20 The Power of Words: A Discussion of Chanel Miller’s Know My Name
By Melinda Chen, University of Kansas
*Trigger Warning: This text discusses sexual violence and racism.
*This text contains spoilers.
Know My Name (2019) chronicles Chanel Miller’s journey after experiencing sexual assault. Miller was assaulted on Stanford University’s campus in 2015 and became publicly known as “Emily Doe” during her assailant’s trial. Although her assailant ultimately received a paltry sentence of three months, Miller’s published victim impact statement  sparked a tidal wave of feminist activism against rape culture on college campuses and in the criminal justice system (CJS). The statement was viewed 15 million times within five days of its publication (248). In her memoir, Miller reclaims the narrative of her assault, transforming her identity from Emily Doe to a survivor-victim whose words challenge the very rape culture that obfuscated her personhood.
Sexual violence affects millions of people every day, yet most survivors of sexual assault do not engage with the CJS. One in three women and one in four men report that they have experienced sexual assault at least once during their lifetimes (CDC, 2020), and an estimated one in two transgender or non-binary persons experience rape during their lifetimes (Munson and Cook-Daniels, 2015); however, only approximately one-third of assaults are reported to law enforcement (Morgan and Truman, 2018). These rates suggest that Miller’s story is unique because she directly engages with the legal system and explores how a presumably “just” institution is in fact biased against victims. The CJS demands an undue amount of evidence to begin prosecuting a rapist, thus deterring many victims from sharing stories of their assault. “Most victims are turned away at the base of the mountain [of justice], told they don’t have enough evidence to make the journey,” she explains (240-241). Miller further refuses to shy away from describing the harrowing treatment towards rape victims within courtroom spaces. Victims of rape face more scrutiny and judgment than the defendant because there is often insufficient physical evidence to determine whether consent occurred. The trial turned Miller into an “unworthy,” unconscious woman who drank and partied instead of the humorous and loving sister, daughter, and writer-comedian-artist that we meet in her memoir. “[T]he victim remained stagnant, living forever in that twenty-minute time frame,” she mourns (241). Even when she tried to speak in the courtroom to correct or add to her narrative, her words were eradicated immediately by the judge. “I watched my words fall like birds shot out of the air… [The judge] was teaching me to be afraid of speaking freely” (111-112).
Miller reclaims her identity by filling in the gaps missing from court transcripts. She shows the reader that the narratives of Emily Doe constructed by media outlets and courtroom officials were nothing like the experiences of Chanel Miller, whose career, social life, and family dynamics were drastically transformed as a result of her rape. Miller claims that her “worth…privacy…energy…time…safety…intimacy… confidence…[her] own voice” (349) disappeared and that it was not just “twenty minutes of action” that were stripped from her (232). “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she admits, as she travels hundreds of miles away from home in attempt to deny her victimhood (77). Then, months pass, and Miller begins to rediscover comfort in creative work. At the Helium Comedy Club, she finds comedy as the solution to public engagement and slowly regains a sense of Chanel, the writer. But this memoir is not a story of victimhood, nor is it a story of empowerment. Rather, Miller cautions for a more holistic reading of her story. She says: “As a survivor, I feel a duty to provide a realistic view of the complexity of recovery” (310). She remakes herself into a multifaceted survivor-victim, neither victim nor survivor alone. Chanel Miller melds with Emily Doe, and by the end of her memoir, the reader sees both personas, together.
One of the most powerful aspects to the memoir is the asynchronous manner in which Miller presents her story. The book is divided into fourteen chapters that move between past and present. This anachronistic storytelling reminds readers that survivors do not run on a chronological clock but are forced by trauma to slip in and out of linear time. In one example, she describes her desire to protect her sister: at first, she is twenty-three, outside the courtroom waiting for her sister to exit; in the next moment, she is eight years old, her sister trapped behind a pool door. Miller thinks to herself: “My eyes burned as I watched her, stuck on the other side of the door” (185). The thought blurs Miller’s two worlds of pre- and post-assault through a shared objective to protect her sister from the dangers of a locked room. The distorted timeline lapses into recognition that trauma does not accommodate for organization and scheduling demanded by court proceedings. “Trauma was refusing to adhere to any schedule, didn’t seem to align itself with time. Some days it was distant as a star and other days it could wholly engulf me” (126).
The memoir also reveals that there is more to survivor stories than igniting fires against rape culture. Identifying oneself and speaking as a victim of sexual violence widens the doors for other survivors to come forward, but empowerment is tricky when a survivor poses as though they speak on behalf of all survivors. Linda Alcoff suggests that “the effect of the practice of speaking for others is often, though not always, erasure and a reinscription of sexual, national, and other kinds of hierarchies” (1991, 29). A probation officer that misidentifies Miller as white instead of half-white, half-Chinese, errs because she does not make space for Miller’s identity as a biracial victim. The silence of Miller’s minority half rewrites the narrative into one in which the rapist and victim are on equal footing, both white, rather than a victim of color experiencing racial microaggressions from a white-dominated courtroom. Still, Miller presents her side of the story as a biracial victim without encroaching on others’ narratives, even avoiding a conversation about her assailant. “In not naming them, I finally name myself,” she declares (viii).
Donna Haraway writes: “Feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge…It allows us to become answerable for what we learn how to see” (1988, 583). Miller’s memoir situates her experience but does not speak for others. Wear a plain outfit, yet you are blamed for your assault. A seemingly benign outing like frozen yogurt with family is now impossible to enjoy because of flashbacks to your assault. This mix of the mundane and the horrifying feels commonplace and is a shared experience among victims. An impact statement that “goes viral,” or receiving letter after letter thanking you for your story, these are not shared experiences; they are a part of Miller’s individual narrative. Therein sits the striking beauty of the book: it provides a backdrop, a foundation, for readers to fill in the gaps presented by the story. Miller’s experience in the CJS illuminates that we are the same, encountering victimization by the authorities who are supposed to protect us—yet we are also different, experiencing assault in diverse ways.
Words are power against rape culture when they are spoken by the victim, but they become weapons turned against survivors when spoken and appropriated by others. Each survivor’s story must be read in their unique context to become empowering. On suicide, Miller explains that every story about a death is “one and one and one…,” not seven deaths, collectively (88). Miller does not want her voice to dominate over other victims’ voices, but rather stand alongside hers, individuals meeting individuals. “I want to stay and fight, while you go,” she says (313), overturning the myth that “[v]ictims exist in a society…to be an inspiring story” (312). She is not there for the reader as a hero; she does not want others to experience the hardships that she has experienced. Instead, she stands as a presence to accompany and support survivors like her. Like Miller, we must be cautious about naming narratives not our own; nevertheless, we speak up and share our stories to build momentum against an unjust world.
It is not an easy task to make space for others. Indeed, by quoting Miller in fragments, I decontextualize her words from the story she wishes to tell, reminiscent of a defense’s tactics to isolate and conquer. Yet a review is a special case of recycling quotations out-of-place, taking another’s words to point potential readers in the direction of the full story. Sometimes the review does a stellar job of highlighting the book, stepping aside to allow the main event to shine. The New York Times opinion piece (Ko, 2019) on Chanel Miller’s Asian-American identity is an excellent read for its assessment of the racial politics involved in criminal cases, avoiding interrupting the story and instead creating something new. The reader of this discussion may not read Know My Name in its entirety—it is your prerogative—but I hope to point you in the direction of her story.
This collection, Persistence is Resistance, takes snippets of feminist histories and praxis to show new recruits and veteran GWSS scholars our successes (and sometimes, failures) so we can collectively build a more robust feminist future. Like other authors here, I write this piece, a case study, as a way of showing the reader what might come of reading survivor stories: acknowledging others’ voices. Know My Name allows me to share what I think is most important about feminist ways of thinking because Miller demonstrates the very feminist epistemological practice that I hope my fellow feminist peers embody. The memoir is a snapshot of our collective mission to end violence and it is how we build a movement, particularly us feminists of color. We ensure that everyone has the right to speak, and then we make space for others to speak their truths. Power comes from words, and especially words of our own making.
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Baker, Katie J.M. 2016. “Here’s The Powerful Letter The Stanford Victim Read To Her Attacker.” Buzzfeed News. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/katiejmbaker/heres-the-powerful-letter-the-stanford- victim-read-to-her-ra. [Accessed: May 16, 2020]
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Ko, Lisa. 2019, May 12 . “Why It Matters That ‘Emily Doe’ in the Brock Turner Case Is Asian-American,” in The New York Times. https://nyti.ms/2moN1gk. [Accessed: May 16, 2020]
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Munson, Michael and Loree Cook-Daniels. 2015. “Transgender Sexual Violence Survivors: A Self-Help Guide to Healing and Understanding,” in Forge: Transgender Sexual Violence Project. http://forge-forward.org/wp-content/docs/self-help-guide-to-healing-2015-FINAL.pdf. [Accessed: May 16, 2020]
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- Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Marcy Quiason, Julie Shayne, & Elise Higgins. ↵
- For this essay, I choose not to talk about her assailant because his words and those of his supporters, including the judge, have already been spoken elsewhere. ↵
- A victim impact statement is an optional statement made to the court after a rape trial during sentencing to determine the severity of punishment. Victim Support Services (VSS) define a victim impact statement as “a written or oral statement presented to the court at the sentencing of the defendant” (2020) and the U.S. Department of Justice explains that the statement “describe[s] the emotional, physical, and financial impact [a victim] and others have suffered as a direct result of the crime” (2020). ↵
- Miller’s victim impact statement was initially published on Buzzfeed by Katie J.M. Baker on June 3, 2016, shortly after Miller’s statement was read to the court. ↵
- The terms “survivor” and “victim” are used interchangeably in this essay. Know My Name makes clear that a person should not be read monolithically and that one’s identity is not premised on empowerment or victimization alone post-rape. Rather, one’s identity after rape is both survivor and victim, and we should be mindful of how one self-presents and use the terminology of the person speaking about their experiences. ↵
- The actual rate of sexual violence is unknown, given the social stigma associated with reporting rape. See Yung (2014) for more information about reporting rape. ↵
- In addition to a high burden of proof expected of criminal cases, anti-carceral, restorative justice, and transformative justice feminists all point out that the CJS is inherently biased against minorities, consequently deterring many of them from engaging willingly with the system. For example, people of color (POC), LGBTQ people, and other marginalized people are often incarcerated for sentences longer than white heterosexual offenders, indicating that engagement with the CJS inscribes racism and heteronormativity onto the outcome of the case. See Lerman and Weaver (2014) and Morgan and Truman (2018) for more discussion around marginalization in the carceral state. ↵
- For more information related to revictimization by authorities (also known as “secondary victimization” or the “second rape”), see Taslitz, 1999; Campbell and Raja, 1999; Yung, 2006; Ahrens, 2006. ↵
- Most rape cases are criminal; thus, it is the State versus the defendant, not the victim versus the rapist. A civil suit may be brought against an offender; however, they are costly, prohibiting many victims from taking this route, and they demand much time from victims. ↵
- Chanel Miller discusses her Chinese heritage in Know My Name, enraged at a probation officer’s categorization of her as white. “I’m CHINESE,” she exclaims (220), and points out how her mother, a Chinese immigrant and acclaimed writer and filmmaker, had taught Miller about Chinese culture, such as dumpling making. Miller’s Chinese name is Zhang Xiao Xia, which means “Little Summer” and sounds like Xia, Cha-, Chanel (viii). ↵