Written by Hannah Nott
Graphic by Ana Isaacs
CW: Discussion of sexual assault, rape, and trauma, and mentions of #MeToo.
Everyone knows the name of Chanel Miller’s rapist; we know he could swim well, he liked steak, and that he went to Stanford. Yet, for a long time, we didn’t know Chanel’s name or all that she is: a writer, an artist, a poet, and a sister. It’s understandable that we don’t know much about Chanel – her identity was protected during the trial. However, the fact that we know so many irrelevant things about a rapist is absurd. This isn’t the only case where the criminal has been humanised at the expense of the victims – but it is the case that could finally force us to question why we allow this minimisation of crimes and glorification of criminals. In writing her memoir, Know My Name, Chanel is taking back her identity and right to be known as a survivor, as well as an author, an artist, and a woman.
How do you even review this memoir besides saying ‘read it’? I am not a survivor of sexual assault; I haven’t experienced the “ugliness” that Chanel and so many others “never asked for”. The least we can do – those who have not experienced this pain, at least – is read and learn about this ugliness. There is a tendency to ask people for free emotional labour when we seek to understand things that haven’t happened to us. By reading this memoir, we can educate ourselves on the impacts of sexual assault and rape, as well as the complexities of the justice system and pressing charges, while financially supporting a talented author who has chosen to share her story with us.
This case was quite straightforward. Chanel was assaulted while blacked out behind a dumpster at a frat house on the Stanford University campus in 2015. Two men found her while she was being assaulted and tackled her rapist, meaning that there were two witnesses. Despite this, it took until June of 2016 for the rapist to be convicted and sentenced to merely six months in county jail – of which he served only three.
Everyone knows the story of Chanel’s assault, from the worldwide media coverage and her powerful impact statement that was published on Buzzfeed. I vividly remember reading Chanel’s statement one lunchtime in high school with my friends in a small country town in regional Victoria. Now, so many of my friends in Canberra know this case in the same way I do, despite us all having grown up in different corners of the country. Perhaps it’s because we all have been catcalled, objectified at work, felt up in a club, or held to different standards than our male peers. Perhaps it’s because in talking about Chanel’s story, we were able to share our own experiences and realised we all had similar ones. Chanel writes “How do you come after me, when it is all of us? … we are taught assault is likely to occur, but if you dressed modestly, you’d lower the chances of it being you. But this would never eradicate the issue, only redirecting the assailant to another unsuspecting victim, off-loading the violence”. Chanel’s story was so powerful in part because it forced us to examine the narrative. Why are we told assault is likely for women and that we must dress and act in ways that may prevent it? How can we be content with the knowledge that this violence is likely?
This case was the precursor to Christine Blasey Ford standing up in front of the world, dredging up trauma, breaking down in every sense of the phrase, and being ignored and humiliated by powerful men and institutions. The #MeToo movement was not started by Chanel, but her story will always be a pivotal one in the movement – particularly regarding institutions of higher education. Her impact statement spoke of both the trauma she experienced, and her hopes that in saying something, she could stop other people from having to become survivors. It also highlighted the issue of sexual assault on campuses that is so prevalent worldwide – our own campus absolutely included. Chanel shared her experience of being a young woman, drinking at a college party on a campus that she was incredibly familiar with, and so many young women resonated with it. Yet, herein lies the problem: we shouldn’t ever feel unsafe, especially not at institutions where we are supposed to be encouraged to grow both personally and intellectually. This is not the experience we think we’re signing up for when we pick our university and college, and it’s abhorrent that this has been the experience for so many. Chanel’s case brought to the forefront the betrayal that young people experience when institutions such as universities are unable – and even unwilling – to keep us safe on their campuses.
Know My Name highlights the extreme lengths Chanel went through for her case to be heard, despite the simplicity of it. Her judge was an ex-Stanford athlete; the dates for court appearances were changed multiple times; and her rapist’s statement was written as if the assault was a big misunderstanding as a result of alcohol consumption. The statement from the rapist’s father was vile, and despite it receiving outrage online, it further emphasised the ways women come under attack for daring to seek justice. This memoir portrays the absolute powerlessness survivors are forced to grapple with when exercising their legal rights. Particularly in high profile cases, women are often criticised for not taking their rapists to court or for accepting settlements instead of continuing with a trial. The absolute ordeal that Chanel went through for such a minimal sentence outcome demonstrates why women don’t take their claims to court or don’t speak out.
In her memoir, Chanel shares how the assault invaded every aspect of her life in the months following it. She writes of the split she felt between Emily Doe, sexual assault survivor; and Chanel Miller: daughter, co-worker, and sister. Chanel’s journey to reconciling the coexistence of these two versions of herself is a powerful exemplification of the trauma that continues long after a sexual assault physically occurs. It was incredibly impactful to read and understand the pervasive impacts of a traumatic event – something that is rarely the focus in sexual assault cases. We are always made aware of the impact any kind of allegation may have on the rapist, yet we never measure the ongoing trauma survivors face. As Chanel writes, “my pain was never more valuable than his potential”.
Know My Name is frustrating; and the frustration at the lack of action, as well as the ability for men with power and privilege to work our institutions in their favour, was explored brilliantly in this memoir. Know My Name isn’t an easy read, but it is important. I know that it may seem as though it is absolutely hopeless – but it isn’t. It is certainly disheartening, but it is also far from hopeless. The unjust sentence that her rapist received brought to light the outrageous outcomes of sexual assault cases, and illustrated the immense trauma survivors endure during court proceedings. This resulted in a change to Californian law; there is now a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in prison for the sexual assault of an unconscious or intoxicated person. While Chanel’s rapist was given an unjust sentence, her courage and persistence led to a change in state law, and a greater awareness of campus sexual assaults worldwide.
Chanel writes eloquently and her voice deserves to be heard. Everyone should read this, even if for no other reason than to challenge the fact that we know so many meaningless details about a rapist, and nothing beyond the clinical details of a case that happened to a woman who is valuable in her own right. We can’t change what happened to Chanel, but we can make sure she is known for her talents and worth as a human before she is known for her assault. Chanel writes “the saddest thing about these cases, beyond the crimes themselves, are the degrading things the victim begins to believe about her being. My hope is to undo these beliefs. I say her, but whether you are a man, transgender, gender-nonconforming, however you choose to identify and exist in this world, if your life has been touched by sexual violence, I seek to protect you.”
Reading Know My Name opened my eyes to the great difficulty it takes for survivors to have their stories heard – not only in court, but in the wider community. Yet, it also offered me hope. If high school girls from all corners of Australia followed this case and were outraged by it, then we have hope. So many of my friends knew about this case before coming to university – but rather than Chanel’s story acting as a warning to deter us from higher education, it made us determined to fight for our right to a safe campus. Movements like the STOP Campaign at ANU actively rewrite the narrative of sexual assault on campus, supporting our right to a safe educational space. Similarly, the #MeToo movement gave us many stories of places that we have historically been unable to feel safe in – from university campuses to Hollywood. Thanks to #MeToo, we – and the whole world – now have a list of places to demand change in. We have a generation of women coming to occupy spaces that people like Chanel Miller have fought for, with the knowledge that we have the right to be safe in these spaces. Women are often criticised for being angry, but the outrage that Know My Name leaves you with is worthy – there is power in angry women knowing what they need to fight against. We have the power to rewrite the narrative, reclaim space, and share the names and stories of survivors.