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Chanel Miller, Sexual Assault Survivor, On The 'Immense Relief' Of Going Public

Sep 23, 2019
Originally published on September 24, 2019 11:11 am

After four years in the shadow of Brock Turner, the man who sexually assaulted her, the woman once known in the media as "Emily Doe" has taken her name back. In her new memoir, Know My Name, Chanel Miller has introduced herself to a world that knew her only as a victim at the heart of a nationwide criminal justice controversy — or, in some cases, labeled her much worse.

And she says that moment, when at last she revealed her identity this month, came as "an immense relief."

"It almost felt like a bittersweet birthday," Miller told NPR's Morning Edition, "in that I was able to finally exist in the world without having to hide anything."

Since the incident that made her story famous, even if not her name, Miller had spent much time in silence. Only her 12-page victim's statement, which she read in court before Turner was sentenced, spoke for her experience of that January 2015 night when Turner was discovered on top of her unconscious body behind a dumpster at Stanford University.

"To sit under oath and inform all of us that, yes, I wanted it, yes, I permitted it, and that you are the true victim attacked by guys for reasons unknown to you is sick, is demented, is selfish, is stupid," Miller told Turner in court in 2016. "It shows that you were willing to go to any length to discredit me, invalidate me, and explain why it was OK to hurt me. You tried unyieldingly to save yourself, your reputation, at my expense."

Shortly after she read that statement in court, describing in vivid, disturbing detail the violence and trauma she'd experienced, the judge overseeing the trial sentenced her attacker to six months in jail — much less than the six years in prison that prosecutors wanted for Turner, who had been convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault. Aaron Persky, then a California Superior Court judge, justified his light sentence at the time by saying "a prison sentence would have a severe impact on [Turner]."

Turner would ultimately serve just three months of that sentence.

"I spoke with conviction. I felt that it was working. I felt that it was everything I could have done. So I felt relief and pride and now thought the hardest parts were behind me, but they weren't," Miller recalls of that hearing. "When the sentence was announced, the immediate reaction I had was humiliation."

She says she had struggled to include her family and friends in the legal process up to that point. Since the moment she began learning what had happened to her that night — "every detail I found out on the news," she says — Miller remembers keeping many of her family members and friends out of courtroom proceedings, hoping to "protect the people that I loved."

It had even taken her some time to tell her parents about what happened.

"It was almost like I cracked in half," she says of that conversation. "I just sort of bent over and was unable to speak. And at that point, my mom stood up and she just held me and we both cried. Because I don't think you can assign words to that initial experience. I think you need to feel it."

To most in her life, though, she didn't talk about what was going on in court or even say where it was she was going when there was a hearing.

"It was extremely difficult to conceal that this was going on in my life," she explains. "At the same time, I felt like it was necessary to protect myself, and I was also terrified of the investigators. I felt like I couldn't disclose or be open about what happened."

By the time Turner's sentencing rolled around, Miller had relented and let some family members and friends join her in the courtroom — but "as soon as the sentence was read," she says, "I remember thinking, 'Why did you allow them in? Now people are just going to get hurt again. You humiliated yourself in front of everyone you love. And this is why you should do things alone.' "

She was not just humiliated; she was also confused about how a conviction backed by witnesses and material evidence could have ended like this.

"Had I not released my statement, I would have gone home believing that my words were worth nothing. I would never have thought, 'Wow, that was such a courageous thing that I did' or 'Wow, I'm an eloquent writer.' I truly believed that I had failed," she told NPR.

I spoke with conviction. I felt that it was working. I felt that it was everything I could have done. So I felt relief and pride and now thought the hardest parts were behind me, but they weren't. When the sentence was announced, the immediate reaction I had was humiliation. - Chanel Miller on her reaction to Brock Turner's sentence

Referring to Persky, she adds: "I don't understand how, if he is in such a high state of authority, he can overlook everything that I presented."

Persky would ultimately feel the consequences of his lenient sentence. Last year, voters in Santa Clara County, Calif., recalled him from the bench — the first judicial recall in the state since 1932. This month, the former judge was fired from his briefly held job as a girls tennis coach at a Bay Area high school after his involvement in the Turner case became known to the school district.

Just months after the controversial sentence, around the same time Turner was released from jail, California lawmakers passed legislation mandating tougher sentences for defendants convicted of sexually assaulting unconscious victims.

As for Miller, whose memoir publishes this week, she says she's ready to leave Emily Doe behind — even if she plans on keeping the lessons she learned on her long road back to trusting herself.

"In court, it's almost like you become deaf to support. Even if my family was continuing to say loving things in court, I felt like I was a criminal, like I was to blame, that I was being punished. Otherwise, why would they — if I was good — why would they be treating me like this?" she says. "It took me a long time to figure out that, no, I deserve much better — and to teach myself self-compassion and to listen to the voices that were supporting me."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Chanel Miller's life changed in 2015 the night she was sexually assaulted by Stanford University student Brock Turner. A jury convicted Turner of three felony counts of sexual assault, and he served just three months in jail. When Miller pressed charges, she went by the name of Emily Doe to protect her identity.

CHANEL MILLER: It sounds a little crazy to have a separate identity, but it was what I needed to do to survive. I sort of just assigned everything that was happening and all those feelings associated with the case to her so that I could carry on in my day-to-day life.

INSKEEP: But now Chanel Miller has decided to reveal her actual identity. She does so in a new memoir, "Know My Name." Miller doesn't recall much from the night she was attacked. She was intoxicated and unconscious at the time. She told Rachel Martin she pieced together what happened to her from local news reports.

MILLER: Every detail, I found out on the news. And I read it at the same time I read all the hostile comments. And so I took those comments to be the truth. And it took a long time for me to detach them.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: What were the comments?

MILLER: That I was older, so I was the predator. They didn't understand, if you're a college graduate, why you were going to a frat party, why you'd be alone, why you would drink that much.

MARTIN: What was the conversation like when you told your mom and dad?

MILLER: It was almost like I cracked in half. I just sort of bent over and was unable to speak. And at that point, my mom stood up and she just held me, and we both cried.

MARTIN: What was it like when you saw Brock Turner for the first time in the courtroom?

MILLER: It was shocking because, up until then, he'd existed as sort of an idea or someone abstract that I'd heard about since I did not know this person - and continue to not know who this man is. That first time, I was really just focused on answering the questions and trying not to cry.

MARTIN: At the end of the trial, the judge asked for your victim statement, something that was going to - was supposed to inform the sentencing of Brock Turner. And the statement was published in full by BuzzFeed. It was incredibly personal. You directed it right at Brock Turner. Did you practice it?

MILLER: Yes, I read it aloud repeatedly. I basically yelled it inside my apartment (laughter) for a week.

MARTIN: Did you really?

MILLER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah.

MILLER: Absolutely. And I worried that the neighbors would think I was getting into constant altercations. But it helped me to be able to speak it aloud. And in the beginning, I was extremely soft-spoken. I wouldn't have imagined doing something like that. But by the end, a year and a half had passed and so much hurt had been accumulated. And it had all turned to rage. I felt an immense amount of pain and anger at what I had to see my family go through, what I had to withstand. And that anger really helped dissolve the fear.

MARTIN: Another unique aspect of this memoir is that while it is incredibly personal, at the same time you are - you're able to grasp the universality of sexual assault and the threat that women live with every day. And there are several of these anecdotes. I wonder if you could - if you could share the story about the man on the bench with the pepper?

MILLER: (Laughter) Sure. I was sitting on a bench one evening waiting for my Lyft. There was an older man beside me, and he was slicing this green bell pepper in his lap. And he offered me a slice. And I remember just looking at this slice and thinking - is he trying to lure me in with this bell pepper, you know? What's his ulterior motive? Is it poisoned? All of this ran through my mind in the few seconds that he was holding it out to me. And then he smiled and I thought - oh, or maybe it's possible that this is just a kind old man offering me a nourishing vegetable. So I took it and ate it. And I think that's really important to remind myself that, you know, not all the world is constructed to hurt you.

MARTIN: May I ask you to read the closing paragraphs of the victim statement that you read in court ahead of the sentencing of Brock Turner?

MILLER: Of course. (Reading) And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought every day for you. So never stopped fighting. I believe you. As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, lighthouses don't go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. Although I can't save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can't be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you.

MARTIN: Chanel Miller - her new memoir is titled "Know My Name." Thank you so much for talking with us.

MILLER: Thank you so much, Rachel. I really enjoyed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANA OLGICA'S "SUGARCANE")

INSKEEP: And a reminder - if you, or someone you know, needs to speak to someone about sexual assault, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-4673 - 800-656-4673. You can also find help at hotline.rainn.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.