Review: Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Dear Chanel,

You write that your memoir Know My Name is “an attempt to transform the hurt inside myself, to confront a past, and find a way to live with and incorporate these memories.” This attempt reveals a myriad of fractures in the American judicial system. It also illuminates the reality of rape culture and chronicles your convalescence following a sexual assault by Stanford student Brock Turner that made headlines. I see this book as a reclamation of what the judge and the defense attempted to shut down: your voice. You offer guidance, critique, and analysis but through it all, you weave stunning descriptions, such as those of your home where you “watch the sun spill its yolk over the hills” and “smell the sun baking fallen shards of eucalyptus bark.”

We see you as a dutiful child and as an overprotective big sister. We see you again as a college student recovering from her first heartbreak and as a young woman waking up in a hospital bed with her hair matted with pine needles. We see you as a woman processing trauma and actively changing a cultural landscape. We travel to a kitchen inside of your boyfriend’s Philadelphia apartment where you turn loneliness into “something edible, something nourishing, something good when dipped in chili pepper and soy sauce.” We are with you in court as a lawyer mangles your words and you yearn to protect your sister as he does the same to her words.

You teach us the ways that the legal system mistreats victims. You describe your experience receiving an invasive sexual assault forensic exam before being told that an excessive amount of time might pass before your kit would be processed because, “there were hundreds in line before me, some kits kept so long they grew mold, some thrown out, the lucky ones refrigerated.” We learn that people who have experienced sexual assault can’t serve on a jury during assault cases, and women jury members are less likely to vote guilty—after all, they’ve kept themselves from being assaulted, so everyone else should. We learn that court dates are rescheduled at a moment’s notice, that all involved in a case have to arrange and rearrange their lives. We learn that victims can face a tremendous financial strain. You write, “Few acknowledge that healing is costly. That we should be allocating more funds for victims, for therapy, extra security, potential moving costs, getting back on their feet, buying something as simple as court clothes.”

I first read your victim impact statement when one of my students in a class I taught during college chose to present it as an example of creative nonfiction in the news. We had heard about the assault from journalists informed by police reports and court transcripts, but we had not heard an account from the woman who was there. The student was a couple years younger than me. She was quiet and frequently missed class; she said that she chose your letter because it spoke to her since she had been assaulted in a similar manner when she was in high school. She apologized because of the graphic nature of the statement. I realized that this was where we were: victims of assault apologizing for making people uncomfortable. 

You point out that there’s a discrepancy between who is held accountable and who is not: “When a woman is assaulted, one of the first questions people ask is, Did you say no? This question assumes that the answer was always yes, and that it is her job to revoke the agreement.” This toxic model perpetuates harm, which you show us through the entitlement of a terrorist gunning down women at your college while you were a student, in the many high-profile cases wherein celebrity men abuse their power and in living in a country where, “it has become difficult to distinguish between the President’s words and that of a nineteen-year-old assailant.”

You illuminate the role that financial capital and white privilege play in your case and others covered by the media. You write that after being arrested, “money could make the cell doors swing open.” Those with more privilege are given more leniency—I wonder, for example, how the sentence would have differed had the attacker been a brown custodian instead of a white student?

Even in the darkest moments, sharp humor reveals the absurdities within the justice system. You underline the foolishness of having to look “respectful” in a courtroom by sharing a moment where you and your sister shop for outfits to wear to the trial. Tiffany tries on an oversized Minion T-shirt; you model diamond-encrusted capri pants and a top that reads, “BLESSED.” You point out the ridiculousness of the fact that having a boyfriend gives you bonus points in the eyes of the jury by imagining your boyfriend Lucas competing against your attacker Brock on a dating show.

You remind us that people are more than the worst thing that happens to them. You write about steamed milk and scuba-diving and elderly dogs puttering around your apartment, the healing properties of a haircut, of creating something, of bowling with friends. We understand that healing isn’t a singular thing; sometimes, constructing multiple selves is essential in the wake of traumatization. You’re named ‘Emily Doe’ by the media, and you think of her as the person who was assaulted, attends hearings, who “stand[s] in the shower, struggling to stand up straight, surrounded by steam.” Chanel is the person who performs stand up comedy, learns printmaking at RISD, and grabs dinner with friends who, “called me Chanel, not Brock Turner’s victim, not Lucas’s girlfriend. Just Chanel.” 

Know My Name provides hope, but it also educates and instructs. It’s a love letter to self-expression, a manual for healing, an exposé on rape culture, and a damn beautiful piece of writing. I don’t think it’s possible for someone to walk away from this book and ever ask what someone was wearing during an assault or why they didn’t report an assault again. 

There’s a theme of luck that runs throughout Know My Name. You are told you were lucky that the two Swedish students stopped Brock before he could go further than he did. Women are lucky if their rape kits are tested before they grow mold. You say that it was lucky that Brock assaulted you instead of Tiffany, her friend, or a Stanford student who would have dropped out of school. I’ve used the word lucky to describe the fact that anytime I’ve felt endangered, I’ve gotten out unscathed, but I know many women whom I love haven’t been lucky. It’s a problem that we associate luck with any of this at all.

Once, I sat next to a drunk woman on a train in New York. She alternated between leaning her head on my shoulder and on the shoulder of the guy next to her. His friends, who were also drunk, joked that they should bring her with them, so I transferred trains with her and sat beside her until she got off at her stop. Every one of my female friends has their own version of that story, of hearing a man say something chilling about a woman and then finding a way to protect her. But, as you point out, the problem isn’t stopping someone from becoming a victim—it’s stopping someone from becoming an attacker. 

My margins are marked up with exclamation marks and hearts and stars and tear stains. ‘Required reading’ is an overused phrase, but this book truly is that. I look forward to reading your next book and the one after that and after that, the ones where we get to see the future you imagine for yourself with “the children’s books I will illustrate, the chickens I will have in my yard, the soft cotton linens, the sauce-dipped wooden spoons on the counter.” I look forward to reading you again and again because I know that healing is not cut-and-dried, that there is no endpoint.  

Thank you for putting this into the world,

Kayla

About the author

Kayla Heisler is a New York City-based writer who runs the newsletter totally recc’d.

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