As a rape survivor, I approach true stories of sexual assault with a certain trepidation.
When I read Roxanne Gay’s “Hunger,” in which she describes her own adolescent assault, I had to take the book with me to therapy to process the emotions that arose. While watching “Audrie and Daisy,” a documentary that centers largely on the case of Daisy Coleman, who was raped in Missouri at age 14, I was so physically triggered I felt I might vomit. Like many sexual assault survivors, I spent the weeks of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process in a PTSD nightmare.
Despite these difficult side effects, I continue to find myself drawn to these stories, to need to see my experiences reflected back to me. The beauty of Chanel Miller’s “Know My Name” is that it doesn’t just reflect ― it illuminates.
Miller, known then only as “Emily Doe,” became the center of a high-profile criminal case when she was assaulted outside a Stanford fraternity party in 2015. Her assailant, Brock Turner, became the face of the kind of privilege granted to promising young white men who rape women when he was convicted but sentenced to only six months in jail, of which he served three. When Miller’s victim impact statement was released and went viral online, it effected change ― sparking dialogue; influencing the state of California to set minimum sentencing requirements for sexual assault of someone who was unconscious, intoxicated or otherwise incapable of giving consent; and leading to the recall of the judge who sentenced Turner.
Now, with her memoir, Miller has chosen to reveal her identity literally and figuratively, putting a human face on the issue of sexual assault, forcing you to look at her. Daring you, once you’re seen her as a whole and complex person, to ever again reduce her to the elements of her victimhood.
Miller’s assault story differs from many others in that her case garnered national attention. Not only was she retraumatized by the brutal, invasive journey through the court system; she saw it all play out in news and social media, unable to stop herself from reading comment after victim-blaming comment online. But somehow, despite the unique devastation of her too-public exposure, her story still feels painfully universal.
In the first few pages of her memoir, Miller reads a pamphlet given to her at the hospital on “Reactions in the Aftermath.” From six months to three years post-assault, it says, the victim may continue to experience “isolation, memory triggers, suicidal thoughts, inability to work, substance abuse, relationship difficulties, loneliness.”
My assault was over two decades ago and I can still check off several items on that list.
Of her feelings immediately following the assault, Miller writes, “I put the memory of that morning inside a large jar. I took the jar and carried it down, down down, flights and flights of stairs, placing it inside a cabinet, locking it away, and walking briskly back up the stairs to continue with the life I had built.”
I’ve always compared it to flipping my feelings off like a light switch, but I had the same experience of thinking I could simply compartmentalize my assault, as if I could file it away like a pesky form to be dealt with later. But as Miller and I both learned, you will come home and find the jar sitting in your living room again. The form will eventually have to be filled out.
Trauma inalterably changes you, stealing your options, she writes: “Up until then I’d envisioned a limitless future. Now the lights went out, and two narrow corridors lit up. You can walk down the one where you attempt to forget and move on. Or you walk down the corridor that leads back to him. There is no right choice. Both are long and difficult and take indefinite amounts of time. I was still running my hands along the walls looking for a third door, to a corridor where this never happened, where I could continue the life I had planned.”
But, of course, there is no third door. There’s only a lifetime of the work of recovery. That’s the shadow side of all the fretting about the tragic loss of Turner’s future ― it ignores what Miller herself has lost. “My pain was never more valuable than his potential,” she writes.
Throughout her story, Miller lines up the myths perpetuated by rape culture about those who are raped and knocks them down one by one.
But she was drunk. Why, Miller questions, is the act of being passed out drunk seen as worse than the act of violating a woman who is passed out drunk? You don’t have to be “perfect” to be a victim.
But rapists are evil monsters, not anyone that I know. “The friendly guy who helps you move and assists senior citizens in the pool is the same guy who assaulted me. One person can be capable of both.”
Why didn’t she report it? Just look, Miller says, in 328 painful pages. Just look at what happens to you when you report.
A writer with Miller’s gift of insight can help explain us to ourselves. Similar to the way that Caroline Knapp’s aching, self-aware prose in “Drinking: A Love Story” explained my own alcoholism to me, “Know My Name” taught me something about what it means not just to experience trauma but to survive it. Just as I’ve passed my lovingly dog-eared copy of “Drinking” along to another female alcoholic, I would put “Know My Name” on the required reading syllabus for those dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault, those who love them and everyone else who lives under the shadow of this country’s pervasive rape culture.
Late in the text, Miller describes herself as a “pair of eyes,” a “civilian who’s been randomly selected” to have this experience so that she may “observe, feel, document, report.” And while I would never want anyone to have to go through what Miller went through, thank God she was watching ― and chose to speak out.
As sexual assault victims, we tell ourselves so many stories. I shouldn’t have been there. I shouldn’t have been drunk. I shouldn’t have “encouraged” him. I should have kicked/fought/screamed harder. It’s my fault.
A memoir like Miller’s has the power to override these other narratives, to remind us of our own innate value and to help us harness our power. And that is, in fact, the story that rape survivors deserve to hear ― as loudly and as often as possible.