In June 2016, “Emily Doe” read her 12-page victim impact statement to the court before the sentencing of Brock Turner, the Stanford undergrad who’d been convicted of sexually assaulting her while she was unconscious. It was a brilliant piece of writing—frank, angry, straight from the heart—and it seemed to sum up everything about the trauma of sexual assault and the many ways that society, especially the legal process, makes that trauma worse.
Turner’s lenient sentence of six months in county jail and Judge Aaron Persky’s explanation (“I take him at his word that, subjectively, that’s his version of events”) set the public on fire. Within days of being published on BuzzFeed, Doe’s statement had been viewed more than 15 million times.
In the courtroom and the media, Turner and Doe were very different. He is white; she is Chinese American (although this was not reported until later). In countless articles, he was the “Stanford swimmer,” a top athlete at an elite university; she was the anonymous unconscious girl who’d been fingered near a dumpster. He got to be a person: Character witnesses from his Ohio hometown testified to his sterling qualities (as if his high school guidance counselor would know). She was a 23-year-old nobody who should have known better than to drink too much at a frat party. His open, ordinary face appeared all over; blown-up photographs of her genitals were displayed in court.
Anonymity is a double-edged sword. It protects victims from public humiliation and possible retaliation, but it also erases their individuality. In a new memoir, Know My Name, Doe has revealed herself as Chanel Miller, a UC Santa Barbara alum, dog rescuer, artist, and possessor of a silly sense of humor and a bike named Tofu. She is a beloved daughter, a protective older sister, a partner of exemplary boyfriend Lucas—and a writer. What a writer!
I’d never read anything that so vividly paints the bewildering maze that a sexually assaulted woman faces: the humiliation of being seen half-naked by strangers with dirt and pine needles in her hair, the invasive procedures required for a rape kit (hers wasn’t tested for months because of a backlog—think about that), the same questions asked over and over, and God help you if your answers don’t match up with the multiple statements you gave authorities more than a year ago. Even when the people surrounding you are kind and the resources plentiful, the process itself is brutal.
The media is brutal, too. “They counted my drinks and counted the seconds Brock could swim two hundred yards, topped the article with a picture of Brock wearing a tie; it could’ve doubled as his LinkedIn profile,” Miller writes. And the media is lazy, because Turner was not the spotless youth portrayed in countless articles. As came out only after the trial, barely three months before assaulting Miller, he was caught with booze by a campus cop and tried to run away; in high school, he’d taken plenty of drugs. “I wanted to trim all the fat, all these distractions,” Miller writes of the coverage, “to show you the meat of the story. I saw: man goes to a party, kisses three women, finds one alone who cannot speak, takes her into the trees, strips her, sticks his hand up her, is tackled by two men who notice she isn’t moving. He then denies running, can say nothing about the victim except that she enjoyed it…. At the heart that’s your whole damn story.”
Miller explodes the comforting bromides that many people still use when talking about sexual assault: that some assaults are less harmful than others, for example. Turner inserted “only” his fingers, not his penis, but it took Miller years to recover from that act and everything around it. We still treat street harassment as no big deal, but when she moves 3,000 miles from California to Rhode Island to take an art course, she is constantly bothered by men on the street, which is frightening and exhausting for her and puts her on constant edge. When an old man on a bench offers her a slice of his green pepper, she worries that he’s poisoned it or rubbed his penis on it or wants to slit her with his pocketknife. She won’t tell Lyft drivers her real address.
Know My Name raises crucial questions about the way we treat sexual assault and, indeed, sex itself. Everyone knows that frats promote the degrading treatment of women; they’re famous for it. But on many a campus, they rule social life. Why? When a woman accuses a man of sexual assault, why are we so eager to believe that he might have misunderstood her, as if “yes” were the universal female default position and having sex next to a dumpster with a virtual stranger was a normal thing to do? The two Swedish grad students who saw the assault in progress and chased Turner down had no trouble sizing up the situation. What about the rest of us?
Persky’s lenient sentence rocked the world not just because it was less than the state-recommended two-year minimum but also because it seemed a reflection of racial and social privilege. As Miller points out, there are plenty of young men and women of color doing time for less. (Note, though, that in addition to three years of probation, Turner must appear for life on the sex offender registry.)
Public anger led to Persky’s recall by voters—the first time that has happened to a judge in California since 1932. That in itself is significant, but what disturbed me more than the sentence was Turner’s refusal to take responsibility. College! Swimming! Future! Would it have killed him to apologize, to acknowledge the harm he did to Miller?
To do that, he would have had to feel remorse, and at no moment did Turner or his family say “I’m sorry” for what he did. They saw only what he might lose: In his father’s unfortunate phrasing, his life stood to be ruined because of “20 minutes of action.”
According to recent reports, Brock Turner is living at home in Ohio, working in a factory and keeping his head down. He is still a young man with a shot at a future. Chanel Miller, meanwhile, is thriving, restored to her full self, an activist and a writer. Her book deserves many readers. I hope Turner will be one of them.