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ALESSANDRA MONTALTO/The New York Times News Service

  • Title: Know My Name
  • Author: Chanel Miller
  • Genre: Memoirs
  • Publisher: Penguin Random House
  • Pages: 368

For sexually assaulting an unconscious stranger behind a garbage dumpster during a frat party, Brock Turner got the kid-glove treatment from the criminal justice system – a case that would inflame millions of observers a year before #MeToo blew open.

Though the maximum prison sentence for Turner’s convictions was 14 years, U.S. Justice Aaron Persky gave him six months, deciding that lengthier incarceration would have a “severe impact” on Turner, formerly a swimmer at Stanford University. Besides, the judge argued, the young man had been drunk during the attempted rape, and so was less morally culpable. Turner would ultimately spend just three months behind bars.

Turner’s family, too, failed to hold him accountable: “This is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action,” his father, Dan Turner, infamously said of the guilty verdicts.

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It was cruel math for the 22-year-old victim, Chanel Miller, known publicly only as “Emily Doe” throughout the trial. “My poisoned life, three months,” Miller writes in her powerhouse memoirs, Know My Name. After the attack, Miller subdivides her existence into two: There is Chanel, trying to resurface back to her life, and there is Emily, the victim pushed to the side and brought out for court dates, a wound that festers.

Miller’s difficult memoirs follow an exacting and ferociously smart 7,000-word victim-impact statement, which she read aloud to Turner in the courtroom. Shortly after sentencing, her statement was posted to the news website BuzzFeed, gaining international attention and translations into multiple languages, including sign language. The reverberations went wide. California legislators changed sexual assault laws, expanding the definition of rape and creating new mandatory sentencing for sexually assaulting an unconscious or intoxicated person. In 2018, county voters incensed by Turner’s lenient sentence recalled the judge from the bench, in protest of courts failing to treat sexual assault as a serious, life-altering crime.

What will Miller’s memoirs achieve that her far-reaching victim-impact statement did not? Know My Name is one of the most urgent artifacts to emerge in the wake of #MeToo, a scathing indictment of every institution that sexual assault victims encounter – the courts, college campuses and the media – “all the people enabling a broken system,” Miller writes. The author, now 27, is a deeply watchful pair of eyes, a civilian “randomly selected to receive an all-access pass to the court system," which appears to be a failure on nearly all fronts according to a growing chorus of victims of sexual violence.

Know My Name joins a canon of survivor memoirs published amid #MeToo, including Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad and the Canadian anthology Whatever Gets You Through, edited by Jen Sookfong Lee and Stacey May Fowles. While these works prioritized the experiences of diverse victims, Miller brings a singular voice to the genre. And while many victims rightly recoil from describing attacks and the aftermath too closely – feeling it a voyeuristic exercise – Miller opts for wrenching detail, putting it all on the table.

“I needed to show her Emily,” Miller writes of her first session with a therapist. “[I] needed to bring her to the scene where she was found beneath the trees. For the first time, I was handing someone a flashlight declaring, Come with me.” That’s the mission of this book: to take us with her. Miller’s exactingly observed details help readers who’ve been untouched – or remain unmoved – by this crime to see it for what it is: the kind of violence that levels people.

The author begins by humanizing herself, painting quick, visual scenes from her happy childhood before swinging readers abruptly to the night behind the dumpster, under the pines. Miller wakes up in hospital, with no memory of Turner or the assault after an alcohol-fuelled blackout. Her underwear is missing, replaced by mint green pants, the drawstrings tied in a bow by someone other than her. Her hair is a tangled mass pierced by pine cones and twigs that shed as she walks. “You looked dead,” Miller’s father tells her after seeing photo exhibits in court. “Like someone tried to toss a body into the dumpster and missed.”

The rape kit examination goes on for hours, three experienced nurses swabbing, measuring and photographing. Miller stares at a picture of a sailboat tacked to the ceiling, presumably there for comfort. “The sailboat was doing its best,” she writes. Afterward, she’s shown to a plastic garden shed stuffed with sweat shirts and sweat pants she can pick from, her own dress surrendered as evidence. How many women before and after her wear this “new uniform,” Miller wonders. She is handed a pamphlet on post-traumatic stress disorder, which informs her she may be in pieces for more than three years, unable to work or maintain relationships, possibly suicidal.

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At work, Miller is unfocused, gorging on tone-deaf news stories about her own assault. In the comments sections, nameless strangers adjudicate Miller’s allegations, her dress, her drinking, some joking about Turner’s “breaststroke.” She reads it all, voraciously, masochistically. Instead of mugshots, newspapers run photos of Turner triumphant in swimming pools or smiling his Chiclet smile in a suit. “They counted my drinks and counted the seconds Brock could swim two hundred yards, topped the article with a picture of Brock wearing a tie; it could’ve doubled as his LinkedIn profile,” Miller writes.

At home, she wastes away under her duvet. Miller was unconscious when she was assaulted and later develops serious problems sleeping in the dark, barricading windows and doors when she is home alone. Intimacy is rewired; during sex with her supportive, long-term boyfriend, Miller is on edge and needs to see his face in the light. “Sexual assault is stealing,” she says, etching a clear-eyed portrait of trauma.

Miller’s writing is muscular and precise. She connects the dots, seeing meaning everywhere. At a yoga studio where patrons can place a white token on their mats to indicate to the instructor that they prefer not to be touched, Miller takes in this moment of bodily autonomy. When she and her boyfriend foster elderly dogs at a San Francisco shelter called Muttville, she makes note of the tagline: “It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again" – a fitting motto for human and dog.

If Know My Name is one part unremitting detail, the other is a call to arms against the criminal justice system’s disregard for sexual assault victims. Day One of court proceedings sees Miller led to a “victim closet”, where she will wait until it is her turn to testify. She scans the room: a “dirty couch that looked sculpted out of earwax,” old magazines, dried up markers and sad children’s drawings left behind. A YWCA advocate hands her a squeeze toy shaped like a wiener dog to clench when she gets nervous on the stand. It’s going to be a rough ride.

The author deftly dissects the ways the criminal justice system grinds victims down, starting with the courts’ nasty habit of conflating of rape with sex. “What was unique about this crime,” Miller writes, “was that the perpetrator could suggest the victim experienced pleasure and people wouldn’t bat an eye.” Taking advantage of Miller’s blank memory, Turner testifies the two had a “good time," that he’d even managed to give this stranger an orgasm in the dirt behind the dumpster. Miller feels like a “real-life ventriloquist doll,” the attacker putting words in her mouth.

During cross-examination, Turner’s lawyer flits between the serious (Miller’s injuries), and the trivial (frat party attendees shotgunning beer). “Proceedings had digressed, strayed away from seminal questions, everything more corrosive and irrelevant than I could’ve imagined,” Miller writes. The defence paints Miller as a party girl who makes poor decisions, a person she doesn’t recognize. Turner, meanwhile, brings along two high-school teachers, an ex and a childhood best friend to praise him. “This was not a quest for justice,” Miller writes, “but a test of endurance.”

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There are other indignities. Thanks to a rape kit backlog, Miller waits months for her results, learning that some victims’ kits get so old, they grow mould and have to be tossed out. “This was not fruit rotting,” she writes, “it was little pieces of us in each one, an indispensable story.” The repeated, last minute rescheduling of court dates wreaks havoc on her family and on her employment prospects; by trial’s end, Miller’s bank account dwindles to $2.83.

“I write to show how victims are treated at this moment in time, to record the temperature of our culture. This is a marker, and I hope that in twenty years this gruelling aftermath of victimhood will feel foreign," Miller writes.

Miller also confronts institutional betrayal on campus. She’s deeply disturbed by the absence of a large-scale policy review or wholehearted follow-up; Stanford officials wait 10 days to reach out to her, informing her that Turner has been barred from campus. The final insult borders on the absurd. School officials replace the dumpsters behind the frat house with a memorial garden, but decide the words Miller writes for the plaque are too “triggering” – further sanitizing the problem they’ve got on their grounds.

The monument Miller would have preferred would actually lie 90 feet away from this wordless rape garden. It’s the spot where two Swedish graduate students who’d cycled past and caught sight of Turner on top of an unmoving body had tackled him, demanding, “She’s unconscious. Do you think this is okay?” For the author, Carl-Fredrik Arndt and Peter Lars Jonsson are the light. She pastes a picture of two bicycles by her pillow; it helps her sleep.

With her crucial memoirs, Miller asks what kind of masculinity we want, today: Turner’s hostile, entitled version, or the masculinity of the cyclists, who kneel over Miller to check on her before pinning the attacker down. “What we needed to raise in others was this instinct,” Miller writes. “The ability to recognize, in an instant, right from wrong.”

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