Book Review: Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Updated: Jan 23, 2020
We all know the case. Brock Turner, a freshman at Stanford, was convicted in 2016 of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster after a frat party. He was convicted of three felony sexual assault charges and sentenced by Judge Aaron Persky to a six-month sentence, of which he only served three due to good behavior. He was also sentenced to three years probation and has to register as a sex offender for the rest of this life. Judge Persky was recalled by voters in 2018 due to anger about
The name we didn't know, until now, was that of the victim's. It's Chanel Miller, a Chinese-American woman from Paolo Alto, CA. This book is her memoir of the assault, the trial, and the aftermath.
I listened to Chanel reading her book. As I've said before on this blog, I prefer autobiographies and memoirs as audiobooks where I can hear the person relate about their own life in their own words. It's intimate and you can usually hear their emotions in their voice. I definitely did here. Chanel is eloquent (there's a reason her powerful victim-impact statement went viral), open, analytical, judicial (more than I think I could be), and intelligent. Her story not only discusses her own experiences, but is also a rallying cry for both cognizance of and change to the systemic problem of sexual assault victims being emotionally tortured after the assault by a broken investigative and judicial system. Her assault was just the start of the trauma she had to endure. It's compelling, horrifying, infuriating, heartbreaking, and still hopeful that things can change. And it needed someone who is this gifted of a writer to tell it.
I want everyone to read it (it's that important), so I'm not going to summarize her description of the assault, the direct aftermath (waking up in the hospital with hundreds of pine needles in her hair, no underwear on, and debris in her vagina), and the emotional turmoil she endured during the long, challenging court case. What I want to talk about are the systemic issues she brings up while relating her story. It's engrossing and definitely makes the reader realize that the parts we don't see splashed across the newspapers...the trauma the victim deals with at home in the silence after the police and doctors go away...the silence Chanel in particular got from Stanford after it happened...how Turner's defense attorney used very specific devices to manipulate her answers...the emotional turmoil this poor woman endured reading news reports and replies focused on what Brock had lost, how his life would be damaged from this "one, small incident..." are the parts that need to be amplified so we can have hope that the system will be changed for the better.
Chanel endured hell, but while it was originated by sexual assault, it continued long after the fact (and still does, in a sense) due to the horrifically broken and, yes, incredibly sexist system that holds women accountable for the violence, sexual assault, bullying, and harassment they suffer. Meanwhile men are routinely given the benefit of the doubt or, in some cases, a free pass.
First, the news coverage of the case. Chanel discusses how she read articles describing Brock as a great swimmer (most people do remember this detail...see how pervasive how a story is framed by the news media can be?). How this incident might stop him from becoming the amazing swimmer he was on the road to becoming. His once-promising future was tarnished or, as she states, "His was still the noticeable loss."
This biased narrative is part of rape culture, or the normalization of sexual assault and violence that instead blames the victim for the assault. But what Chanel describes seems to go even further. It's not just her fault. Instead because she "caused" this to happen his life is the one that is going to suffer. It inverts the woman-victim-of-the-man narrative to be woman-caused-man-to-assault-her-and-caused-his-life-to-be-hurt one. Newspapers reporting on sexual assault and the judicial system charged with prosecuting for sexual assault are both infected by this twisted narrative.
Chanel seemed to expect this line of thinking from the replies posted by strangers online. I get that. How many times have we all been told, "Don't read the replies!" The problem is, the people replying and blaming Chanel are getting this perspective from somewhere. And that somewhere includes systemic policies and institutions that govern our everyday lives.
What was truly eye-opening is her discussion about how a large portion of the trial, especially from the defense's side, was structured this way as well. The defense lawyer ended much of his "questions" with the comment, "right?" Chanel realized that he was basically putting words in her mouth about what happened. Leading her to agree with his assessment of things. Brock, meanwhile, testified that Chanel wasn't unconscious. He claimed she said "yes" to everything he did to her. Yet, surprisingly, he didn't tell this to the cops that night. Chanel rightly points out that the victim is expected to be cognizant enough to remember everything in detail and is persecuted if she doesn't. The man, in this case Brock, was looked at as doing "the right thing" by admitting to lying in court. "Victims are often, automatically, accused of lying" while "when a perpetrator is exposed for lying, the stigma doesn't stick." This is a problem and it's one that is accepted in our judicial system.
The character statements about Brock from his family and friends also focused on what he was losing. Chanel says, "Brock will always be the swimmer turned rapist." Even his changing story and proven lies throughout the trial (At one point he even excused his behavior as just "outercourse" because he only put his finger in her vagina) didn't alter the judge's feelings who gave him six months because he didn't want this incident to ruin the rest of his life. Brock's own mother didn't mention Chanel once in her statement. Brock's father's statement wasn't much better. As Chanel says, "He had lived shielded under a roof where the verdict was never accepted, where he would never be held accountable."
And that's the bottom line of all of this. Responsibility. I thought of myself during this, how I always critique myself with the words "I apologize too much, even for things that aren't my fault." The prevalence of rape culture in our country is because people don't take responsibility for what they do. And, sadly, we have a system that upholds this. While Chanel's past was gone over with a fine-tooth comb, while she had to explain her clothes, her attitude at the party, what she had for dinner that night (!!!), none of that was expected from Brock. All that everyone seemed to be concerned with was what he would be losing. Or how his future would be tarnished.
I could go on all day about all the issues this book brings up and how illuminating and just plain necessary it is. If you're a woman, read it. If you're a man, read it. It's thorough, engrossing, and so well written. Using her considerable talents, Chanel has both told her story (and in doing so exposed the trauma we don't know about) and told our country's story (how rape culture continues to exist and, in some cases, flourish). Here's hoping the first helps change the second.
My favorite quote is at the end, after Chanel thanks all the people who wrote to her after her victim statement went viral:
"All the small miracles that sustained me. We may spend half our time wandering around, wondering what we're doing here, why it's worth the effort. But living is an incredible thing, just to have been here, to have felt, if only briefly, the volume and depth of others' empathy. I wrote, most of all, to tell you I have seen how good the world can be."