Her pen is mightier than his sword and her name is Chanel Miller.
Three years after the shockingly light sentence her rapist received in court, she has gone on to write the beautiful and riveting memoir, Know My Name, whose title is a direct message to her violator. When the news of this 2015 crime was first reported, it left us all with chills: After attending a party at Stanford University, a 23-year-old-woman was raped and left unconscious, naked from the bottom down, next to a dumpster. Her attacker, a Stanford student by the name of Brock Allen Turner, did not know the name of the woman he had raped and claimed she had consented when she did not. During the trial, Miller went by the anonymous name of “Emily Doe” and women across the world waited anxiously for the verdict from the California court, in hopes that the rapist would be delivered a hefty sentence for his crime.
When the jury found the former student guilty of three counts of sexual assault, instead of receiving 14 years in state prison he was only sentenced to six months in county jail and probation. The judge acted like all the world’s institutions and decided to protect the man, a champion swimmer who aspired to compete in the Olympics. He feared that a heavy sentence would have a “severe impact” on the defendant. The victim, along with women around the world, could only seethe in silence for yet another battle won by a male sex offender.
But, instead of accepting the trial’s fate and staying silent, Miller found a way to get her own justice through the power of her words. Even in her stressful situation, she had an innate tool in her brain to work with: a writer’s voice. It was the ultimate way to describe her nightmare while stirring up empathy in others. She wound up delivering such a searing testimony, recounting in precise detail how her life changed in a heartbeat that night, that her court statement wound up being published on BuzzFeed.
It instantly went viral, beginning with:
“Your Honor, if it is all right, for the majority of this statement I would like to address the defendant directly.
You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.”
This was one of the rare times that evidence in a court proceeding was read by more than 18 million people online. The judge’s sentence didn’t persuade the public what to think, but reading Emily Doe’s statement for themselves did. Afterward, the heartfelt response by so many people who shared their opinions on social media to agree that the court system had failed yet another innocent woman violated by a white man with privilege solidified the impact that a victim statement could have. So that even though her rapist got off with a light sentence, his name would be cast in darkness for the rest of his life.
Miller told BuzzFeed News back then that she was disappointed with the “gentle” sentence and angry that Turner still denied sexually assaulting her. “Even if the sentence is light, hopefully this will wake people up,” said Miller. “I want the judge to know that he ignited a tiny fire. If anything, this is a reason for all of us to speak even louder.”
Know My Name turns Miller’s ongoing personal trauma into a work of art. Hers is the archetypal story that we can all relate to. That fear that all women have about going to that party, having a good time, drinking more than we should, and then having someone take advantage of us in such a horrific way that we are left blaming ourselves from the shame of it. It would later be revealed that Turner was on the attack that night, in complete predator mode. He tried to kiss others at the party, even Miller’s sister at one point, who pushed him away. “This is not a story of another drunk college hookup with poor decision making. Assault is not an accident,” she said. And if it had not been for the two heroic guys on bikes that noticed she wasn’t moving below Turner’s humping, and who then decided to tackle him, who knows how much uglier this story might have gotten.
The writing of Know My Name was in part, a way for Miller to piece together the totality of what happened and a way to peel off the victim label. She offers readers the back story about her deciding to go to that fraternity party with her sister and the details of sexual violence. For the book she was able to read pages of court documents and transcripts of witness testimony that she had not been allowed to hear during the trial. The book also deals with her coming to terms with her new life as a survivor and gives us a first person account of what it is like to navigate a justice system that demeaned her with its questioning of her actions. “The assault is never personal,” Miller writes. “The blaming is.”
In respect to the case, The Atlantic’s Megan Garber wrote: “The American legal system, particularly when it comes to these matters, is instead largely calibrated toward silence. It anonymizes survivors. It asks them to speak, for the most part, only when spoken to. It tells stories about them, ostensibly for them. It exists within a culture that remains profoundly ashamed about sexual violence, preferring to discuss such matters in hushed tones and polite euphemisms. The effect is often to dehumanize the survivor.”
This book may be one woman’s story, but it’s every woman’s. It should be required reading not only because of its potential to change the assumptions we make about what female survivors of sexual assault should be expected to go through to get justice, but it should be read by all young men before they act on the assumption that any woman’s body is their property. Perhaps Salma Hayek summed up the current zeitgeist best in her New York Times piece on Harvey Weinstein, her monster: “Men sexually harassed because they could. Women are talking today because, in this new era, we finally can.” And we’re not only talking, we’re publishing our testimonies for everyone to read.