KNOW MY NAME
By Chanel Miller
When a man gets #MeToo’d — which is to say, when a man experiences the consequences of his offenses against women — a predictable cry emerges from the predictable corners of the internet: What about his art? What about the jokes he’ll never tell; what about the books he won’t write; what about the films we’ll never get to see?
These fans don’t ask about the women who’ve been sidelined or silenced or who have abandoned their chosen fields. What about the jokes we’ll never hear from the women who decided that success as a standup wasn’t worth watching Louis CK masturbate? What about the documentaries we’ll never see from Charlie Rose’s victims, or the performances we’ll never see from Harvey Weinstein’s?
And what about the would-be comedians or actors or writers or journalists who were raped or assaulted as young women, and who were stopped before they got started, silenced before they could speak?
I picture those stories like a drowned library, an underwater Atlantis of movies and books and performances that will never be. “Know My Name,” by Chanel Miller, the young woman whom Brock Turner, the so-called Stanford Swimmer, assaulted in 2015, is one of the rescued, a memoir by a writer who dived down into the darkness, pulled herself up and out and laid her story on the sand, still dripping, with its sharp edges intact.
“As soon as you let a little bit of air in, the shame loses its power”: Read our profile of Chanel Miller.
In January 2015, Miller was 23 and a recent college graduate when she went to a fraternity party with her sister and a friend. She sipped warm beer, tossed down vodka, went outside to pee. “I was bored, at ease, drunk and extremely tired, less than 10 minutes from home. I had outgrown everything around me. And that is where my memory goes black, where the reel cuts off.” (A good thing, as it spares us the specifics of exactly what happened after Turner got her alone behind a dumpster, the kinds of details that have become commonplace in the small but emerging genre of survivor memoirs. If you aren’t already angry, consider that the genre of survivor memoirs is a thing that exists, and that Miller joins the likes of Jaycee Dugard and Michelle Knight, abductees who wrote about the horrors they endured in their captivities.)
Miller wakes up in the hospital, with pine needles in her hair, her underwear missing, debris in her vagina. With unsparing detail, she describes what happened next: trying to figure out why a police officer and a Stanford dean are in her room, trying to find her phone, trying to make sense of the night. She is stripped, swabbed, examined, photographed inside and out. “Another microscopic camera snaked up inside of me, the internal walls of my vagina displayed on a screen. I understood their gloved hands were keeping me from falling into an abyss. … They could not undo what was done, but they could record it, photograph every millimeter of it, seal it into bags, force someone to look.”
Miller learns part of the story in the hospital and reads the rest online. “I clicked back to the news on my homepage, saw Stanford athlete, saw raping, saw unconscious woman. I clicked again, my screen filled with two blue eyes and a neat row of teeth, freckles, red tie, black suit.”
Watch patriarchy work: Miller’s assailant becomes the Stanford Swimmer. He gets a name, a face, a back story. Newspapers published details of his athletic prowess, with a photograph that Miller dryly notes could have doubled as a LinkedIn profile picture. “I was never called girl, only victim,” Miller writes, quoting the police report: “He stated that he kissed VICTIM while on the ground. He took off the VICTIM’s underwear and fingered her vagina. He also touched the VICTIM’s breasts.”
“Know My Name” is an act of reclamation. On every page, Miller unflattens herself, returning from Victim or Emily Doe to Chanel, a beloved daughter and sister, whose mother emigrated from China to learn English and become a writer and whose father is a therapist; a girl who was so shy that, in an elementary school play about a safari, she played the grass. Miller reads “Rumi, Woolf, Didion, Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Banana Yoshimoto, Miranda July, Chang-rae Lee, Carlos Bulosan.” She rides her bike “through the Baylands … across crunchy salt and pickleweed.” She fosters elderly rescue dogs with names like Butch and Remy and Squid. She rages against a form that identifies “victim’s race” as white. “Never in my life have I checked only white. You cannot note my whiteness without acknowledging I am equal parts Chinese.”
“Know My Name” is one woman’s story. But it’s also every woman’s story — the story of a world whose institutions are built to protect men; a world where sexual objectification is ubiquitous and the threat of sexual violence is constant. Before Turner assaulted her, Miller had already survived one act of deadly misogyny near her college, the University of California at Santa Barbara, when Elliot Rodger, a privileged young man enraged that he’d never had a girlfriend, went on a spree and killed six people.
After the assault, Miller enrolls in art school in Rhode Island. But the East Coast proves no safer. Walking back from class, “I passed three men sitting on a car who fastened their eyes on my legs, clicked their tongues and smacked their lips, performing the sounds and hand gestures one might use if attempting to summon a cat. … I trained myself to tuck my head down, avoiding eye contact, feigning invisibility.”
Miller takes us through the trial, her steadfast, supportive attorney, the humiliation of testifying, her rage when Judge Aaron Persky sentences Turner to just six months in county jail and probation, because a longer sentence would have a “severe impact” on the onetime Olympic hopeful. She quotes Turner’s father’s complaints that “these verdicts have broken and shattered” his son, who can no longer enjoy the rib-eye steaks he once loved. Turner himself says that he wants to “speak out against the college campus drinking culture and the sexual promiscuity.” “He had lived shielded under a roof where the verdict was never accepted, where he would never be held accountable,” Miller writes.
And then there was Stanford. “Their apathy, their lack of apology I could live with, but what troubled me most was their failure to ask the single most important question: How do we ensure this does not happen again?”
Eventually, there’s a hint of justice, a tiny rebalancing of the scales. Judge Persky is recalled. Turner’s appeal is denied. Miller writes an incandescent, awesomely angry victim impact statement that blazes across the internet, beginning, “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that is why we’re here.” While Turner registers as a sex offender, Miller signs a book contract. She texts her mother a picture of herself in New York City, enjoying a celebratory dessert of grilled peaches. Her mother texts back, “You are mommy’s dream.”
Miller is a poetic, precise writer with an eye for detail: A courthouse waiting room she called the “victim closet” was furnished with “a dirty yellow couch that looked sculpted out of earwax”; a fraternity was “a sour, yeasty atmosphere” where “punch tasted like paint thinner and curls of black hair were pasted to toilet rims.” Occasionally, the writing draws attention to itself, and away from the story, but those are rare missteps. Miller hardly ever flinches from the darkness or jagged edges of her tale.
“Know My Name” is a beautifully written, powerful, important story. It marks the debut of a gifted young writer. It deserves a wide audience — but it especially deserves to be read by the next generation of young men, the could-be Brocks and Elliots, who have grown up seeing women’s bodies as property to plunder, who believe that sex is their right.
In her poem “Diving Into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich describes a narrator descending to reclaim lost stories. “I came to explore the wreck. / The words are purposes. / The words are maps. / I came to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail.”
No matter who reads “Know My Name,” Miller’s words are purpose. They are maps. And she is a treasure who has prevailed.