Know My Name by Chanel Miller is almost impossible to review. It’s the same problem I always have when reviewing memoirs – who am I to comment on a person’s story? And Chanel Miller’s story – brutal, powerful and incredibly insightful – is one that I’m particularly wary about commenting on, because she has had more than enough scrutiny. And yet, she wrote this book. A book that invites thought and demands discussion.
At the beginning of her memoir, which spans a period of approximately three years, Chanel is known as ‘Emily Doe’. Emily Doe was sexually assaulted, whilst unconscious, behind a dumpster at Stanford University. The rapist, Stanford student Brock Turner, was caught by two passing students, who restrained him until the police arrived. Chanel woke in hospital, with no idea of the extent of the assault.
Turner was charged. It should have been a straightforward case, however, as happens all too frequently, the trial was protracted, and Chanel’s life became centred around court dates, sentencing and appeals. Her work, her relationships, her sense of safety, all suspended while the wheels of the ‘justice system’ turned.
His fault. Her fault. How quickly victims must begin fighting, converting feelings into logic, navigating the legal system.
I’ve left out a detail that the media made much of – Turner was a swimmer (an Olympic hopeful) and was intending to study medicine. The right response to this information is ‘so what’, but Judge Aaron Persky decided that the whole ‘frat party incident’ had ‘cost’ Turner enough, and sentenced him to a mere six months in jail. He served just three.
My pain was never more valuable than his potential.
Chanel posted her victim impact statement on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral. Strengthened by the response, she revealed her name and reclaimed control through the power of words. And her words had immense impact – notably Judge Aaron Persky was recalled (after 80,000 people in his county petitioned for him to be stood down because of his lenient sentencing of Turner), and most importantly, they resonated with others who had been assaulted, raped, and exposed to a criminal justice system that fails the most vulnerable.
It never occurred to me that the system itself could be wrong, or changed or improved. That victims could ask for more.
Chanel reflects on many elements of her experience, from institutional betrayal and compensation for victims (“….few acknowledge that healing is costly…”) to education and social change. However, there was on aspect of her story that I zeroed in on – ‘forgiveness’. Chanel must have been asked a hundred times about forgiveness and ‘moving on’ (for the record, I think that’s a stupid, pointless term) – our interest is almost indecent but, as with any story that includes trauma and resilience, curiosity and empathy are bedfellows.
If you’re wondering if I’ve forgiven him I can only say that hate is a heavy thing to carry. It takes up too much space inside the self…. if I have forgiven him, it’s not because I’m holy it’s because I need to clear a space inside myself where hard feelings can be put to rest.
I feel I have done very little in the way of reviewing this book but I do urge you to read it. It’s important, it’s relevant, and it covers issues we should be talking about, particularly with teens and young adults. In terms of its relevance in Australia, note that Chanel’s experience in the judicial system is not all that different to Bri Lee’s experience.
I used to believe the goal was forgetting. It took me a long time to learn healing is not about advancing. It is about returning repeatedly to forge something.