She talked about the aftermath of that terrible night, as well as the less well-known dimensions of her life, in an interview with The Washington Post. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
When your sexual assault case against Brock Turner was being tried in 2016, you went by the pseudonym Emily Doe. It was before the #MeToo movement started and before Christine Blasey Ford testified about then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Kavanaugh denied Ford’s allegations and was confirmed.) Did any of that inspire you to go from Emily Doe to Chanel Miller?
Chanel Miller: Yes. The magnitude of the #MeToo movement made pigeonholing each one of us impossible. With each one that came forward, I was devastated. But I could also breathe easier, because I was figuring out that it was possible to exist in the world and not have the story of what happened to me be the single story that would overshadow me the rest of my life. So, yes, each one was like a nudge forward. And especially with [Christine Blasey] Ford. She did it at such a high cost.
So you made the decision after Christine Blasey Ford came forward?
Miller: After. It was a really slow process of coming into being. Everyone kept asking: Are you going to come forward? And I couldn’t say yes. But I kept writing using my name and when I finally submitted the [book] manuscript, I didn’t take out my name. And so that was my decision.
You write about doing stand-up comedy while waiting for your case to go to trial. What role did comedy play in your recovery?
Miller: I think life is generally wacky and profane and ridiculous. If you’re not able to laugh at yourself, laugh at the seriousness of things, then it’s so difficult to face the day. So, comedy — I could swear onstage, I could yell. I could depict myself in any way, and no one was going to silence me or reprimand me or criticize me, saying, “You’re not allowed to be like that. You can’t act like that.” I loved that there were no boundaries. In the courtroom I felt bland, diluted and colorless. It’s inappropriate to laugh — it hurts your credibility. You appear as someone who is not suffering. But ultimately, I needed to be able to not take life so seriously all the time. I needed that lightheartedness. Everybody does.
I mostly write about dating and relationships. In the past couple of years I’ve published stories about how to tell a new partner about past trauma or approach sex when one or both people are survivors of assault. I was really heartened to see that your boyfriend Lucas was such a strong source of love and support for you in the aftermath of the attack, which happened when you were only a few months into dating. What has that relationship been like for you?
Miller: Something really important was that whenever I had my fits of rage, he would never say “You are crazy” or “You’re too much” or “What’s wrong with you?” He could see that I was being consumed by a force that was bigger than me. And instead of him saying, “You’re too much, I don’t know what’s going on,” he said, “Okay, I need to sift through this rubble and find you beneath there. I know you’re still in there, but I also know that this context is making you crazy.” It wasn’t just me and my character flaws and my inability to handle things. There was always a reason for why I was acting out, why I was shutting down, why I was screaming. His ability to recognize that that didn’t define me, that the source of my pain and me experiencing that pain are separate things — that was really healthy. It was crazy to have just started to date someone and then say, “Are you willing to testify at my trial maybe a year from now?”
That’s quite a commitment.
Miller: People will [say]: “You’re so good to be there,” and he’s like, “Well, I didn’t do it for charity. I love her.” I do think it’s sad how I always felt that I should keep the door open, because who would want to be around this? Who would want to get caught up in a mess? And so it means a lot when someone wants to be there for you.
Why is it the assumption — and I made it, too — that someone new would want to leave? How do we get it to the assumption being that someone would stay?
Miller: Absolutely. Of course it is wonderful that he stayed. But there always is this element of surprise, [from people] who are like: “Wow, he’s there.” If so many of us are experiencing [rape and sexual assault], we all should learn to be there. You can’t run away from it. Everyone you encounter will have been touched by this in some way. My hope is that everyone can at least have the capacity to listen, that they will show up and be able to stomach witnessing, even if they can’t fix it, even if they can’t be there for the entire journey back to healing. The least you can do is bear witness.
While reading your book and others related to the #MeToo movement, one common thread I noticed was the importance of and lack of apologies. Did Brock Turner apologize to you for what he did?
Miller: [An interviewer] asked me: “Has anyone ever apologized to you?” It struck me how lost I was looking for an answer. I couldn’t think of anyone except for my family, who have apologized repeatedly to me for not knowing more about what I was going through, for not preventing it in the first place. That stream of apologies has been endless and has been very painful to hear — the fact that the people who love you have a hard time forgiving themselves for not being able to keep the pain at bay or to alleviate it.
In our culture, apologies are still rare. We are used to perpetrators going into defensive mode so quickly. After an assault, we expect a backlash and character attacks, but never apology. At the sentencing, Brock had said the words: “I’m sorry.” But they rung hollow. To me, apology means nothing without action. And after his apology, the action he took was to file an appeal to try and reverse the verdict. [His conviction was upheld.] So that to me isn’t a valid apology. A real apology requires introspection and confrontation with the magnitude of harm that’s taken place by your hand. And that still does not happen.
Have you found peace on your own?
Miller: Yeah. I have moved beyond him as an individual. The fact that there’s many more like him out there — that continues to anger me. A real apology means that the person who harmed you would fully acknowledge what you are going through, right? And if he wasn’t going to do that, then I had to sit down and figure out what I was going through, identify why I was hurting and how to move on from it. I think all of these feelings that you experience are ultimately bearable. What’s not possible is bearing them alone. So by writing, I can make visible every feeling that’s previously been trapped inside me. And as long as I can link it to one other person — as long as someone says, “That’s what I’m feeling, too. I understand why you’re feeling that” — then I know I’m not insane for feeling it. And that allows me to move on.
The books “She Said” and “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh” describe how Christine Blasey Ford was talking and thinking about your case before deciding to come forward with her memories about Kavanaugh.
Miller: Isn’t that wild? I think it speaks to the fact that we speak and we don’t know where it’s going to hit, or how, or who. But we do it in the hopes that it will be absorbed by someone. And I hope that’s evidence that it’s working. Maybe she heard about my case, then I watched her come forward and it propelled me to come forward. Even when you feel like you’re shouting into a void, there are people out there ... who are waiting to hear these things, to figure out how to keep moving.