Book Review: Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Know My Name – Chanel Miller (Viking, 2019)

Like over fifteen million other people, I read Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement when it was first published. Like many others, I wept as I read it. Because even though it wasn’t my story, it was the story of so many women around me. A story I sometimes wonder if I have walked the edges of…If I had drunk a little more that night. If the young man who got off the bus after me and followed me down a dark street hadn’t called out, “I’m not following you, I live down this road.” If the taxi hadn’t pulled to the curb at just that moment. I cried because I have two daughters and this is so much of what I fear most for them. Because I want to believe they are growing up in a changing, better world but the evidence says, maybe not. I cried because Miller was so raw, so honest, so brutal in her telling of her own story. Because her story had been told over and over again in the media without her voice and here she was, taking it back, showing the world a glimpse of who she was. At that time, Miller was still protected by a media black-out, hidden behind the assumed name of Emily Doe. Her identity was protected but her rapist’s name and pictured had been splashed across newspapers and websites. Brock Turner. The Stanford swimmer found sexually assaulting an unconscious woman beside a dumpster. The assault and the case was already in the media but Miller’s victim impact statement catapulted it to viral status, her words speaking for so many who had been kept silent. Infamously, Turner was found guilty but only sentenced to six months. He ended up serving three.

In Know My Name, with incredible bravery and ferocious honest, Miller takes back her identity. A victim yes, but not one belonging to Turner. She takes us back to the night of her assault, getting ready for a party with her sister, acting silly with her friends. In excruciating detail, she describes waking up in the hospital, the experience of submitting to a rape kit, the slow realization of what happened to her. And then the painful and drawn out process of the courts. It takes years. Miller’s entire life is put on hold. The pain ripples out to her family and friends. This book is an answer to the question, Why don’t more sexual assault victims report the assault?

Turner was caught in the act by two witnesses (and God bless those two Swedish men who saved her) and arrested immediately. Miller went straight to the hospital, underwent the invasive process of the rape kit, gave her statement to the police that same day. Her sister and the friends present at the same party gave their statements. The case received attention and pressure from the public. Turner still received the lightest possible sentence. Miller was still dragged through the court systems, her personal history dredged up and pored over. Her clothing and her drinking was criticized. Turner, on the other hand, was consistently described by his athletic achievements, his status as a student at Stanford. His father described the assault as “twenty minutes of action”.

Know My Name is both painful and compelling. As evidenced in her initial victim impact statement, Miller is an eloquent and powerful writer. I could have read the book in one sitting, even knowing exactly how it all turned out. I couldn’t read it in one sitting because I had to pause many times, step out of the narrative to take a breath of fresh air, say a prayer over my little girls, blink back the tears. Miller doesn’t shy away from the details, from the continuing effects of that night, and she doesn’t offer easy answers for a happy ending. We see her parents, her sister, her friends – all the people who gather around to support her and who are also hurting. For the first time, we get to see Emily Doe as a complete person. A 22-year-old with a boyfriend and job, who is funny on stage but shy in person. An artist and a writer. More than just a victim.

As well, Miller does an excellent job of placing her story within our current society. Not just “campus culture” (which Turner blamed for convincing him to drink and be “sexually promiscuous”) but the larger cultural issues of mass shootings and #MeToo. Miller describes her experience during the Isla Vista shooting in 2014, her reaction to Trump’s election, and to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, among other events. It is a reminder that her assault did not occur in a bubble, was not a one-off event. In one small story she describes buying a desk off Craigslist. A couple delivers it to her apartment and offer to carry it upstairs for her. The woman expresses an understanding of why Miller might not want strangers in her apartment but her male partner can only think, “How else would she get it up there?” Miller spends pages detailing men catcalling her, yelling at her aggressively. She records some of these interactions and sends them to her boyfriend. “How often does this happen?” he asks. “Everyday” is her response, one that surprises him but would surprise no woman who has lived in a city.

Perhaps most powerful of all is Miller’s description of her growing understanding of her own place. Without her consent and against her will, she was given a place to speak. So many victims of sexual assault are not given their chance in court, are silenced before they can even speak. It’s a role she didn’t want but she comes to step into it beautifully, speaking for women everywhere, telling them, “I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you.” Now, once more, under her own name, Chanel Miller steps into the spotlight. This is a book everyone should read.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: Know My Name by Chanel Miller”

  1. I wasn’t aware of this particular story but sadly it’s far from unique. I’m always torn – I don’t think girls should have to modify their behaviour to keep themselves safe, but on the other hand if I had a daughter I’d want her to stay sober, always have a friend with her, call me when she needed a lift home, etc, etc. It’s a tricky balancing act – too much and it sounds like victim-blaming, too little and it could lead to a whole world of regret. I just wish people spoke to their sons as openly about the consequences of rape as they do to their daughters – I’m sure many more do now, but in my day it was all about warning the girls and assuming that “boys would be boys”. I remember arguing with my mother who wouldn’t let me stay out all night at a party but let my brother. She was shocked when I asked if it wouldn’t be as bad if he got drunk and got some girl pregnant as if I got drunk and got pregnant to some random guy – her generation just didn’t see it that way, and their attitude to rape was the same. It was for the girl to avoid it, and she was to blame if she didn’t. I wish I believed it had changed a bit more…

    1. I can recall similar arguments with my mother about the double standard set for me as compared to my brother. But I see it as a mom now too and I do hope that my girls don’t get blackout drunk when they’re older. But Miller makes the point that the punishment for drinking too much should be a hangover, not rape. It was actually a major issue in this case, how the courts and the media focused on her drinking rather than his. They were both drunk that night but his drinking was viewed as normal and acceptable and he was portrayed as an athlete with such a great future that it would be a shame to ruin that. Whereas she was criticized for her drinking and “what did she expect going to a frat party”? It also really seems that he took advantage of the few moments her sister left her alone and got her to a more isolated location.

      I know eventually I’ll have to talk to my girls about how to stay safe at parties etc. I just really hope that the parents of boys are having conversations with their sons about not taking advantage of women.

  2. Wonderful review, you captured everything that was so brilliant and so harrowing about this book. Miller’s ability to contextualize her own trauma into the broader social climate in the US was so incredibly well done. I really hope Miller writes another book some day, either fiction or nonfiction, she has a real talent.

    1. Yes, she’s very talented. I’m not always drawn to this type of memoir but I was so moved by her victim impact statement that as soon as I heard the woman who wrote that had written a full-length book, I knew I had to read it.

  3. “I’m not following you, I live down this road.” — what a thing to have to say, but what a bro for saying it. He’s aware that his presence alone is a threat to women.

    I forgot what a pig Turner’s father is, but I’m not surprised. People learn to sexual assault through the encouragement and complacency of others.

    1. I know! That moment was years ago and I still recall it because I did really appreciate that he recognized how I might view him. A lot of guys don’t understand how intimidating they can be.

      Unfortunately, men like Turner don’t exist in a bubble. He had so many people around him willing and ready to make excuses for him.

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