Review: Vivien Horler
Know My Name, by Chanel Miller (Viking/ Penguin)
We all do foolish things occasionally, and mostly we survive unscathed. But in January 2015 Chanel Miller, then aged 22, went to a party on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California, drank too much and passed out.
This was the beginning of a three-year ordeal which upended her life, led to the recall of a judge and saw state law changed.
She woke up in hospital, half naked, with abrasions on her body, pine needles in her hair, and bruises to her groin. She was told by a police deputy that there was reason to believe she had been sexually assaulted.
She had no idea of the details until a couple of days later when she read a newspaper report of the arrest of a Stanford student, Brock Turner, on charges of rape and sexual assault. It appeared that he had been spotted by a pair of Swedish post-graduates “dry humping” a comatose woman. They shouted and Turner fled, only to be pinned down by the Swedes until the police arrived. Turner was later released on bail of $150 000 (about R2.85million at today’s rates).
Turner, a top Ohio swimmer who was in his first year at Stanford on a sports scholarship and who had a chance of participating in the Olympics, was charged with two counts of rape, two of sexual assault and one of attempted rape. The two rape charges were withdrawn after forensic tests showed he had not used his penis in the attack, but had penetrated Miller with his fingers.
Turner, who was also drunk, later told the police he would not have recognised Miller if he saw her again.
He was expelled from Stanford.
Miller testified against Turner in court, although was unable to describe what had happened. She didn’t recall him at the party, although Miller’s sister Tiffany said he had tried to kiss her several times.
In June 2016 Judge Aaron Persky sentence Turned to six months in a county jail followed by three years of probation. He also had to register as a sex offender. Later that year Turner appealed, lost, and went to jail, serving just three months.
The fact that Turner was a Stanford fraternity jock probably had something to do with the publicity that surrounded the case. But what caught public attention was the 7 000-word victim-impact statement Miller read to the court before Turner was sentenced.
The statement, reproduced in this book, directly addresses Turner. She starts off by saying: “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.”
She said she often thought if she hadn’t gone to the party with Tiffany, the attack would never have happened. “But then I realised, it would have happened, just to somebody else. You were about to enter four years of access to drunk girls and parties, and if this is the foot you started off on, then it is right you did not continue.”
The statement was published on Buzzfeed and was read 11 million times in four days.
Miller, who is a Chinese American, has a degree in literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara. In the beginning she thought Turner would apologise, the matter would blow over, go away. But Turner “lawyered up”, and she found herself in the middle of a dehumanising, enraging legal process.
In her introduction to this powerful book she says all humans are multidimensional beings, but in court she was “flattened, characterised, mislabeled and vilified”. Known throughout the process as “Emily Doe”, she wrote the book, she says, in an attempt to “transform the hurt inside myself, to confront a past, and find a way to live with and incorporate these memories”.
She gazes unflinchingly at society’s attitude to drunken women and to rape, and writes, often angrily, of the standards that people apply to women. “When a woman is assaulted, one of the first questions people ask is, Did you say no? The question assumes that the answer was always yes, and that it is her job to revoke the agreement…. Why is the door open until we have to slam it shut?”
She muses: “The phrase, sexual assault, is a little misleading, for it seemed to be less about sex, more about taking. Sexual assault is stealing.”
She recalls, as a college student, going skinnydipping in the sea in the moonlight, something she would never do now. “There is a certain carefree feeling that was stripped from me the night of the assault. How to distinguish spontaneity from recklessness? How to prove nudity is not synonymous with promiscuity… This is what I’m mourning…”
She was angry with Turner, but also with the US legal system – and her searing indictment of that system could go for ours, too. She writes of “society’s failure to have systems in place in which victims feel there’s a probable chance of achieving safety, justice and restoration rather than being retraumatised, publicly shamed, psychologically tormented and verbally mauled. The real question we need to be asking is not, Why didn’t she report, the question is, Why would you?”
In the US judges are elected, and outrage at Turner’s light sentence led to Persky being recalled and losing his job. In addition, California state law changed so that a finding of rape was not restricted to penetration by a penis.
This memoir is searing, brave and poignant, and, in the end, represents a triumph over horror. Miller, who according to my calculations is not quite 28, is a fluent and thoughtful writer. Her memoir deserves to be read.