TW: rape, assault
This is a stunning, harrowing and incredibly powerful real-life account of Chanel Miller, once known only as ‘Emily Doe,’ who goes to a party on the Stanford University campus and wakes up hours later in a hospital bed, having blacked out and been raped.
In her powerful testimony, Chanel excavates her trauma and bravely puts it on the page for the world to bear witness to. Her rape is horrific, and horrifically mundane. We know this happens – society engrains in us from a young age how we need to be responsible for protecting ourselves from sexual assault. But what comes after isn’t talked about as much. There’s the trial-by-media, the incel trolling, the countless victim-blaming. But there’s also the years – quite literally years – of it being dragged through the courts.
‘I’d expected the legal process to be composed of a back-to-back sequence of dramatic court scenes. Nobody had warned me about the waiting, the floating formless months in between, the way it demanded all of you, then none of you.’
There’s a splintering of the self after her assault – known only as ‘Emily Doe’ in the media, her individuality is robbed from her – she’s reduced to a drunk and nameless young woman who went to a frat party and ran into trouble. She resolves to ‘keep the selves separate’ in an attempt to go on living. She lies awake each night, for ‘sleep is vulnerability,’ she is ‘unsure how to inhabit’ her body. She talks about the ‘dismembering’ that happens when victims seek help, of putting yourself under a microscope in a plea for justice, in a bid to halt this epidemic of sexual violence.
And whilst her rapist is developed in the court of public opinion – and the court itself – into a three-dimensional human, an Olympic-level swimmer, young and mislead, homesick, unused to drink and parties – Chanel’s identity is erased. And that is what she powerfully reclaims in this account. She does stand-up comedy, she is a doting sister, she adopts an old dog, she is inspired by her immigrant mother, she makes art. She is a full and whole person. She is not the sum of what he did to her.
‘The friendly guy who helps you move and assists senior citizens in the pool is the same guy who assaulted me. One person can be capable of both. Society often fails to wrap its head around the fact that these truths often coexist, they are not mutually exclusive. Bad qualities can hide inside a good person. That’s the terrifying part.’
Chanel is incredibly eloquent, writing with a beautiful and simple lyricism that throws her suffering into sharp relief. During the scenes where she is waiting outside the courtroom before her first testimony, I felt physically sick anticipating her having to re-live her trauma and be torn apart on the witness stand, accumulating and losing ‘points toward the unspoken tally.’ Such is the power of her writing that it is impossible not to come away from the book feeling a deep, profound empathy for the unimaginable pain she endured, and a deep respect for her strength.
What was unexpected – and so very effective – was the explicit contextualising of this story within a bigger picture of patriarchal entitlement, of male rage, of the failings of the justice system. Chanel is on campus when Elliot Rodgers, angry that he couldn’t get a date, went on a killing spree that left six young people dead. She talks about Philando Castile, murdered in front of his partner and daughter by a policeman who walked free. This story is very much her own – but it isn’t just her own. When her victim statement is published on Buzzfeed, it is seen by millions worldwide, many thousands of whom reach out to Chanel with their own stories, thanking her for her bravery. In having the strength to tell her story, she gives all victims strength and hope – they aren’t alone.
I’ll never be able to do justice to this memoir. It’s harrowing, riveting, and, ultimately, hopeful.