This has been on my TBR since the moment I heard about it. And that was only reinforced by all the reviews I saw of it. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy though, for so many reasons, personal and otherwise. But important and necessary. Originally, I was nervous when my hold came up at the library for it though, thinking maybe quarantine isn’t the best time for something like this. But to be honest, it turned out to be perfect. I had the time and flexibility to listen to it (yup, I went with the audiobook) at a pace and on a timeline that felt right to me, taking my time and pausing whenever I needed to, because there were few other demands on my time. It also allowed me to freely express all the emotions I felt while listening, without having to worry about how it would affect me in any other parts of my life (personal and work both), because so many aspects of that are on hold. Really, the timing turned out to be a blessing in disguise and I really couldn’t be more grateful for that. As a side note – this is the book I chose, almost while I was reading it, for the Reading Women Challenge 2020 prompt #12: About A Woman Who Inspires You.
“Denying darkness does not bring anyone closer to the light.”
As a quick background, if you don’t already know, Chanel Miller was originally known only as Emily Doe, after she was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner on Stanford’s campus in January 2015 and underwent all the medical and legal processes to bring charges against him. It was a years-long, disruptive process, that caused incredible suffering for Miller and her family and friends, despite the fact that, in so many ways, it was a “clear cut” case. As the book blurb says, and I can’t summarize better than this so I’m grabbing it: “Her story illuminates a culture biased to protect perpetrators, indicts a criminal justice system designed to fail the most vulnerable, and, ultimately, shines with the courage required to move through suffering and live a full and beautiful life.”
I had so many thoughts, feelings and reactions while reading this, across a spectrum so vast that I actually think it would be harder to name a feeling I didn’t feel. My heart swelled and it was shattered, over and over again. It was hard, so hard, from start to finish. It’s been days since I finished. I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this. I took what turned out to be three pages of single-spaced notes (after I transferred it into a word doc from the notes on my phone) while reading – stopping so many times to write down a quote/passage or furiously type out my reactions to certain parts. Normally I take all that and try to put it together in a more intelligent and measured and linear way, but in this case I think…I may just bullet point my notes and leave them all here for you, unorganized as they are, because these are my true, in the moment, thoughts. And I don’t know if I have it in me to create anything more from them. Which honestly just makes it that much more impressive, that Miller was able to take her own scattered experiences and create something as eloquent, emotionally intense, relatable, scathing (where it should be), affirming, simultaneously individual and universal, insightful, reflective, healing, intelligent, equally strong and soft as this memoir.
So, I guess, here you have it:
- Miller reflects that a whole system was set up (i.e. victim care and provisions within the hospital setting) knowing there would be countless others like her – this, this right here. Like, let’s focus a little more on prevention so those resources aren’t necessary!
- The fact that for so long SHE didn’t even know what happened to her is horrifying and scary and heartbreaking
- Safety was always an illusion quote – this hit HOME as a female. I live in the woods and when my husband works overnight, I always have a knife or something close at hand when I unlock the back doors to let our dog out before bed, just in case. That’s just…sad.
- Being cautious versus being afraid. Miller’s internal struggle and fear and mental strain to need to be above reproach/perfect so that she would be a “good” victim so there’d be no action she took that might cause her to be “blamed.” This intense focus on what it means to move as a woman in this world is such ridiculousness… The fact that her personal “character” or “flaws” have any bearing, much less are as important and central as they are, takes the focus away from the actual issue in a way that is infuriating, especially when later his multiple characters references were considered “legit” witnesses on the stand – the double standards are unbelievable. Miller’s work to flip the script, the way we look at “what could she have done differently” to “why should that matter” is affecting and important.
- The complete and total upheaval of her life, the inability to do anything else (both because of her mental state and logistically because of the way the court system worked – dragging it out and re-scheduling constantly but unpredictably). No wonder so few people choose to go through all that.
- The guilt she had to shoulder for how this affected the lives of her close family and friends – knowing it wasn’t her fault but still feeling bad and then angry because the REAL person to blame didn’t know any of them, never considered them when he was making his choices and wasn’t available (in any real way) to shoulder it himself. But also, her family and friends and boyfriend and their unyielding support – I love them all for it.
- How much of herself was lost/put on the back-burner throughout the process…it’s too much to comprehend.
- How much she had to study for her days in court. Like, she had to relive over and over and over those moments that changed her life irreguvocably and traumatically so that she didn’t say the “wrong” thing in court because people’s memories are not perfect and she couldn’t risk not knowing every little detail and allowing the opposition to “take advantage” of her humanity to get her attacker off. Like, over and over and over. Again, no wonder people chose not to pursue this route – it’s horrific and so re-traumatizing.
- The verdict wasn’t the end, but at the same time, her feelings about having “won” the case, so what more could she want? And then, if that’s not the end, what (and when) is that expected outlook/anticipated “finish” point? So much to deal with, mentally, emotionally, altogether.
- When men are upset/lonely/neglected, “we were killed” – I mean, I have fears about that too and between her experience in this case and in surviving a school shooting, her strength in holding it together is unbelievable.
- Her erasure – being categorized as white, as an assumption, in addition to everything else, like the idea of the “moderate” level of sexual violence she went through, and the slurs on her own character and the upheaval of her entire life. It’s a miracle she didn’t completely lose herself in that, in a way that cannot be even partially recovered from. It’s a shrunken mini-cosmos of so many things women and minorities face over a lifetime, but smushed into such a shortened time period.
- When she says she faced a never-ending series of hurdles and hollow apologies, that just really hit me deeply. It’s so sad on such a profound and telling level.
- In a sentencing statement from the judge, he says “If we punish him, we would hurt his community too” – but isn’t that exactly what happened to Miller’s whole community, without any of them actually having made the choice that led to it?! Like seriously WTF is this double standard?!
- Relatedly to above, Miller’s assessment about his potential being more important than her pain… Or, clearly, her potential, considering what she had to give up while fighting for justice and overcoming the trauma and how that never came up. That, that makes me angry. And then the way she extrapolates that thought to his privilege to be viewed that way, to be seen through the lens of what he could be because that’s what background he came from, instead of what he is/did, and how that courtesy would not be extended to many others accused of similar crimes. Looking a bit deeper at the more structural issues of who is disposable in this system and who is protected.
- I know I said this before, but like, seriously, why do victims have to be flawless to be considered worth not being assaulted?! No matter what she, or anyone, is like as a person…that does not excuse someone else hurting them, ever. Especially when he had a list of previous questionable decision making (put in the best terms) and that didn’t affect the way his character was judged, clearly. His clear pattern of previous interactions and substance use and sexual slurs prior to Miller – like seriously? This isn’t even an isolated event; it’s a freaking pattern and it still didn’t matter. And again, it was his choices that were the crime, not hers…so why does she have to suffer both her choice being taken away and her character being impugned?!
- Denying darkness doesn’t help anyone get closer to light – re: her point of being honest over offering platitudes to other survivors. I felt this was a really important and poignant point about healing. It’s easier to look away from the dark, for everyone, but going straight through it is the only option to get fully to the other side.
- The focus on art as a saving outlet was phenomenal. I loved it and I’m so glad she had it available to her. Also, her time spent talking about her talents, and how she shone as a comedian, did so much to give dimension to her person, as more than just “the victim,” and it was beautiful. The importance in expressing and sharing is magnificent.
- All this that she went through, all her “success”…and it’s still “more” than most victims get.
- The number of current events that are triggering for a survivor is UNREAL as I read Miller go through and experience them in real time. It adds a whole new perspective to situation(s) that should already have been considered reprehensible.
That was a lot. Sorry (but also not sorry). I just want to end by talking here a little bit about her letter, the victim impact statement, that was originally published under the name Emily Doe. OMG that letter. Her words. I read it. I read it during the time in the days after the publication when she was watching the views/readers tick into the millions. And knowing that I was one of those millions, and what those readers meant to her…it was a real moment for me. To finish this audiobook experience listening to her actually read that statement herself. I had heart palpitations, had to keep pausing, was crying really big and ugly…and hearing the emotions in her own voice as she read it, her own tears and the palpable anger, it was almost too much. But also, it was everything. And I am grateful.
There is so much more I want to say, so much more that I am feeling, but I’ll call it here. If you want all that, you can ask me. Or, even better, go read the book yourself. I absolutely wouldn’t trade the difficultly of reading this, of watching Chanel Miller take back her name and her life on the grandest public scale, for anything. No matter how hard it was. And I cannot recommend this book highly or widely enough. But knowing what it’s about, please only read it if you are in a safe mental space to do so, and make sure to take care of yourself while doing so. Thank you for sharing this with the world Chanel, thank you.
I think I would have highlighted and reproduced half the memoir here, if I could have. I tried my best to be solicitous in my passages/quotes to share, but I think I was only marginally successful:
“Gone is the luxury of growing up slowly. So begins the brutal awakening.”
“They seemed angry that I had made myself vulnerable, more than the fact that he had acted on my vulnerability.”
“How quickly victims must begin fighting.”
“I learned the divide between unthinkable violence and ordinary life was paper thin.”
“Safety was always an illusion.”
“Why should I carry the shame for the things that were done to my body?”
“I felt punished for showing up. It was exhausting to be under constant review, the judgement I always feared confirmed.”
“What we needed to raise in others was this instinct, the ability to recognize, in an instant, right from wrong. The clarity of mind to face it, rather than ignore it.”
“This was no longer a fight against my rapist. It was a fight to be humanized.”
“We are taught assault is likely to occur, but if you dressed modestly, you’d lower the chances of it being you. But this would never eradicate the issue, only redirecting the assailant to another unsuspecting victim, offloading the violence.”
“Somehow it had become all of our faults, except his.”
“Why is it that we’re wary of victims making false accusations, but rarely consider how many men have blatantly lied about, downplayed, or manipulated others to cover their own actions?”
“Bad qualities can hide inside a good person. That’s the terrifying part.”
“I was tired of living as an object of observation, powerless as my narrative was written for me.”
“It’s not ok, never ok, for someone to hurt you. There are no asterisks, no exceptions, to this statement.”
“What I meant was, take note of his mental health, because in my experience, when men were upset, lonely or neglected, we were killed.”
“Rage activates, but too much of it cripples.”
“I’d make them hear the hurt beneath the fury.”
“Is an apology valid without change?”
“My pain was never more valuable than his potential.”
“How to distinguish spontaneity from recklessness? How to prove nudity is not synonymous with promiscuity? Where’s the line between caution and paranoia? This is what I’m mourning. This is what I do not know how to get back.”
“You were just attacked? Here’s some information on how you can enter a multi-year process of verbal abuse. Often it seems easier to suffer rape alone than face the dismemberment that comes with seeking support.”
“This is not about the victims lack of effort. This is about society’s failure to have systems in place in which victims feel there’s a probable chance of achieving safety, justice and restoration, rather than being re traumatized, publicly shamed, psychologically tormented and verbally mauled.” (Basically, ALL OF CHAPTER 12!)
“Healing is not about advancing, it is about returning, repeatedly, to forge something.”
“I survived because I remained soft, because I listened, because I wrote, because I huddled close to my truth, protected it like a tiny flame in a terrible storm. Hold up your heads when the tears come, when you are mocked, insulted, questioned, threatened, when they tell you you are nothing, when your body is reduced to openings. The journey will be longer than you imagined. Trauma will find you again and again. Do not become the ones who hurt you. Stay tender with your power. Never fight to injure, fight to uplift. Fight because you know that in this life, you deserve safety, joy, and freedom. Fight because it is your life, not anyone else’s.”