Chanel Miller went to a fraternity house party one evening, and woke up in the hospital the following morning. What happened in between is just one reason why she’s written a memoir. During the party, Miller got quite drunk and passed out. Her sister and friend couldn’t find her. But a Stanford University student, on a swimming scholarship, did find her. Instead of getting help, he took the opportunity to sexually assault her. Passers by saw what he was doing, stopped him, chased him as he ran away, and also called for help.
In the hospital, without fully understanding the implications, Miller agreed to pursue the case legally. Thus, the state of California charged this man with three counts of sexual assault. Little did she know the journey would last nearly four years, and affect every aspect of her life. This book is her unflinching story of events. More than that, she shares practically everything about the experience.
Miller tells about anxiety, emotion, support, anger—just about every emotion on the spectrum. She tries to balance the secret of her identity with her career, family, relationships, and plans for the future. It’s a tenuous juggling act that wears her out.
Growing up in today’s world
Of course, Miller tells her own story—the sexual assault she suffered on the campus of Stanford University. But she tells about two more defining life experiences. All three served as a gut punch for me. In addition to her assault, several kids in her high school committed suicide by jumping in front of nearby trains. The epidemic of teen suicide is defining that generation. Miller also attended the University of California, Santa Barbara during the Isla Vista shootings. These shootings had a distinctly misogynistic focus, with the perpetrator killing sorority members and posting online about his attitude towards women.
To me, Miller had to overcome the effects of all three situations, with the assault being the most personal. It feels to me like her story is the story of a generation—trying to forge a life with also living with these horrible events.
Now I understand why this book is one so many “best of the year” lists. Miller writes for herself and for individual readers. But, more than that, she writes for the legions of women who experienced sexual abuse and assault. She writes for college campuses who need to do more to prevent these events. And she writes for people in the legal professions, so they can see what it feels like to be the victim of assault.
Miller has some writing tics that annoyed me, particularly her consistent use of the strangest descriptive words possible. But none of that is more important than her story, which pulled me in and affected me deeply.
Where Miller really shines is in her analysis of the state of “survivorhood” in our society. After she tells her story, she dives into what can and should be different. I found this at least as moving as the actual details of her life after the assault. That’s because her perspective connects victims with life after, and life in a patriarchy. But this connection is borne from the strength of being a survivor and being present for each other.
Even if you don’t read this book right now, you may appreciate reading the victim impact statement Miller read in the courtroom. It’s incredibly powerful, just like Know My Name.
There are lots of triggers here for people who’ve been through this. But there is also a clear idea that Miller “sees you,” and sends her support. So, even if you have to read this in small bites, or skim certain sections, I hope you’ll give it a go.
Related ideas from Kate Manne
There’s really only one book to suggest for pairing here, and that’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne. I read this several months ago, and went back to re read sections on the same day I finished Miller’s book. Manne discusses both the Stanford crime and the Isla Vista shootings, as well as their perpetrators. You’ll find the combination difficult and heavy, but worthwhile.
Because Miller didn’t remember all the details, Manne says that the perpetrator was able to “write his own story” into the blank parts of hers. And here’s the line that struck me as most connected to the purpose of this book.
“The victim was hence robbed of her rightful authority when it came to both her body and the story of her body, in connection with that incursion.” With this book, Chanel Miller gracefully and forcefully takes back that rightful authority. As she should.