Why Knowing Chanel Miller's Name Is So Powerful For Survivors
In the wake of trauma, there are a number of steps a sexual assault survivor might take to reclaim their sense of power and identity. Among the most momentous can be reclaiming their stories. Chanel Miller would know: After four years of being known merely as “Emily Doe,” the anonymous woman who brought a sexual assault case against Brock Turner, she’s putting a face — and a name — to her story as she prepares to release her new aptly titled memoir Know My Name on Sept. 24. Chanel Miller’s name is a powerful declaration of the woman she is — far more than just the "unconscious, intoxicated woman” headlines made her out to be. But why do names hold so much power? And why can coming forward with one’s name be such a profound part of the healing process for some survivors?
There are many reasons why a survivor might opt to remain anonymous. Revealing one’s identity in a case of sexual assault, whether or not the case is highly publicized, can re-traumatize a survivor. That might explain why Miller waited to disclose her name, although she has never provided and does not owe anyone insight as to why she chose not to be identified during the case.
“If survivors come forward, they can combat the shame, confront the assailant, and often create some level of closure and a sense of empowerment, all of which can help them move forward,” says clinical psychologist, Dr. Joshua Klapow, in an interview with Elite Daily. “However, they may be constantly reminded of an event they want to forget, and often triggered. Moreover, in the case of public cases, or cases when there are legal activities, the victim is made aware that they will be questioned, confronted, asked to recall intricate details of the experience, and, in many ways, re-traumatized.”
On Jan. 18, 2015 at roughly 1 a.m., Miller was sexually assaulted by former Stanford University student Brock Turner behind a dumpster when two passing cyclists witnessed the assault and intervened. She awoke in the hospital, confused, with no recollection of the event, and was subjected to an extensive internal forensic exam. Turner, who was convicted of three counts of felony assault, was sentenced to six months in county jail and ultimately, released after just three for “good behavior.” In her gut-wrenching statement to Turner, which she read aloud to Turner in June 2016 and published in full on BuzzFeed.com on June 3, 2016, she described how during her first shower following the assault, she “wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else.” Dissociation, which involves disconnecting from one’s own body, thoughts, and identity, is a common response to sexual assault and other forms of trauma, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). And in a way, coming forward with one’s name is the anti-dissociation: It demonstrates reconnecting with one’s sense of self and owning one’s reality and identity.
“Sexual assault is someone exercising control and power over someone else,” says Morgan Dewey, Communications Director for End Rape on Campus. A survivor may feel entirely stripped of their autonomy in the wake of a sexual assault. In fact, Miller says she discovered many of the disturbing details about her own assault while scrolling through the news on her phone at work. “I learned what happened to me the same time everyone else in the world learned what happened to me,” she wrote in her 7,000-word impact statement.
Miller also wrote in her statement that after reading about the state in which she was found, she thought: “I don’t even know this person. I still don’t know this person. When I read about me like this, I said, this can’t be me.”
Though Miller didn't immediately choose to link her name to the case during the trial, it didn’t mean she didn’t have a voice. Her impact statement went viral after its public release, causing a ripple effect for survivors to feel seen and also inspiring critical conversations around campus sexual assault and how these types of cases are handled in court.
While revealing one’s name can be empowering for some survivors, psychotherapist and trauma specialist Melanie Shapiro stresses it can also leave them feeling vulnerable — which is why it’s crucial they only do so on their own timeline. “We will forever be believers that survivors know what's best for them,” adds Dewey. “It takes an immense amount of courage, and it's not the path for everyone.”
According to Dr. Klapow, coming forward in a case of sexual assault can come with both immense rewards and potential risks. “While it does allow the survivor to essentially confront the situation head on, it also brings them right into the middle of often contentious commentary on social media, television, and other public discussions of the assault, and a flooding of the experience over and over,” he tells Elite Daily.
In her impact statement to Turner, Miller expressed her reasoning for remaining anonymous, writing, “Every time a new article comes out, I lived with the paranoia that my entire hometown would find out and know me as the girl who got assaulted. I didn’t want anyone’s pity and am still learning to accept victim as part of my identity.”
Being labeled in such a way can be downright dehumanizing. When news of Turner's case first broke, Miller says that media outlets were quick to emphasize her level of intoxication, which Dewey says is not only degrading but also deeply problematic, because it perpetuates the narrative of victim-blaming.
“[Intoxication] has nothing to do with the violence," she explains. "Reclaiming her name and how she's identified is important, because it’s reclaiming how the world is absorbing her story.”
Jonathan David Bobaljik, a professor of linguistics at Harvard University, notes that proper names are “more intimately connected to an individual's identity than pretty much any other way of referring to them.” For example, it can be dehumanizing to refer to a person as just a "millennial feminist" or “a Boston-based freelance writer" because those labels could apply to a number of other people.
“Names hold so much power,” he tells Elite Daily. “Even without advanced study in philosophy or linguistics, we share a deep intuition that names have a very special, fixed connection to our sense of the individuals around us in a way that no other way of describing a person does.”
Still, while the positive impact of claiming one's name can be powerful, Dr. Klapow emphasizes there is no one “right” or “wrong” way to move forward after experiencing sexual assault. While revealing one’s name may serve as an act of internal empowerment for some survivors, it's possible to recover from the trauma while still remaining anonymous. Healing can happen whether or not the survivor is named, but either way, he recommends the decision to come forward is made in consultation with a mental health professional. It's crucial for survivors to wait until they’re emotionally prepared for the potential consequences of doing so. This can be an action as public as acknowledging your experience to your social media followers or as private as having a conversation with a close friend or family member.
Given the risks involved, survivors who are employed by the anti-sexual assault organization End Rape on Campus discuss a multitude of details and potential scenarios before coming forward with their names. For example, Dewey says they may be asked to consider how claiming their identity could help or hurt their legal case, if it’s still open. This could mean figuring out who they’re going to call when and if they read hurtful commentary (like a victim-blaming op-ed) in the media. Dewey's colleagues also suggest disabling comments on blog posts and articles where victims share their stories.
Experts agree coming forward can be a powerful act of self-acknowledgment and closure, and may encourage others to own their experiences as well. However, survivors are not obligated to do so. The decision is intimate and personal, and the burden of reopening old wounds shouldn't be placed on survivors. As Dewey says, “We can't rely on survivors to share their scars as the only way to inspire culture change."
There’s no doubt that Miller’s statement inspired change, even though it was published anonymously. It was translated into more than five languages and members of Congress read it aloud on the U.S. Congress floor. In its wake, California changed its laws to ensure punishment for those convicted of sexual assault — regardless of whether or not the survivor was unconscious or incapable of giving consent due to intoxication — was the same; a hard alcohol ban was instated on Stanford’s campus; and in June of 2018, Aaron Persky, the judge who presided over the trial, was recalled from the bench.
In her new memoir, Know My Name, out on on Sept. 24, Miller will delve into the assault and the trial that followed with newfound perspective from court documents and witness testimonies. Viking Books' summary calls it a riveting account from “the woman whose statement to Brock Turner gave voice to millions of survivors.”
“The night after it happened, he said he didn’t know my name, said he wouldn’t be able to identify my face in a lineup,” she wrote in her impact statement. Surely now, neither Turner — nor anyone else — will be able to forget Chanel Miller's.