Trigger warning: This article contains sexually graphic material as well as a report of sexual assault.
Know My Name, Chanel Miller’s memoir, is the sort of book that sends ripples through your soul, plucking at your heartstrings and making you feel things you can’t quite put your finger on. For the unaware, Chanel Miller is Emily Doe — the victim of the 2015 People v. Turner case — and her memoir focuses on her experience with assault, trauma and its aftermath. But the memoir does not focus on the assault, or even on her assailant. Instead, its focus is trained on Miller’s personhood.
Throughout the case, Miller was reduced to evidence — blown-up photos of her unconscious body and her vagina splayed across projector rooms for lawyers to analyze — and to a nameless victim who somehow ruined the Stanford swimmer’s life through her inaction in inviting him to take advantage of her. In Know My Name, Miller makes her story hers — no longer is she a nameless victim, she’s a sister, a friend, a young woman with a passion for printmaking and a flair for comedy, a woman who still spends hours gasping and crying as she tries to move past her trauma, but a woman and a full person with her own story to tell.
I think we often see trauma as the result of someone else’s doing to us, which is true in a lot of ways, but in the end, we’re the ones who have to carry that baggage around. Shouldn’t we try to own it in all the ways we can if we’re stuck with the weight? This is the lesson Miller tries to teach with her memoir. It’s about the reclamation of her identity, the rebuilding of her person in the aftermath of her trauma and about the person that was always there even if no one saw anything besides court documents and rape kits.
The book itself is filled with wonderfully personal anecdotes. Miller has a distinct voice with a unique tone, easily weaving in metaphors and simple personal experience into the larger picture. There’s a story she tells, about when she was living in Rhode Island and attending summer school for printmaking. An old man offered her a bell pepper. It terrifies her, she wonders if the bell pepper is poisoned, if it’s safe, if he’s going to stab her with the knife he’s using to slice up bell pepper — and then she silences her own fear, tells herself to move on, enjoy the bell pepper, refuses to let her fear of harm and misogyny to rule her life. It’s a simple moment. But it illustrates to the reader just how clear the choice to move on is, to recover is, to decide well, things are hard and may always be hard, but I’m not going to let this stop me, I’m going to eat the bell pepper and I’m going to enjoy it. Miller suggests, gently, that recovery is an active choice and that sometimes, it’s just choosing to eat a bell pepper.
Know My Name is a memoir about trauma, about recovery, about the injustice of the legal system when it comes to cases of sexual assault, about how pernicious misogyny is, but above all, it’s a memoir about Chanel Miller. It’s a memoir about an Asian American young woman who loves her sister more than anything, eats bell peppers strangers give her and who has a light brown sweater reserved for looking like Emily Doe instead of Chanel Miller. It’s a memoir about a person trying desperately to get the world to see that, to have them meet her gaze instead of her victimhood or her vagina and it’s worth reading just for that.