When I speak to Chanel Miller on the phone, her voice is hoarse from weeks of travel and interviews.
“Chanel!” I say as if I know her. “You need to drink some hot water and lemon!”
In typical fashion, she is gracious about my overzealous advice. A lot of women feel as if they know her. For a long time, we knew Miller only as Emily Doe, a complainant in the rape trial of Brock Turner. At first we knew only the details of her assault, of what she’d worn that night, of how much she’d had to drink before Turner was found violating her behind a dumpster on the Stanford University campus.
But when the judge handed down a sentence of just six months in prison for Turner, citing his youth and potential — and the victim’s intoxication — as mitigating factors, Miller made the decision to release her victim impact statement. BuzzFeed’s Katie J.M. Baker published the 7,244-word statement the day after the sentencing. Miller told Baker, “I want the judge to know he ignited a tiny fire.”
That fire spread. Within days, five million people had viewed the BuzzFeed post. CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield read the statement on air, in its entirety. For many women, reading the statement was like hearing a primal scream from the darkest recesses of the soul, and recognising it as the same one we’d had trapped in our throats for years. Now Chanel Miller has dropped her anonymity and released the memoir Know My Name, about her experience as a survivor of both sexual assault and a criminal justice system that frequently re-traumatises victims.
To say this book is beautiful doesn’t do it justice. Miller’s story is powerful and resonant, but she is also an incredibly talented writer who moves deftly between moments of teaching, observation, and narrative. Ahead, Refinery29 spoke with Miller about the book, her statement, and her plans for the future.
The book is so nuanced in terms of the different emotions you experienced. There is a lot of anger, but there’s also humour. Were you worried about showing all these sides of yourself?
"I felt like I had to honour each stage that I went through to show the reader how much I was changing throughout this process. And that includes showing what goes unchanged. You know, there's this spirit in you that's going to be there through life. Even as you fluctuate through all of these mood swings, the real you is still there. You don't have to worry that it's permanently lost. It's still there. You're just going to go through intense ups-and-downs.
"The defence spent a lot of time convincing the jury that I was crazy. People will say, you don't have a sound mind, you're irrational, you're inappropriately angry. I wanted to say none of that is true. Of course I have a right to be angry. A bodily violation is creating this rage inside of me. I felt that if I could document it and show it, then anyone who's going through it is going to see it and understand that it's not just them. It was never just them. It's all of us processing this, and we get really good at concealing it, and I want that to not be our job anymore."
Throughout the book and in interviews you’ve given, you speak a lot about victim-blaming. What do we need to change about the way we think about assaults?
"I wanted to address society and say we all need to stop treating assault like a given. It’s so frequent that we almost become used to it. That we expect it at each party. How can we continue to let it happen and tell victims to do better? We all know it's possible to drink without violating somebody else. We need to be making that the standard, because we know it's possible. When it comes to telling a victim, ‘You shouldn't have had that much to drink,’ the victim already knows. I don't think people realise how good at self-blame victims are. We are experts at self-condemnation. We have told ourselves 1 million times that we shouldn't have been that drunk before you even open your mouth.
"We have gone through a list of reasons of why we deserve this. So anything you say, we have already thought, and all you're doing is compounding that shame. You're just growing it. We need you walking us away from it. Showing us an alternate way of thinking about assault, because we don't understand anymore how to protect ourselves.
"It's just incredible to me how, as women, we're already really well-trained to look out for ourselves. You know, we’ll call a friend walking home just so someone else is aware of where we are. We always have a friend text when they get home. We do use the buddy system. There are so many techniques we have, constantly keeping ourselves safe. And then, the one time you get assaulted, people will say, ‘Well, why did you make yourself vulnerable that time?’ You don't get credit for that other 98% of your life where you have your guard up all the time. I think it's important to recognise that we're already doing so much. We're already doing the best that we can, and trying harder isn't going to help us because there's always going to be a moment of vulnerability in anyone's life."
You chose to remain anonymous until the book was released. What was behind that decision?
"I didn’t decide to disclose my identity until after I had fully completed the book. I just really wanted a chance to define myself, to have a little bit of adulthood where this wasn't living in the core, where this wasn’t the only thing that I was known for. So I thought, let me just live my life a little bit, you know, have some experiences, do some writing before I emerge, because I didn't even know who I was yet. I would have just absorbed everyone else's opinions of me. I would have been shaped by who they thought I was.
"So I gave myself time to do that. And then, through writing, I was finally able to get a bearing on everything that I was feeling. I was able to understand my case and to feel just so solid in my bones that I never deserved to be assaulted.
"And, that way, no matter what, comments would hit me externally, you know. Before, they felt like blows, and now they're just like little pebbles, sort of ricocheting off. What’s changed is how solid I feel inside myself and my intentions."
Do you ever think about alternate scenarios? Like, what if Brock Turner had received an appropriate sentence?
"I didn't think about the alternate universe of having a fair sentence. I thought about the alternate universe of never releasing a statement. Because that would have meant I had walked away from the courtroom believing the ideas that had been instilled in me that my words were worthless, that what I had just said carried no influence or power. If I had believed that and thought it would be better to never share with anyone, then I would have never been heard. I would have never understood my skills as a writer. And that to me is the terrifying alternative scenario that was an inch away from happening had I not granted myself the permission to release it."
What’s next for you creatively?
"I think it would be fun to write fiction just because I would be able to be a little more inventive. I would love to write and illustrate something for children. I love the way kids wear their emotions so openly. They aren’t yet skilled at concealing them, like we have at this point. I would love to write something for them that’s centred on emotions, like, as they continue to grow up and have these different experiences, even the awful ones, there’s a reason. Now that you have this new emotion, you're going to be able to connect to more people. I want to show that feelings are just different experiences and not categorise them into good or bad. I tell myself, ‘These are the things I'm learning about.’ I want to explore all the different ways we can feel things, and I want to continue to express that through story. And to acknowledge, you know, all the things you go through as a human in this lifetime."