Content Warning: Sexual Assault
America was introduced to Brock Turner in 2015, when the first-year Stanford student was accused of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside of a frat party. The ensuing media coverage was quick to mention plenty of biographical details that bore little connection to his crimes: his swimming scholarship, his good family, and his idyllic suburban hometown. Before Turner’s sentence was announced (six months, of which he served three), the judge overseeing the case received letters from several of his friends and family arguing for leniency. The letters detailed the costs of imprisonment for Turner: his expulsion from Stanford, the loss of his Olympic aspirations, and dreams of becoming a surgeon. They focused on his potential and his supposed innocence, and questioned whether he was being forced to pay an unnecessarily high price for the bad decisions of a single night.
These types of questions are inevitable whenever a man is revealed to have behaved egregiously towards women. Every time one of these men faces something resembling a consequence for the horrors he has inflicted, scores of defenders, from respectable pundits to Twitter misogynists, crawl out of the woodwork to ask whether it is really fair to make him sacrifice so much. Surely, they fret, we cannot expect these men to simply give up their careers, or their art, or their entitlement to a life of public adoration. To me, the wasted potential of these men is far less compelling than the wasted potential of their victims. How many women have given up their own promising futures, intimidated into silence by the Lauers and Weinsteins of this world? How many women have been sidetracked from their dreams by unbearable trauma? It’s a crushing thought, but one that makes “Know My Name”—the account of one such woman refusing to be silenced—feel all the more precious.
“Know My Name,” published earlier this fall, is the memoir of 27-year-old Chanel Miller, who until recently was known only to the public as Emily Doe. In 2015, Miller attended a frat party with her younger sister, drank too much, went outside to pee, and woke up in the hospital with her underwear missing and no memory of what led her there. Based on information gleaned from the hospital administrators and, horrifyingly, a newspaper article about the events of the night, Miller pieced together the details of her assault. Two passing grad students had found Turner on top of Miller’s unconscious body behind a dumpster, he tried to run but they held him until the police arrived. These facts will likely be familiar to a good number of readers, as Turner’s case received widespread media attention at the time, but in “Know Your Name,” Miller fills in and extends her story.
The book is not the first time Miller has publicly described her experience; after Turner’s trial and sentencing, Miller’s victim impact statement was published anonymously by BuzzFeed and promptly went viral (so viral, in fact, that Miller’s own therapist—not realizing she was the author—suggested she read it to help her process her assault). It’s not hard to see why the statement struck a chord with so many; Miller is searingly honest, refusing to soften the sharp edges of her anger. In “Know Your Name,” she puts this natural candor to good use. Even in the hands of a less subtle and self-aware writer, the book’s topic would likely have been enough to make it emotionally resonant, but Miller is a natural storyteller, with a gift for lush imagery and a clear-eyed understanding of her own emotions. It would be easy enough for critics—and perhaps even supporters—to reduce Miller and her writing to her assault, but in fact it is her talent that elevates her subject matter and not the other way around.
“I did not come into existence when he harmed me,” Miller writes. “I had a voice, he stripped it, left me groping around blind for a bit, but I always had it. I just used it like I never had to use it before.”
“Know Your Name” is a tremendous use of this voice. It is a devastating criticism of men like Turner, of institutions like Stanford that do little to stop them, and of the legal system that shields them, but it is first and foremost a reclaiming of Miller’s own identity.
“I wondered if, in their eyes, the victim remained stagnant, living forever in that twenty-minute time frame,” Miller writes. “She remained frozen, while Brock grew more and more multifaceted, his stories unfolding a spectrum of life and memories opening up around him.”
After spending years existing in the public’s imagination only as “Victim” and “Emily Doe” while Turner and his family get to define his story however they wanted, Miller is finally unfreezing herself. She introduces readers to her family, her boyfriend, her interest in cooking and stand-up comedy (one of the biggest surprises of “Know Your Name” is Miller’s sharp sense of humor; in one memorable scene she describes shopping for clothes to wear to court and coming out of the dressing room in a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “BLESSED”), filling in the details of her life beyond victimhood.
“Know My Name,” the book says. It is both an offer and a demand. After finishing Miller’s extraordinary work, readers are not likely to forget it.
Tara Joy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.