Know Their Names

In January 2015, a woman identified only as “Emily Doe” was sexually assaulted by a college student named Brock Turner. In June 2016, Emily Doe delivered a victim impact statement at Turner’s sentencing hearing after he pled guilty to the assault, in which she addressed him directly, describing in detail her shock upon waking up in the hospital after the assault, the months of turmoil and pain she endured, and her fury at his inability to take responsibility for his actions. 

This past September, Emily Doe revealed herself to be Chanel Miller and published “Know My Name,” a memoir not only recounting her assault and the years that have passed, but also filling in the pieces of her identity that were omitted from court proceedings. Emily Doe was Brock Turner’s victim, the woman whose words went viral after her statement was released. Chanel Miller is an artist and writer who wants to write children’s books, who has a family who loves her, who has a life and identity beyond being Brock Turner’s victim. Chanel Miller will always carry Emily Doe with her, unable to fully shed the pain and suffering resulting from Turner’s despicable actions, but in her memoir, she gets to tell her own story. 

After years spent in an environment in which the power hierarchy did not lean in her favor — where Turner’s swimming records and bright future were cited frequently, as if being an accomplished athlete diminished the severity of his crime — Miller’s writing created a space in which only her voice mattered. Her story, not his. Her trauma, not his. Her observations on the failures of the justice system, not his refusal to take responsibility for what he had done. Miller’s writing is just as powerful in her book as it was in her 2016 statement. She writes clearly and personally about her life since Brock Turner attacked her, telling her own story and forcing us to listen. 

I admire her for her bravery, and wish her nothing but the best as she continues to live her life. But Miller is the exception rather than the rule. Very few victims of sexual assault have the chance to tell their stories on their own terms and reach a receptive audience in the same manner that Miller did. I do not mean to imply that Miller is lucky. She was assaulted. Brock Turner hurt her. But she decided to tell her own version of the story under her own name, and this is not a choice that every woman has the opportunity to make. 

For some women, anonymity is not an option. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford contacted Senator Dianne Feinstein in summer of 2018 to share an allegation of sexual assault involving Brett Kavanaugh, a Supreme Court nominee at the time. Ford requested confidentiality, and Feinstein agreed, but as Ford’s letter circulated through Washington D.C., certain details were leaked. Though her name had been redacted, reporters still found Ford in her university classrooms as media outlets reported on the allegations against Kavanaugh. Citing her civic duty to accurately share her own experiences with Kavanaugh before the Senate confirmed his nomination, Ford publicly came forward with her story. Even before her name was released, others had begun to attack her statement, submitting their own testimonies that spoke to Kavanaugh’s decency, character, and respect for women. 

Dr. Ford did not tell her own story in a memoir. She stood in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and described in detail a sexual assault that she experienced as a fifteen year old. She answered questions about a night in which two boys pushed her into a room, covered her mouth, and laughed as one of them pulled at her clothes. She provided extremely personal details for a story that had previously only been told within the walls of her therapist’s office. Her story is now public, her name now used to identify a woman who came forward with allegations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh. But she is also a professor and research psychologist with a multitude of academic publications, a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, a husband, and two sons. Her story was told without her consent. Know her name. 

For some women, telling their own story isn’t an option. In 2017, only 23% of sexual assault cases were reported to the police. Of the cases reported, only 4.6% resulted in an arrest. There are many reasons why a woman might choose not to report a sexual assault, but a commonly cited justification reflects a larger problem in American culture. For sexual assault cases reported between 2005 and 2010, 15% of women chose not to report their sexual assault because they thought the police either couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to help them. 

The justice system has a nasty habit of blaming victims for their sexual assaults. Women who do choose to report are often forced to answer questions pertaining to their outfits and drinking habits, as if a bare shoulder or night of too much alcohol somehow justify assault. In order to report, women have to not only recount traumatic memories to an official, but also prepare for the possibility that listeners will not believe their story. The shameful stigma surrounding sexual assault further discourages women to report their stories. 

A woman named Sandra Gonzales, who submitted her story to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), was raped by a family friend when she was in high school. She chose not to report the crime out of fear that others wouldn’t believe her and that she would face backlash from her community if anyone found out. Following her assault, Gonzales struggled with mental illness and unhealthy coping mechanisms. She did not discuss the rape until twenty years later. 

Considering few accused rapists actually receive legitimate punishments and women who report are often either blamed or dismissed, it is not surprising that so many women choose not to share their stories. We have yet to change the culture and the justice system to better support women who wish to report their sexual assaults. For some, telling their story only leads to further pain. Sandra Gonzales was raped by a family friend when she was a teenager. She also practices self-care, describes herself as hard-working and strong, and has a son whom she loves and a boyfriend who supports her. Know her name. 

Stories are told by those in power. To the victor goes not only the spoils, but also the opportunity to control the narrative. Considering current gender disparities in the United States, in cases of sexual assault, the person in power — usually the male attacker — determines the story. His victim, often female, is dismissed. 

Sexual assault cases grow even more complicated due to the nature of assault. An inability to remember specific details of a traumatic event is characteristic of surviving an assault, yet a woman who cannot recall everything that happened to her loses credibility. Her attacker is then asked to provide his own version of events or she is accused of lying. 

In August of 2008, an 18-year old referred to as Marie called the police to report a rape. In the rounds of questioning that followed, officers discovered that there were inconsistencies to Marie’s story. Did she call her friend before or after she untied her hands? Was her behavior simply a plea for attention? The detectives investigating her case asked her to confess to making up the story. To admit that she had lied. Marie was vulnerable: only 18, having just emerged from a lifetime in the foster care system, still learning to live on her own. She admitted to lying. 

In 2011, detectives in Colorado arrested a serial rapist. While searching his house, they found evidence on his computer that he had raped Marie three years earlier. She hadn’t lied. Her strange behavior, the inconsistencies in her story were symptomatic of her assault. Marie was raped and coerced into a false confession. She is now married with two children, she likes photography, and she has since left the state in which she was raped. Know her name. 

We live in a culture that charges women with preventing their own sexual assaults — by never walking alone, wearing clothing that isn’t considered provocative, not drinking in the vicinity of men — and then dismissed or shamed for reporting them. Women rarely receive the opportunity to be the storytellers. 

Chanel Miller’s book stands out not only because it provides an honest account of her experience, but also because it is exceptionally well-written. She has a talent that few share. She belongs to a small group able to effectively tell their own stories. Americans living in poverty constitute one of the groups most vulnerable to sexual assault, and while they are often in situations with higher rates of attacks, they lack the resources to report their attackers or publish their own narrative. Who will tell their stories? Some women do not survive a sexual assault. Who will speak for them? 

The manner in which America addresses sexual assault needs serious reform. A victim should never face blame for being attacked. A victim should always have the choice to tell their story. A victim should not need impressive writing talent for us to listen. Chanel Miller’s memoir is both brave and inspiring, and hopefully it will help other women to continue to come forward with their own stories. But we should listen to all of the stories: the sexual assaults from decades ago, the attacks on women who do not have the ability to publish their words as eloquently as Miller, the rapes committed by a ‘nice boy’ with a ‘bright future.’ And we should believe them. 

Categories: Culture

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