecdote about Miller catching her sister’s sick is introduced early in the memoir, on page 20, and a reason the first three words of the book are ‘I am shy’. It’s the same reason we're told that the shot glasses Miller used to get drunk on the night of her assault were once used as pretend glasses for her stuffed animals as a child. Despite writing ‘I don’t believe there is such a thing as an immaculate past or perfect victim,’ Miller is still constrained by a culture that demands rape victims prove that they are just as human as your mother, sister, or daughter. Towards the end of the book, she admits: ‘I fought hard rewriting drafts of this book to dial down the sarcasm, personal attacks.’ I felt saddened by this: that while we’re beginning to acknowledge women don’t have to be ‘perfect victims’, we still want them to act perfectly afterwards. I wouldn’t have minded more sarcasm.
Society still demands that women respond ‘the right way’ to being assaulted. Netflix’s new miniseries Unbelievable chronicles the true story of ‘Marie’, an 18-year-old woman who was blindfolded, gagged, and raped at knifepoint in 2008. After Marie reports the incident to the police, her former foster mother Shannon questions her story: ‘She called and said, ‘I’ve been raped’. There was just no emotion. It was like she was telling me that she’d made a sandwich.’ Marie’s demeanour continued to be scrutinised by police until she was forced, under duress, to retract her report. In 2011, her rapist was caught and photographic evidence of Marie’s assault was found in his home.
My favourite passages in Know My Name are Miller reacting ‘the wrong way’ to sexual abuse. In Chapter 4, she recalls her experiences of street harassment the summer after she was assaulted by Turner (reminding us that one victim doesn’t equal one assault). ‘GET IN YOUR CAR ARE YOU FUCKING CRAZY WHY WOULD I EVER DO THAT,’ she once shouted at a man who pulled over to her and offered her a ride while she was walking at night. When another man (there is always another man) pulled up to her and her friends on a different night, she screamed at him with her ‘chest open, ruthlessly’. She and her friends chased the car and one slapped the taillight. For me, this passage was equally empowering as it was terrifying – Miller tells her friends to ‘stop’ when she sees the rage on the man’s face.
These are brave anecdotes, because Miller reads internet comments about her case. Silly as it seems now, it never occurred to me that she would see the same online comments I saw – from the heartless who declared she was too old to be at a frat, to the hopeless that insisted something like this would never happen to them. Miller recalls the effect the comments had on her healing, trailing into her life like ants, ‘inside all my bowls and boxes and left-out spoons’. It is undoubtable that the darkest, dirtiest corners of the internet will use Miller’s stories in Know My Name against her: portray her as angry, unhinged, undeserving of justice, deserving of rape. This is why there couldn’t be any sarcasm, but it is also why her straightforward candour is all the more remarkable.
We are in the middle of a #MeToo publishing craze, from reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s account of investigating Harvey Weinstein, She Said, to lawyer Linda Hirshman’s history Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment. It remains to be seen if these works will have a lasting impact, but Miller has already helped change the system that failed her. After her victim impact statement went viral, the state of California passed two bills that broadened the definition of rape (to include digital penetration) and mandated a minimum three-year prison sentence for sexual assault of an unconscious or intoxicated person. Aaron Persky, the judge that gave Turner his lenient sentence, was recalled by voters in June 2018 after online petitions calling for his removal gained over a million signatures.
Undoubtedly Miller’s book will promote further important conversations, especially thanks to her frank discussion of her post-rape medical exam (‘Two long, wooden Q-tips were stuck inside my anus’) and her acknowledgement that many women go through this ordeal only for their rape kits to go mouldy and get thrown out due to a backlog. ‘The goal should never be to insult, only to teach, to expose larger issues that we may learn something,’ she writes after the line explaining why she cut out her sarcastic asides.
I am both glad and sad that Miller’s trauma can become a teachable moment – her book should undoubtedly be required reading in schools. Yet it troubles me that victims still have to share their stories in excruciating detail in order to legitimise them, while at the same time censoring and sanitising their responses to win our belief and sympathy.
Miller is an astoundingly powerful writer – I started counting the number of times the book made me cry before swiftly giving up when it entered double digits. In Know My Name, she shares stories of doing stand-up gigs and being told she is ‘wow’. In press interviews, she has said her dream is to write children’s books. I cannot wait to read more from her while demanding less of her. I can’t wait for the sarcasm to be dialled up.