Know her name

Julie Letchner

November 19, 2019

“You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.” Addressing her rapist directly in court, this is how Emily Doe begins her victim impact statement.

Emily Doe is Chanel Miller, though the public doesn’t know this yet. She is speaking to Brock Turner on the day of his sentencing. It is 2016. He has been found guilty of three felony sexual assault charges, in a trial known nationally as “The Stanford swimmer rape case.”

After Miller reads her statement, Turner is sentenced to six months in county jail. The maximum possible sentence is fourteen years. He will be released in three months with good behavior. In his sentencing remarks, the judge laments that probation is not an option.

Public anger over the handling of Miller’s case is set aflame by her incredible victim impact statement, which goes viral immediately. In it, she cuts through every excuse that has been made by Turner or on his behalf. She breaks down all of the victim-blaming and excuse-making that bedevil discussions of sexual assault, including her own. She insists on accountability. She is direct, she is precise, and she writes from the premise that she matters.

Her statement is heroic, as is the book that grew out of that original seed. Neither should be heroic, being made of simple truth and logic. But they are. Hearing confidence and clarity from a sexual assault victim demanding justice is rare. It’s powerful. Someday, voices like Miller’s will not have to carry the additional burden of heroism. Until then, we will need stories like Know My Name to remind us of the courage required simply to exist as a survivor.

We meet Miller as she is awakening in a hospital, unable to remember how she got there or why. Miller was unconscious when she was assaulted. She frames her memoir chronologically and from her own perspective, so that readers new to her story learn the details of her attack after the fact, in the same way that she did. She pauses, confused, when she sees the words “rape victim” at the top of a hospital form. Later, she learns the identity of her rapist while casually reading the news at work.

Miller takes us chronologically through her experience, but she flashes back frequently to vignettes from her upbringing or college years. These fill out a picture of who she is: daughter of an award-winning Chinese writer, protective big sister, artist, comedian, writer. The coloring-in of her person is a conscious and purposeful choice. Miller is publicly restoring the identity that was stripped from her during her trial.

In court and in the news, Brock Turner is “the Stanford swimmer,” a surgeon-to-be, an Olympic hopeful with a pedigreed family. He is a wholesomely presented figure whose ex-girlfriend, former French teacher, and former swim coach testify on his behalf. She is anonymous, “the victim,” a collection of abused body parts photographed naked for display in a courtroom. She is presented without reference to her community, education, context, potential.

Miller feels the injustice of this even as it is happening beyond her control. She’s right. Who is served by the inclusion of Turner’s swimming times in news articles about his criminal behavior? Miller writes, “He was the one who lost everything. I was just the nobody it happened to.”

As her story advances, we see how Miller copes with dehumanization and re-victimization by bifurcating herself. There’s Chanel Miller, who has a job and a boyfriend and who has told nobody outside her family about the attack. And there’s Emily Doe, who was born in the moment of the physical assault. Doe continues to endure a prolonged psychological assault in the court system and in the national news, right up until the release of Miller’s memoir.

It’s not Chanel Miller who wakes up in a hospital with bruises and hair matted with pine needles — that's Emily Doe. It’s Emily’s body that is photographed naked as evidence. It’s Emily who endures questioning about her sexual history, about her drinking, about what she was wearing that night. Emily stocks spoons in her freezer to press against eyes swollen by nights spent crying. It’s Emily, not Chanel, who is the subject of vicious criticism by internet commenters who wonder why she would let herself get drunk at a frat party, and what was a twenty-two-year-old doing there in the first place, and didn’t her parents teach her to make better decisions, and honestly shouldn’t she have known that something like this would happen?

Meanwhile, Chanel continues her relationships with family and friends as best she can. Her ordeal is known only to her immediate family and her boyfriend. She ducks out of work for ambiguous appointments, transforming into Emily during the drive to the courthouse. She moves across the country to learn printmaking. She becomes a standup comedian with some success. Later on, friends forward Emily’s victim impact statement to Chanel, saying she simply must read it. She wants to tell them that she wrote it. She doesn’t.

Know My Name is part record, part remedy. Straightforwardly, it is Miller’s public proclamation that she is Emily Doe. She is offering up the private pieces of her experience as Chanel Miller, to contextualize and humanize the public record already created by Emily Doe. But she is also reintegrating Miller and Doe for her own sake. Miller is showing herself and us that she can be Emily Doe without being defined by Emily Doe. She is showing other victims how they might do the same.

Miller’s victim impact statement contains a methodical rebuttal of the excuses made for and by Brock Turner. Her book rebuts the same excuses more broadly, looking at the actions of the media, of the legal system, of internet commenters, of you, of me. Miller’s arguments are fundamentally based in logic, but she uses the texture of her despair and trauma to help us understand why this logic is important. The resonance of her impact statement hints that this combination carries a power than many are ready to see more of.

Those who’ve heard of the phrase “rape culture,” or the term “himpathy” from Kate Manne's Down Girl, will find familiar themes in Miller’s book. Miller is not breaking new philosophical ground here, nor is she trying to. She is breaking ground in her ability to show us sexual violence from different altitudes. She gives us vivid peeks into the details of her personal trauma and then connects these details to the systemic issue of rape culture. To the extent that making progress is hinged on the emotional rather than the intellectual, it’s books like Miller’s that will move us forward.

Take, for example, Miller’s heightened concerns about being assaulted again. She describes her growing fear as she’s walking home with a group after midnight and realizes that she lives the farthest away. She will be alone for the final leg of her journey. She exposes her inner monologue: “I looked to see if the rest of the street was well lit, if there were people around to be my witnesses.” If there were people around to be my witnesses. Miller’s primary concern is not the potential for physical trauma. It is the risk that she might not have witnesses to attest that she didn’t consent to it. That she didn’t deserve it. That she didn’t ask for it.

She writes about her fear of sleeping alone, adding, “When I find out female friends live in studio apartments I’m in shock. But who’s your witness? Who’s going to protect you from all the anythings that can happen? Don’t you understand that alone they’ll never believe you?” Again, heartbreakingly, Miller’s concern for physical safety is secondary to her concern about being believed. This is what her court experience has taught her.

Miller generalizes from her experience and others’: “When a woman is assaulted, one of the first questions people ask is, Did you say no? This question assumes that the answer was always yes, and that it is her job to revoke the agreement. To defuse the bomb she was given. But why are they allowed to touch us until we physically fight them off? Why is the door open until we have to slam it shut?”

It’s easy enough to nod at (or argue with) an abstract statement like this. By connecting it to the personal, Miller makes it concrete. There’s no way to argue with the realities of how her ordeal has altered her outlook and behavior.

There’s no way to understand Miller’s story and argue that rape culture doesn’t exist. She forces us to see it, to acknowledge it, even if she avoids using the term. Her statement went viral because so many of us are hungry for clear articulations of an issue that we feel viscerally but cannot touch or prove. We need more stories like Miller’s. Correction: What we really need is for stories like Miller’s to never happen. But since we all know that they will, over and over, we will settle for the small victory of hearing them told with dignity and from the assumption that victims matter.

In her final chapters, Miller widens the scope of her attention beyond her personal experience. She interprets other well-known cases of sexual assault through her own timeline and perspective. She bounces back and forth between personal events and news stories, paragraph by paragraph and occasionally sentence by sentence. She juxtaposes details and quotes and circumstances to emphasize that sexual assault cases share common themes. It’s an effective tool for revealing the common threads of entitlement and lack of accountability that unite them.

She reacts with nausea to Trump’s Access Hollywood tape (“Grab ‘em by the pussy.”). She shows us the connection between Turner’s actions and Trump’s words. Both are born from a view of women as things without autonomy, things that are just there for the taking. Turner is released from jail early. Trump is elected president. Miller spends entire nights crying, thinking about accountability.

She reads news about the trials of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar, wondering what the threshold is for credibility. 60 victims (Cosby)? 87 victims (Weinstein)? 169 victims (Nassar)? She marvels that the judge in the Nassar case created space for all 169 victims to read their full statements. It took five days. To Miller, it’s a small sign of hope. The judge in Miller’s case hurried her along as she read her single, twelve-page statement.

Miller attends a vigil for Christine Ford on the eve of Ford’s congressional testimony about Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual misconduct. She finds solace in the company of people who believe Ford.

As her scope widens, Miller begins to focus a slice of her attention onto hope for herself and for other victims of sexual assault. The closing paragraphs of her memoir, like those of her impact statement, are directed at survivors: You are not alone. I am with you. You have worth. You matter.

Miller writes about Nassar, but she also tells us about the judge in his case who invites victims to “Leave your pain here and go out to do your magnificent things.” She writes about Kavanaugh, but she gives more space to the bravery of Christine Ford and the hope that her testimony gave to other survivors.

She writes about Turner, the “Stanford swimmer.” He seems like a caricature now, compared to the full-color picture we have of Chanel Miller. We know her pain, her frustration, her strength. We know her story and her voice.

We know her name.

Books in this review:
  • Know My Name
    by Chanel Miller
    September 24, 2019
    368 pages
    Purchased by reviewer
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Julie is a data scientist and a writer; a PhD and a mother of three; a feminist and a wife. She writes about tech, feminism, and their awkward relationship at

Follow Julie Letchner on Twitter: @julieletchner

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