Just Surviving Isn't Good Enough for Chanel Miller
Chanel Miller speaks slowly, like someone who is hyper aware of how powerful words can be. In her packed press schedule promoting her memoir, Know My Name, she allows me 30 minutes on the phone, each of which she fills deliberately yet measured, with the fortitude of a woman whose every cell has been transmuted by the work of survival.
Was she nervous to announce herself to the world as Emily Doe, whose 2015 Stanford University assault made global headlines, whose viral victim impact statement changed laws? Oh, absolutely, she says, but at the same time: “I know I’ve told my story to the best of my ability, with every kind of truth I could offer. How that is taken up by the world is no longer up to me. But I understand what I have done, and I would not do it differently.”
Fellow survivors might recognize this confident place Miller speaks from today: it’s one inhabited only by those who are so rooted in truth that they are double-middle-fingers-up untouchable. It’s the beautiful place you step into once you finally realize, in your bones, that you didn’t deserve what happened to you, you’re not defined by what happened to you, and fuck anyone who thinks otherwise — you have a life to live.
Being such a visible example that this place exists is precisely why Chanel Miller’s voice is so essential — especially for other survivors of sexual violence. In this era of #MeToo, horrible true stories abound. We are swimming in the understanding that sexual violence derails a victim’s life, leaves wounds that never quite heal, and has enormous costs, socially, emotionally, financially. All of the above is true, but what’s also true is that it doesn’t have to be this way, and it can and does get better, Miller says. “There’s so much to be enjoyed.”
Ahead, the rest of our conversation, including how her anonymity ultimately became too constricting, what she wants people to take away from her story, and how it feels to be in control of her narrative now.
It’s been about a month since you’ve come forward with your name attached. A lot of the press so far has asked, Why now? I’m curious how you feel about that question. Do you think it’s odd or even accusatory, as if there is a “right time” to tell a story like this?
Yes. As you know, it was never my choice to disclose my assault to millions of people. At the beginning, I wanted to decide that assault would play a small role, that it would go away quickly. The fact that it grew so much and it took over, I was forced to accept that this is part of my identity. I had to figure out: How do I live with that? How do I exist and present myself in the world?
It was odd to have everyone you know aware of something that happened to you — discussing it openly in front of you — without ever linking it to you. So it was actually a very disjointed way of living. I had to do a lot of pretending. I couldn’t speak openly about things I cared about, and it inhibited my ability to connect on a deep level with people. In the end it was very unhealthy.
That must have been so jarring, having everyone else talking about it. Did that happen a lot?
It was sort of just another media talking point, it would come up with friends or at family gatherings. So I think it’s important to recognize, each story you see in the news, it’s not just another topic of discussion. There’s a person trying to rebuild their life, who’s connected to a family that’s also hurting.
I think people I know were extremely shocked by trying to pair that story with me. Some were stunned. But I hope that it wakes them up to how prevalent this is. The fact that I can hide an entire trial and book and national firestorm — that I can keep pretending life is ordinary — is odd, but I think it’s something that a lot of survivors are doing, and are good at doing.
So were you nervous about coming forward with your name?
Oh, yes. [laughs.] I didn’t decide to come forward until maybe six months ago. I had to write the entire book for me to even think about coming forward.
While writing, I needed to know that I was protected in my anonymity. I also was writing while the appeal was happening. [Ed. note: In 2018, Brock Turner appealed his conviction, arguing a lack of evidence, and was denied.] It took me a long time to open up on the page about my family. I wanted to protect everyone I love. I wanted to preserve my personal stories and sense of identity. I didn’t want all of it used against me again.
I thought it would be like a bomb going off. I was really scared it would be like an explosion that all of a sudden things would go off in different directions, that suddenly I would have no control; my name would be everywhere, and I couldn’t live in my controlled world anymore. But what ended up happening is there was a flurry of media, but inside of myself I realized almost five years down the line, I’m so rooted in what I know and who I am and what I believe in at this point, that I felt at peace with letting go. I just felt like no matter what happens I did the right thing, with hope that what I created will help. And that what is out there is not just seeking to destroy people who have hurt me.
The conflict you’re describing — that it was scary to come forward, but also impossible not to — reminds me of something Nancy Venable Raine says in her book After Silence, about the pain of keeping rape and sexual violence secret: “Silence tastes a lot like shame.”
Absolutely. I love that. I think anonymity is protective in the beginning, but long term it really hurts to keep such a huge part of yourself contained. It felt like it was stuck inside me and clogging up a lot of my ability to move on. I felt like once it was out there, I can just lay it on the table and then keep moving forward with my life.
In the first chapter of Know My Name, you write very movingly about this curious understanding between survivors, how despite so many differences across our stories, we can lock eyes and just know. “Perhaps it is not the particulars of the assault itself we have in common, but the moment after; the first time you are left alone,” you write. “It is terror swallowed inside silence … This moment is not pain, not hysteria, not crying. It is your insides turning to cold stones.” I’m curious if part of your motivation for coming forward wasn’t trying to guide survivors through that moment and know they’re not alone?
Yes. It always begins with so much confusion and murkiness. And I think everyone who’s experienced it knows in their gut that something wrong has happened even before they can articulate it or put words to it. It was really important for me to give that cloudy, disruptive, external heaviness language. So that I could step back and look at it and understand how it was living inside of me, and the effect it was having on my life.
I also had a desire and a duty to give it name and to not let it go unrecognized or to pass it off as something we should learn to digest and just live with. I wanted to call it out, and say it’s too much for each of us to be going around carrying individually. It’s something that is this communal suffering, really, and yet our experiences tend to be so isolated. Why is that?
What do you want people to take away from your story?
We’re taught to tuck these stories away. That they’re too intense for people to handle, and that we play a role in our own harm or that we deserve harm, which is never true. I think we let so many of these damaging ideas manifest and don’t take the time to look at them in the ways they are hurting us. The things I read online about myself throughout this process were terrible but that I began to believe these things about myself and what I deserved was worse. That to me is the saddest. To think you shouldn’t be treated nicely or you don’t deserve to be doing things you actually enjoy, all that chips away at you. I’m just so tired of how much hurt we’re expected to tolerate. I’m done doing that work.
I hope that survivors know you don’t only deserve to survive and have a support system around you. But you also deserve to have a life beyond what happened. I’m going to get back to my life, and I want to help restore victims back to their own lives.
How must we change the criminal justice system in your opinion?
I think we need to have more consideration for the wellbeing of the victims to establish some trace of privacy, comfort. There’s no sense of privacy or agency when you’re in the courtroom. No control over what’s shown. No control over when you get to speak. You are forced to live in a sustained state of powerlessness and that is extremely draining.
You go in with the idea that testifying and answering questions on the stand will be your chance finally to communicate your truth. When really it’s a game where you don't understand the rules, your boundaries are constantly being broken and disrespected, and you are not allowed to push back or ask more for yourself. It’s really hurtful, especially in the long term. It really confuses and distorts ideas about yourself and there’s so much to repair psychologically once you’re released. You have to figure it out on your own.
On the stand I’d be crying and the defense attorney would be barking at me to keep going, keep talking, speak up, or stop talking. And grieving in public is extremely humiliating and terrifying. But it doesn’t mean that the grief is bad it just means that environment contaminates how you feel and how you think about yourself. I would cry a lot while writing. But grieving while writing is nourishing, just giving myself the space to feel what I was feeling and not critique or shove things down. But I had to create that space or myself.
When you were still known only as Emily Doe, your story was framed like you never had a voice, as if you weren’t a person before this terrible thing happened turning you into a news event. How does it feel to be in charge of the story now, as Chanel Miller?
It is exciting. I feel much more assertive and confident than I have ever been, and I know my truth is valid and that no matter how many people try to erase it, or twist and bend it and erase it, or completely muffle it, I will continue to speak it. I know right from wrong. I know how I deserve to be treated and all those things are non-negotiable.
It required a lot of self-compassion to even understand that. I feel grateful to be able to extend that tenderness towards myself and to move forward. This is never the process you want to achieve self-growth. But these are traits that we can pick out and that we can hold up high. It’s like, damn, I got through that.
Now that the book is out, what do you want to do with your life next?
It’s all really new territory at the moment. I’m trying to make sure I’m taking care of myself. I know when I need a break. I know how to ask for it. That was never true before. I feel really proud of the fact that I can speak about this in length and depth. I also know there will be times when I will be burnt out where I’m dealing with my own emotions, and I will run or take my dog out or spend a few hours drawing. I think when survivors show up, we demand so much of them. And I think if you are sharing your story, you do it at your own pace and your own way. And you can always say stop.
I’d love to do more illustration. The thing that feels amazing now is I get to choose. I have full control over what I get to do next.