When Miller’s attacker was charged in January 2015 — five counts, including rape and felony sexual assault — she thought the case would be open and shut, swiftly and justly resolved. That’s not what happened.
“I didn’t know that money could make the cell doors swing open,” she writes. “I didn’t know that if a woman was drunk when the violence occurred, she wouldn’t be taken seriously. I didn’t know that if he was drunk when the violence occurred, people would offer him sympathy. . . . I didn’t know that being a victim was synonymous with not being believed.”
“Know My Name” vividly describes how an ordinary life can collapse around a single trauma and a court system that’s positively Byzantine when it comes to addressing sexual assault. By October 2015, the two counts of rape are dropped. Her court date is rescheduled again, and again, and again, making it impossible for her to hold down a job with regular hours. The prosecutorial team is haphazardly reassigned. Stanford University tries to buy her silence with a few park benches and an anodyne plaque. Turner, who sexually violated her while she was incapacitated and then tried to run away, serves only 90 days.
But Miller has a wicked sense of humor, and there are moments of light. Her family and boyfriend provide support and comfort; the two Swedish grad students who stopped her assault in progress remind her that some have the courage to distinguish wrong from right. After a deluge of online comments blame her for her attack, thousands of others respond to her victim impact statement to thank her and say she has been seen.
Miller’s memoir is about an assault, a trial and its aftermath, but it’s also about the daily indignities of living as a woman. She writes poignantly about dealing with street harassment even as she is still reeling from her attack, how it reminds her that her boundaries continue to be disregarded while those of men are seen as a given. “When a woman is assaulted,” Miller writes, “one of the first questions people ask is, Did you say no? . . . But why are they allowed to touch us until we physically fight them off? Why is the door open until we have to slam it shut?”
It’s with a deceptive casualness that Miller mentions a friend who has also been assaulted, and then another one, and then another, until you begin to wonder just how many times this has happened, to how many women? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that 1 in 3 has experienced sexual violence, 1 in 5 an attempted or completed rape. It’s an enormous proportion, and yet many women will never even tell.
Maybe I was particularly sensitive to reading this book right now: A few days ago, I experienced my own assault. It was nothing like the Stanford assault — I had only been followed by a man as I walked home in the dark from work. As he whispered lewd and violent commentary into my ears, I broke into a run. Days later, I still feel invaded. I can’t get his voice out of my head.
And honestly, this is nothing. This is normal. For women, this is all normal.
The #MeToo movement has many cynical critics. They proclaim “Believe all women” to be the movement’s ridiculous catchphrase and wave a condescending finger: Not all women tell the truth; not all women should be believed.
But the phrase is “Believe Women,” not “believe ALL women.” It was never meant to imply that all women were faultless and beyond reproach. What it means is that women, like men, should be given the chance to speak, to be heard, not discounted or demeaned. Like men, women should have the chance to be taken at their word.
The Stanford sexual assault case was shocking because even when a jury unanimously moved to convict, the severity of the crime was essentially disregarded. Believe all women? Chanel Miller’s memoir illuminates how far too often we refuse to believe even one.