In Know My Name, the Whole Story Is the Hardest to Tell

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The story of Emily Doe is a familiar one. For a culture inundated with stories about sexual assault, the details of Emily Doe’s sexual assault are especially horrific. But the story itself is so familiar that the contours of what happened have entered the collective feminist memory, been absorbed and made almost mythical.

The oft-repeated story goes something like this: In January of 2015, Stanford student Brock Turner was outside of a fraternity party sexually assaulting an unconscious woman when two Swedish graduate students saw what was happening and intervened. The case went to trial and Turner was convicted of three felonies, including assault with the intent to commit rape. Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to six months in county jail, probation, and required him to register as a sex offender. During the year surrounding the trial, the victim was only identified as Emily Doe—a faceless entity known not for the life she had before the attack, but for the details surrounding it. Her victim impact statement, originally published by Buzzfeed in 2016, went viral almost instantly—a grim traffic victory. Addressed clearly to Turner, she writes “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.” What proceeds is emotional, angry, and damning in detail. The candor in her statement struck a nerve, for here was a survivor’s story that gave shape to the bullet point details published in the press. This was proof that there was a real person behind the facts as presented, but she was still Emily Doe, still an abstraction.

Meanwhile, the details of Turner’s life were reported by the press with a credulity that his victim was not afforded—until now. Emily Doe’s real name is Chanel Miller and in her recently published memoir, Know My Name, she sets out to set the record straight, presenting a gimlet-eyed view of the complexities of trauma, making the private pain that she endured public for the very first time.

Miller’s story begins on the night of her assault and unfurls a painstaking account of the mental and physical effects of trauma. For Miller, the assault itself is mercifully erased from her memory; she is dancing at a frat party on a chair after a few drinks and then wakes up in a hospital bed, pine needles in her hair, without any underwear, wondering why a dean from Stanford and a police officer are staring at her with concerned faces. The general details of Miller’s case are widely available, but the narrative with which the public is familiar is incomplete. Reports from the trial hewed to the standards afforded to those accused of sexual assault: Turner was a good kid with a promising future, an Olympic-track swimmer whose life would be ruined by a conviction and so that life must be prioritized over the other. In Know My Name, Miller reclaims the narrative by centering herself and her experiences, in an attempt to tell the full story.

Miller’s memoir is beautifully written, underscored by simmering indignation. The media’s depiction of rape and sexual assault trials inevitably center the accused rather than the accuser; the anonymity granted the survivors is a blessing at the moment, meant to protect. But, as Miller makes clear in her book, that anonymity also robs survivors of their personhood, defining them only by the violence enacted upon them and nothing more. To be a victim of an assault case that eventually goes to trial means reliving the assault over and over again in excruciating detail. At various points throughout the book, Miller is forced to recall the incident and relay its details to investigators, the district attorney assigned to her case, and, eventually her loved ones. The effect of this constant repetition is erasure. She writes of how she lived her life as two separate entities, Chanel Miller and Emily Doe, going through the motions in a liminal space between the person she used to be, the person she is, and the person in the newspapers, always unconscious, disheveled, violated.

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But Miller rails against this flattening of self at every turn. At times, the book reads like an eloquent confessional—careful and concise documentation of one woman’s attempt to rebuild a life from the ruins. She is thorough in recording the ups and the downs, catalogs her coping mechanisms, and attempts at normalcy with raw candor. She goes to Rhode Island to study art; she dabbles in stand-up; she revisits the past every day, against her own will.

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Know My Name elucidates the hard truths about sexual assault: no one ever wants to hear the full story, which is always more nuanced, complex, and messy than the narrative presented in the press. A similar scenario unfolded just three years later, when Christine Blasey Ford testified at a public hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee that Brett Kavanaugh pinned her down at a house party when he was drunk and put his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream. Ford spoke with strength in a room full of people without her best interests in mind. “I believed he was going to rape me,” she said, and also endured interminable questioning—some hostile and some less so—from individual senators for up to five minutes at a time. Later on, Kavanaugh puffed up his chest and screamed into a microphone about how no one had ever suffered the way he was suffering now. Like Turner, Kavanaugh was there to protect his good name, and Ford existed only to be annihilated by his insistence that he was a good and innocent man. Both men were painted as pillars of their respective communities and the women were asked questions meant to prove that, in some small ineffable way, they deserved it.

After Ford came out with the sexual assault allegations in the Washington Post, the death threats began, forcing her family to move four times. A month after the hearing was over and Kavanaugh instated in the highest court in the country, Ford was still unable to return to work and required a security detail because the death threats kept coming. The accused lives their life and the survivor pick up the pieces every single day.

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