Column: Chanel Miller’s memoir should be required reading for every cop, judge and prosecutor in America
She became famous as Emily Doe, the young woman whose extraordinary letter to the man who assaulted her behind a dumpster at Stanford went viral after she read it at his sentencing.
“You don’t know me,” wrote Doe, who was unconscious when she was attacked, “but you have been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.”
Chanel Miller is not anonymous anymore; her memoir was released Wednesday.
“Know My Name” chronicles her emotional deterioration, the trauma of not knowing what had happened to her, of learning from the internet that her assailant had been arrested, of handling, and mishandling, her shame and embarrassment and rage.
It is as powerful and disturbing as the essay that made her famous, and vividly demonstrates how a victim continues to be victimized by institutions that are meant to help.
In a perfect world, it would be required reading for every police officer, detective, prosecutor, provost and judge who deals with victims of sexual assault.
“I do,” she writes, recalling the moment she swore an oath to tell the truth. “Words I thought I’d speak first at my wedding, not my rape trial.”
Surely, you remember the case: Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who was interrupted mid-assault by two Swedish graduate students, was convicted of three felonies, including assault with intent to rape. Citing Turner’s good character and bright future, Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced him to six months in jail; he served only 90 days.
Public outrage over the wrist-slap of a sentence led to a successful recall movement against Persky.
Prosecutors had not charged Turner with rape because there was no evidence of intercourse, so California lawmakers expanded the definition of rape to include any nonconsensual sexual penetration. They also created mandatory prison sentences for anyone convicted of assaulting an unconscious victim.
In an interview with “60 Minutes” on Sunday, Miller, 27, was asked a question by correspondent Bill Whitaker that made me cringe: “What do you say to those critics, people who say you did drink till you blacked out, you did make yourself vulnerable?”
“Rape is not a punishment for getting drunk,” Miller replied evenly. “We have this sick mindset in our culture — you deserve rape if you drink to excess. You deserve a hangover, a really bad hangover. You don’t deserve to have someone put their body parts inside you.”
When we talk about the very real role that alcohol plays in sexual assault, let us all please remember Miller’s wise words: No one deserves to be raped, no one brings rape upon herself.
In August 2016, Miller and Stanford reached a legal settlement.
In exchange for agreeing not to sue the university, Miller received $150,000 to cover the cost of therapy for her and for her younger sister, who was with her the night of the assault.
The university also agreed to remove the dumpster where she was attacked, and to create in its place a meditation garden, with benches, a fountain and lights.
There would also be a commemorative plaque, with a quote of Miller’s choosing from her victim impact statement, so no one would ever forget what had happened there, in the shadow of the Kappa Alpha fraternity.
The quote Miller chose contained the lines: “I am not just a drunk victim at a frat party found behind a dumpster, while you are the All-American swimmer at a top university, innocent until proven guilty, with so much at stake.”
Stanford Vice Provost Lauren Schoenthaler rejected it: “Our agreement was not to condemn a single individual,” she wrote to Miller.
Miller offered another: “You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”
Again, her choice was rejected. The words, Schoenthaler wrote, “could be triggering and upsetting to some survivors instead of the hoped-for effect of contributing to their healing.”
(Schoenthaler refused an interview request and instead referred me to a March 2018 blog post about the quotes by Stanford Provost Persis Drell.)
Miller declined to offer a third quote.
In her memoir, she explained why: “As a survivor, I feel a duty to provide a realistic view of the complexity of recovery. I am not here to rebrand the mess he made on campus. It is not my responsibility to alchemize what he did into healing words society can digest. I do not exist to be the eternal flame, the beacon, the flowers that bloom in your garden.”
When word got out on campus about the plaque debacle, students were incensed. They still are. On Monday evening, a petition circulated online, demanding that Stanford officials apologize to Miller for rejecting her quotes, and immediately install the plaque with her choice of words. It has hundreds of signatures.
“Students were angry that she was being silenced yet again,” said Hope Schroeder, 24, who graduated last spring. “This very site was supposed to be where she was going to be able to reclaim her own voice, as she did in her own victim impact statement.”
Schroeder and a group of her colleagues then did a very Stanford thing.
They decided to create an augmented reality project that would allow people visiting the garden to see and hear the quotes that Stanford had rejected.
The project, Dear Visitor, will be unveiled Friday in the garden. Using iPads, visitors will be able to see virtual plaques where none exist, and hear Miller’s own voice reading her chosen words.
“Our whole intention,” said Schroeder, “is to center her voice, and elevate it.”
She deserves it. Stanford should come to its senses.
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