For as many books as I read and love, there are a chosen few that I can say shaped my life – books that speak to me on such a profound level that I am forever changed for having read them. I don’t seek them out, rather they seem to find me: plucked from the bookshelf of a vacation rental, sitting on top of a “free” pile at the library, a random purchase in a bookstore I had no intention of entering that day. Chanel Miller’s memoir Know My Name is one of these literary gifts, filled with words I didn’t know I needed to read until they found their way into my hands.
I was killing time at my local library while my daughter met with her math tutor when I saw a copy on display. I remembered the title but nothing else about it. Out of curiosity I picked it up and settled into a reading chair in a quiet corner, and within minutes, the rest of the world fell away.
Know My Name is the true story of Chanel Miller – aka. Emily Doe – the victim in the 2015 “Stanford Swimmer” case. After attending a frat party on the campus of Stanford University, Miller – a recent college graduate- was sexually assaulted behind a dumpster by Olympic hopeful Brock Turner. Turner was caught in the act by two Swedish graduate students, who heroically chased and captured a fleeing Turner before calling the police. Miller woke up in a hospital room, her underwear missing and her hair full of pine needles, with no recollection of what had happened to her or how she got there.
A police officer clues her in: “You are in the hospital, and there is reason to believe you have been sexually assaulted,” he says. After enduring the dehumanizing experience of being examined, swabbed and photographed, she describes the first moment she is left alone, as the shock wears off and the cold realization of what has happened to her sets in:
Something slipping out of you, she writes. Where did I go. What was taken. It is terror swallowed inside silence. An unclipping from the world where up was up and down was down.
In the year between the assault and the trial, Chanel’s former life comes to a halt. She suffers from anxiety attacks and depression. It is a struggle to sleep, eat, function. She quits her job. She makes a temporary move to Rhode Island for a class in printmaking but soon realizes there is no escape, no place that feels safe.
Assault buries the self, she writes. We lose sight of how and when we are allowed to occupy space. We are made to doubt our abilities, disparaged when we speak.
Miller’s coverage of the trial is an act of reclaiming her voice, through both her testimony and her Victim Impact Statement that went viral on Buzzfeed within minutes. But it is also an expose on the tragic flaws in our judicial system – how words are twisted and manipulated within the courts and media to shame and question the victim. Brock Turner was painted as a rising star, an Olympic hopeful caught in an unfortunate situation, his record-breaking swim times often mentioned. Miller, however, known only as “The Victim,” is picked apart for what she was wearing that night, how much she drank, her sexual history.
Often it seems easier to suffer rape alone, she says, than face the dismembering of seeking support.
Miller is a gifted memoirist, journalist, activist, and media critic. She is disciplined and controlled in her writing, revealing raw emotion but never allowing it to overwhelm the narrative. She knows when to expose and when to pull back as she toggles artfully between her experience and the greater landscape: that of a rape culture so deeply embedded in the fabric of our society that we are practically desensitized to it.
After the trial, Miller dedicates herself to becoming whole again, through yoga, through art, through food and nature. She sets out to adopt an aggressive dog as protection, but winds up fostering a blind and deaf Lhasa Apso. She commits to not becoming hard. Stay tender in your power is my favorite line from the book. I love it so much that I want to get it tattooed on my body (I’m serious, guys – I might!). Because for me, Miller’s true strength lies not in her anger but in her courage to face the pain that fuels it. It is a story of healing – of learning, as she writes, “to stay in the hurt, to resist leaving,” until she sees it through to completion, when she realizes it is no longer necessary to do so.
Know My Name is why I love memoir. It is the genre at its best: When a writer is so masterful in the art of balancing the personal with the universal that her story becomes your story. When through the telling of her experience, your own experience is mirrored back to you through a different lens….through a lens of courage and compassion. By telling her truth you discover your own, and you find the courage to face what happened to you because now you aren’t alone. You aren’t crazy. It wasn’t your fault. What a gift she has given to me and to countless others. Every woman should read this book. Your teenage daughter should read it. Your son, too.