Chanel Miller’s Know My Name is a devastating memoir. It was a must-read for me, but the pain and fear and frustration in this book is so raw and immediate that I had to wait for the right frame of mind to tackle it. Nevertheless, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, and the only challenge is trying to explain why in the short space of a review.
If you’re not aware of the background of this memoir, in 2015, Ms. Miller was sexually assaulted on the grounds of Stanford University by a student called Brock Turner. He was found guilty but sentenced to six months’ imprisonment (he was released after serving three months). Ms. Miller’s victim impact statement went viral, and raised awareness about rape on college campuses. This book is her account of the assault, the aftermath, the trial and her recovery.
It begins with her cheerfully preparing to attend a party with her sister and friend, only for her to wake up later in a hospital, not knowing what happened. The shock dawns by degrees, as she realizes she has on no underwear, just baggy drawstring pants, and somehow her hair is full of pine needles – which she’s not allowed to remove. They’re evidence. She holds it together for the sake of her younger sister, who’s crying, and because she doesn’t want to upset her parents.
But although she wants nothing more than for her life to go back to normal, it swiftly becomes clear that everything has changed. Everything is new and unfamiliar, from the bruises on her body to the legal process that can be a minefield for the victim, and she writes about it all in such a way that I felt every part of the process with her.
I also learned more about what it’s like to deal with a sexual assault. Long story short : it’s like walking a tightrope. For instance, do you press charges? If the answer’s yes, are you prepared for the investigation, the trial, the backlash on social media (“There are women out there suffering real abuse and you want to call this assault” was one comment) and the possibility that you’ll go through hell only for the perpetrator to be let off with a slap on the wrist? If the answer’s no, will people think you wanted it? No wonder so many rapes go unreported.
And then there were the warnings from detectives – Turner’s already out on bail; he’s hired private investigators who might try to pass themselves off as law enforcement, so don’t say anything to anyone; be on your best behavior, because if there’s a Facebook picture of you smiling at a party, the defense could claim you weren’t affected. Even after Turner is convicted, Miller’s journey through the minefield doesn’t end. His probation officer asks for her opinion on Turner’s sentencing. Being aware of the murders committed by Elliot Rodger, she says she wants Turner to receive therapy in prison, so that once he’s released, he won’t harm any more women.
The officer edits the reply and presents the therapy part without context, claiming that since the victim cares about treatment rather than incarceration, Turner doesn’t belong in prison. The tone of the officer’s report seems to be: the victim forgave him, so go and do thou likewise. The officer even gets Ms. Miller’s race wrong, saying that she’s white. She’s half Chinese and does not identify as white.
What makes this incredibly readable is her writing, which goes from lyrical to forceful to ironic. I especially like her reaction to Turner’s character witnesses, who include his high school swim coach and French teacher.
What were they supposed to say? He never took his penis out in class, never fondled his coach.
But what makes her story transcend being a memoir is her in-depth approach and insight into the big picture, the many ways in which rape culture affects us all.
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.
I could go on when it comes to quoting from Know My Name, but instead I’ll just recommend it without reservation. Oh, and one last thing – I wondered about the appearance of the cover until I read a note in the book about the Japanese art of kintsugi, repairing pottery by filling in the cracks with powdered gold. This doesn’t hide the scars; instead, it acknowledges them and makes something beautiful out of them. It’s a wonderful visual representation of this book.
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