Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
TRIGGER WARNING: THIS STORY INCLUDES DESCRIPTIONS AND MENTIONS OF RAPE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT, WHICH MAY BE UPSETTING TO SOME.
Editor’s note: A writer, philosopher. An artist. A daughter, sister. Those are some of the descriptions of Chanel Miller that she wanted to be known before the night of Jan. 17, 2015; the night that stripped part of her identity away and turned her world into “darkness.” It was there, behind a dumpster at an off-campus Stanford University fraternity party, where a student named Brock Turner sexually assaulted Miller as she lay unconscious beneath him. Two Stanford students who were riding bikes to the same party witnessed the attack and quickly took to action when they saw Miller lying down completely motionless. Turner tried to run after he was confronted by the students, but was held down immediately until the police arrived to take him into custody.
Four hours later Miller awoke to find herself in a hospital, surrounded by nurses and a police deputy, unaware of what had happened the night prior. She had abrasions all over her body, her vagina was sore and there were pine needles tangled in her hair. The people at the hospital didn’t have much else to tell her, only that she may have been assaulted at the party and to get retested for HIV because results may show up later after her first initial test, and that they will contact her once more can be confirmed. She left the hospital, in the sweatshirt and pants they provided because her clothes needed further testing, and into the arms of her younger sister, Tiffany, who Miller had to coax and reassure her that she was fine, despite the fact that she wasn’t exactly sure. Tiffany, a junior at Cal Poly at that time, drove up three hours to spend time with Miller and her family that weekend and was the one who invited Miller to the college party with her friend who was a Stanford student. From what Miller could remember and what she was told at the hospital, she confided in her sister of what may have happened to her but asked to keep it to themselves until she knew more.
Later that week she would see a headline news piece, while scrolling through her phone, that read words “Stanford,” “rape” and “intoxicated, unconscious woman,” which she immediately knew the descriptions were about her and what she went through. The case would go on to receive international attention as it zeroed in on the “fallen athlete,” Turner, along with Miller, known then as “Emily Doe,” who the defense attorney would try to paint a “party girl” image of the 22-year-old, Palo Alto native, recently graduated UC Santa Barbara student. After a year and a half of trial, 12 jurors found Turner guilty of five felony sex crimes: 1) rape of an intoxicated person, 2) rape of an unconscious person, 3) sexual penetration of an unconscious person, 4) sexual penetration of an intoxicated person, 5) assault with intent to commit rape. Though the charges would have sent Turner to prison for at least 10 years, the sentence, however, ruled by Judge Aaron Persky on June 2, 2016, was given for Turner to serve just six months in the Santa Clara County jail, which he was released after just serving three months. A national outcry of Persky’s light sentence and how the defense attorney’s tactics of spinning Miller’s story to fit Turner’s pulsed through every media outlet, prompting many to sign petitions and ultimately successfully campaigning Persky’s removal in a recall vote by Santa Clara County voters on June 5, 2018, California’s first time in 80 years.
Three years after the sentencing of Turner, Miller — still known then as “Emily Doe” — held on to her anonymity while writing her story of who she was, what happened that night in January 2015 and how it changed her life forever.
Miller’s memoir “Know My Name” was released in September 2019 and chosen as a Best Book of 2019 by The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, TIME, Elle, Glamour, Parade, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and BookRiot.
The following transcript is from Miller’s “I Am With You” film, which was made as a glimpse inside Miller’s head as she processed the trauma and healing of the years leading up to her book release. As she states in her description of the film:
“While writing ‘Know My Name,’ I was constantly drawing as a way of letting my mind breathe, reminding myself that life is playful and imaginative. We all deserve a chance to define ourselves, shape our identities, and tell our stories.”
You can see the video by going to youtube.com/watch?v=ouIxvBMF7Rw, which is a play of black and white cartoon images that go along with the words below this editor’s note. Images of Miller drawn as a cartoon figure show her morph from one part of her life to another. From a young adult prior, to showering after the attack then slumping down, made to feel invisible or small among the world that she felt so out of place in. Her story is one of many sexual assault survivor stories, which has been lauded for helping to speak for those who continue to feel voiceless. As April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, this piece is a reminder to sexual assault survivors everywhere that you are seen, heard and not alone. We are with you.
It happened when I was 22, on the cusp of my adulthood.
When you are assaulted, an identity is given to you.
It threatens to swallow up everything you plan to do, and be.
I became Emily Doe.
Assault teaches you to shrink, makes you afraid to exist.
Shame, really, can kill you.
Unconscious. Stupid. Dumpster. Swimmer. Half-naked. Nameless. Nobody.
Nobody wants to be defined by the worst things that happened to them.
I feared those words would follow me forever so I did not speak.
In court, the judge used words like “moderate,” “less serious” to describe the crime.
I remember the trial, the defense attorney stood before the jury and said,
“Chanel knows how to get in blackouts. You drink a lot of alcohol and that’s what she did this night, and many other nights to be honest.”
So I wrote a victim impact statement, 12 pages.
I read it at the sentencing, straight to the man who hurt me.
“You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me … Fingers had been jabbed … My bare skin and head … Irreversibly hurt behind a dumpster … Waiting to figure out if I was worth something…”
But the judge did not hear me.
When I released the statement, something else happened.
The world breathed life into my words.
I spent all this time, absorbing, absorbing, listening to their voices until I understood.
Chanel knows how you get in blackouts. Chanel also knows how to write, and Chanel knows how to draw.
Survivors will not be limited, labeled, boxed in, oppressed.
We will not be isolated, we’ve had enough.
Enough of the shame, diminishment, the disbelief, enough loneliness.
Look at all this togetherness, look out for one another.
Seek whatever you wish to be in life.
Speak when they try to silence you.
Stand up when they shove you down.
No one gets to define you, you do.
My name is Chanel, and I am with you.
Chanel Miller is a writer and artist. Her memoir, “Know My Name,” was a New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Book Review Notable Book, and a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Ridenhour Book Prize, and the California Book Award. It was also a best book of the year in TIME, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, NPR and People, among others. She was named one of the Forbes 30 under 20 and a Time Next 100 honoree and was a Glamour Woman of the Year honoree under her pseudonym Emily Doe.