Interview by Cara Meiselman
Known for so long as “Emily Doe,” Chanel Miller is finally ready for you to know her name. After being assaulted in 2015, her story made headlines. Chanel lived her life with two identities — one as the Chanel Miller her friends and coworkers knew — and the other as Emily Doe. While her assailant only spent 3 months in prison, her powerful victim statement lives on.
After reading her new memoir, Know My Name, Chanel Miller’s name is not one you’ll soon forget. Reading as she sheds her anonymity and reclaims her story was nothing short of inspirational, which is why I was honored to interview Chanel. We talk about her experience, how writing has helped her heal, and what the future holds for her. If you haven’t already, make sure you pick up your copy of Know My Name, a book I wouldn’t hesitate to call required reading.
On Standing up for Women and for Yourself
This book is as much about your story as it is about a broken system. Hearing about the hours you spent at the hospital, the way you were kept in the dark, the number of times your court date was moved, the costs you endured was enlightening and frustrating. When you were writing, did you want to give both equal weight?
I remember reading about my case in the news, how the headlines would say woman testifies. It felt hollow and depthless and easy to scan over. Through my writing, I wanted to put the reader on the witness stand. I wanted you to feel what it’s like to sit in front of the microphone, scanning over the audience, the stuffiness of the air, the coarse texture of cheap tissues. All the little, human details. So often we hear statistics about sexual assault or read about cases in the news and become desensitized. I wanted to replenish all the sensory experiences, to rehumanize myself and all victims.
On the surface, this is a book about sexual assault but you also shine a light on micro aggressions, such as cat calling, women face on a daily basis that threaten our sense of safety. How can we continue the conversation around this serious issue? And personally, have your strategies for managing these instances changed, in case any of our readers are seeking advice on how to deal with this unfortunately far-too-common scenario?
It’s sad to me that there’s a tendency to rank harm, to keep quiet if the boundary violation is deemed minor. We’re taught to dismiss the effects of passing comments, to not complain or make a fuss, and be grateful it wasn’t worse. We’re trained to keep the peace at the cost of our own peace. But everything takes a toll. It’s unnerving just to be stared at. It feels invasive to have an unwelcome hand on my lower back. Even small touches teach us to shrink, keep us on alert, keep the fear simmering. Don’t let others minimize your discomfort. Know that it’s not your job to tolerate any kind of abuse, no matter how subtle. I am no longer going to let my boundaries be eroded on a daily basis.
Another issue you’ve brought up a lot in this book and in interviews since is victim-shaming. What advice do you have for women silently suffering from the effects of victim-shaming? How can our system do a better job at protecting victims?
I remember the detective used to advise me not to take the defense attorney’s attacks personally. I thought it was absurd, because the attacks were insanely personal. But I realized if Brock [Turner] had assaulted a different girl, his attorney would’ve found things to critique about her too. They’ll always find ways to customize the blame to make you believe you’re the problem. You are not the problem. You did not hurt anyone. You were hurt. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are, doesn’t matter how many shots you had, doesn’t matter what happened in your past. You do not deserve to be harmed. This is a simple truth society often fails to honor.
In the book, we got a glimpse into groups on campus and organizations that address sexual assault and advocate for those affected. Are there any organizations out there who are doing the work, that we could shine a light on for our audience?
Grateful Garments - Since my clothes were collected as evidence at the hospital, all I had was a hospital gown. Grateful Garments provided soft sweatpants and sweatshirts so that I was kept warm and could walk out of the hospital with dignity.
Futures without Violence - An incredible place for resources to educate yourself or get the help you need.
YWCA - The YWCA provided advocates who sat beside me when I testified. Their support was vital and I could not imagine going through this without them.
Muttville - I’ve fostered many dogs from this senior dog shelter. They slept beside me while I was writing and were a calming presence to have in the room. Plus a lot of them have spunky hairdos.
On Writing and Healing
I loved your quote, “I don’t write to trigger victims. I write to comfort them…” What’s one takeaway you hope readers walk away with?
After the assault, I experienced levels of rage, withdrawal, and sadness that were unrecognizable to me. I began to question who I was turning into. I describe each of these unpolished and raw emotional states in the book. As you read, my hope is not to poke at your painful places, but to show you that I’ve been exactly where you are. I hope you find solace in the parallels, knowing someone else has walked a similar path and has come out on the other side.
The book is full of emotions — everything from anger to love and also healing. Some of my favorite healing moments were when you performed at the comedy show and when you expressed your passion for drawing. How has writing this book been healing?
Court is devoid of emotions. You keep yourself in check, you keep a level head, you don’t raise your voice, you cover your face when you’re crying. There’s a heightened sense of poise and formality that’s expected. It’s not human. In the book I was able to go into detail about every emotion, unapologetically and honestly. To talk about the snot that ran from my nose, the fears that kept me awake at night, the times I’ve screamed without abandon. I am a nutty, colorful, imperfect human just like anybody else.
You also express your emotions through your writing style. For example, when you first talk to Alaleh we can sense how overwhelming it all was through you writing it out in one long sentence. Or when your sister got emotional after feeling her testimony didn’t go well, we can sense your anger by the way you constructed short sentences. Were these intentional choices to change your writing style based on the emotions you were feeling?
In that long sentence, my prosecutor was explaining all the steps we’d need to take. I wanted to feed the reader an endless string of words without allowing them the time to absorb anything. After an assault, there is little time allotted to processing. You have to go into evidence collection mode, decision-making mode. I wanted to communicate that pressure, that incomprehension of being cast inside a new reality.
Shorter sentences pick up the pace. I used them when I was being propelled out of depression into fury, gaining momentum, running toward what I had previously been hiding from.
We learn that you come from a family of writers. How much of your writing style was influenced by your mother?
When I told my mom I had to write 90,000 words, she turned to me and said, “easy.” I love that about her, she’s not daunted by large tasks, she thinks big. She writes like she breathes. I kept her books on the shelf by my desk to remind me that it was possible. Now my book lives proudly next to hers.
On the Future and Looking Forward
You end the book highlighting some of the high-profile stories about sexual assault survivors we’ve seen in the news lately. How have Christine Blasey Ford and the U.S. Olympic Gymnasts inspired you? Did their stories have an effect on your decision to shed your anonymity as Emily Doe?
It was impossible to envision being visible and vocal in the world before them. Only by watching them did I begin to understand that coming forward would be possible for me. They emerged with grace, clarity, a glowing ferocity. I am eternally grateful for the path they paved that I am currently walking.
You yourself have been such an inspiration to so many women — including Hilary Clinton (!!). How has this outpouring of love and support from so many strangers affected you?
Whenever I have a dip in my confidence or feel intimidated, I will read a letter or message that has been sent to me. My mind eats them like vitamins. When I’m in a hotel room alone, preparing for interviews, it is never lost on me how many people are out there wishing for my healing, and it gives me the confidence to proceed.
I’m such a fan of the illustrations you post on your Instagram! What other creative projects can we expect to see from you in the future?
Thank you! I am so happy I can doodle to my heart’s content. I’ll continue to make illustrated narratives about my day-to-day life. It helps me step back and process all the experiences I’ve been having. Drawing lets me reflect on what I’ve been learning and how I’m growing during this phase of my life.
Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror.She is a casual genius. This world is chaos and she helps us digest cluttered information so we can emerge feeling smarter. Reading her work is like having light bulbs go off in my head, or a strobe light, since that’s more in line with the vibe.
Coolest moment from the press tour?
Inside Oprah’s hug.
Favorite way to decompress and recharge right now?
Taking off my sophisticated clothing that I’m always worried about wrinkling and changing into soft cottons and clean socks.
Women inspiring you right now?
Aly Raisman and Amanda Nguyen. They are brilliant and kind, and have helped me navigate this new world I’m paddling through.
Lede image by Mariah Tiffany.