Know My Name is Chanel Miller’s memoir of the events, the trial, and how she attempted to survive the entire ordeal. Woven in her personal story is narrative about the justice system and the ideas that we form around stories such as these.
You may have heard the story, or at least what was splashed all over the news in 2015-2016. Girl raped at Stanford University frat party. Though rape happens more than anyone would like to think about, this case became high profile as Chanel Miller fought for justice in a way that hadn’t really been done before. And the public outrage at the leniency of Brock Turner’s sentence ignited a movement that changed the justice system and how we look at these cases.
Miller’s story, voiced in Know My Name, rocked my world on several levels. In general it was beautifully written and fascinating while devastating, but it also made me reflect on three issues I haven’t allowed myself to dive deeply into before about my own viewpoints, expectations, and judgements.
GRACE IN THE MIDST OF DEVASTATION
I was blown away by the amount of grace Chanel had for Brock, her perpetrator. No one would expect someone in this situation to be understanding, forgiving, or gracious. Those feelings weren’t necessarily consistent. There were plenty of other expected dark feelings toward Brock that would be considered more typical or natural. But she stated several times in her memoir that she hoped he’d understand and learn from what he had done, to recognize and take responsibility. She wasn’t out to destroy his life, but to make sure that he understood the seriousness of what he had done. It wasn’t revenge but consequence she was after.
This is a mature viewpoint. A viewpoint that I think can only come from a place of health to begin with. Chanel was lucky to have a loving, secure family. And from that place, she was able to hope for the best even for this young man that had taken so much away from her.
Reading her final statement* (which can be read at the end of Know My Name or follow the link below) to the court at the end or the trial, which went viral and really brought this case to the forefront of America’s attention, the struggles and pain and suffering she had gone through and was still going through at that time are obvious. And at that point she realized, based on his final statement, that Brock wasn’t interested in taking responsibility or moving forward. And so her statement was a completely understandable reaction to that. She was also able to stand up for herself and be bold about the consequences of his actions, which allowed thousands and thousands of other women to feel not so alone in their own circumstances. She gave a voice to victims from this place of devastation.
So while there was inexplicable grace, there was also tremendous boldness.
ARE MEN STILL EVOLVING?
There’s an entire section in Know My Name that discusses the way men treat Miller, not just as an individual, but as a woman. During some of the trial, she was living with her boyfriend in Philadelphia and often walked to and from the university there. More often than not, a guy would whistle at her, honk at her, talk to her on the street, or even stop their car and try to talk to her.
I think this is something society has somehow swept under the rug and labeled “that’s guys for ya!” But is it?
I know plenty of men that would never consider acting this way. Let me restate that, they may consider it, it may cross their minds, but they would never act on it because it’s just downright demeaning and rude. To assume that a woman would desire that kind of attention without knowing anything about her seems stupid and ignorant. And I think the men that are still acting this way need to be called out on it… not only by the women who are subjected to it by other men as well. These are the guys that are giving men a bad wrap overall, and I truly don’t believe it should be the norm.
I currently live in Singapore, and it’s actually common to find men being rather cold toward women. I’m a friendly American. I smile at everyone. It’s just my nature. But I’ve found that most men, even young men, don’t smile back. I mentioned this to a friend who’s been here a while and she explained that they fear the law. (There’s also still a sense of a male-dominant culture here which is also a factor, but…) They’re terrified of being accused of any kind of harassment. I haven’t done a case study or questionnaire to find out if this is true, if that’s the mentality here, but the behavior would certainly indicate this is the case.
The law here actually states: Sexual harassment involves threatening, abusive or insulting words, behaviours or communications of a sexual nature. Such behaviours may be actionable if a) it is meant to cause you harassment, alarm or distress or b) is likely to cause you these feelings and you heard or saw the offending behaviours or words. (British English spelling intended)
That’s pretty severe, right? No messing around. You leave people alone or there are consequences, period. I’m not saying it never happens here. Obviously. But I can almost guarantee that if a stranger makes a comment or smiles at me broadly, he’s not Singaporean. People in general are very conscientious about being offensive, unless you’re driving or in a line. That’s a different story we don’t have time for here. But in general, NOT harassing people in any form is just part of the culture.
Part of this discussion always ends with the suggestion that women dress more modestly. If they’re wearing leggings and showing their booty off, well then they’re obviously asking for attention. Hmmm… no. Currently that’s a fashion trend and typically has nothing to do with “asking for it” and trying to show off for the sake of attention. My 67-year-old mom wears leggings and I very seriously doubt she’s asking for it! Whatever “it” is.
Coming back to the state of Singapore, you may think that women dress more modestly here and therefore men don’t have to work so hard to be polite. That’s actually not the case at all. I see women everyday on busy sidewalks in very revealing clothes. Not just workout clothes either. And yet, men seem to be able to control themselves.
So why can’t that culture be cultivated in America as well? I believe it can, and I believe it has moved in that direction, but it’s still moving. We’re not there yet.
Part of the way that we can move forward in this arena is by our response as women. Because I’m friendly, and also perhaps a little naive I’ll admit, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Are we slightly flattered if a guy pays attention to us — even if only slightly? Just as it seems to be in their nature to be sexually attracted to us, is it in our nature to feel admired by it whether we want to feel that way or not? Is it there subconsciously?
So when a man smiles at me or makes a comment, in the past I’ve responded in a friendly manner. But if our goal is to say, “No, that’s not OK,” then our response, my response, needs to indicate that. There really can’t be any gray area, and that’s kind of sad. In a way I think it goes against our nature. Unfortunately the little light flirtation that ends at just that has been taken too far over and over and over again. And so now a hard line has to be drawn. The consequences must be heavy.
JUDGEMENT IS THE SCAPEGOAT
You might be shocked to find after all of that that there was an even bigger realization and takeaway for me from Know My Name. And it was this: we use blame and judgement as a scapegoat for our fear.
It is so incredibly easy for us to make a quick judgement about something based on a tiny smidge of information. We hear: she was drunk, blacked out, and was raped at a frat party. Instantly we make assumptions: she’s a partier; she got what she deserved; if she hadn’t been there in the first place, or hadn’t been so drunk, this wouldn’t have happened.
Can we pause for a minute and think about what those judgements mean? None of them have anything to do with the guy who thought it was OK to rape a drunk girl. Where is his judgement in those comments? Is he exempt because maybe the girl made some poor decisions? Does it exempt his actions? If so, why?
I know I’ve had those same thoughts many times before. Even while reading this book in the beginning, those thoughts crossed my mind. And they’re wrong, or at the very least skewed. It’s the wrong angle to look at the situation. But looking deeper beyond the surface injustice of those thoughts, there’s something else going on.
Along with those thoughts in my mind was also this thought: my girl would never be at a frat party that drunk. She would never put herself in that situation.
If my daughter did act just like Chanel Miller did that night, the same consequence might be hers. In my mind, I can control the actions of my daughter. I can make assumptions about her behavior. Whether they’re accurate or not, these thoughts give me some sense of control.
What I can’t control is the rapist. I can’t control his behavior or make any assumptions about what he might do. And that produces fear.
If I can blame Chanel Miller for her actions and believe that my daughter wouldn’t act in the same way, and therefore never be in a situation where this could happen to her, I form some kind of very shaky control for myself and what might happen to my child. And therefore it’s so much easier to blame Miller and make her the scapegoat instead of placing the blame on an idea that I have absolutely no control over.
I see the same thing happening right now in our world with the Coronavirus. Everyone is scared throwing blame at whoever they can hit because that gives them some sense of control.
This is a human condition. When we sense chaos or disorder, in whatever situation, we throw blame at anything we can to find some sense of purpose or boundary. We long for order, and when things are thrown out of order and there’s nothing we can do about it, we judge and blame those we think can do something about it. But we have to remember that those people, those things, that we’re throwing the judgement and blame at? They’re only human too.
Know My Name really shifted my thinking in several ways. It’s an important book as it discusses many aspects of our culture that are in the throes of change. However, I can’t finish this discussion without pointing out that the issue of overindulgence in alcohol was not discussed quite enough. The culture of drinking, especially amongst youth, has grown at a terrifying rate. And I don’t think we can completely dismiss that as a factor in Miller’s story.
It doesn’t change the horror of the circumstances. It doesn’t change how deeply I was affected by Miller’s story or how deeply she was affected by her story. But I believe it is a very serious factor in the many, many stories we hear now that are similar to Miller’s. If you’d like to read a bit more about this factor and how it’s changed in our society, check out Chapter 8: Case Study: The Fraternity Party in Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers. It uses Miller’s case specifically to discuss this particular issue, and I believe it’s a very important discussion that’s being ignored in particular by college-age men and women.
As our societies strive for equality, for justice for truth and rightness, Chanel Miller’s story brings to light many issues that we need to face head on and stop shying away from. She not only brings them to light, but shoves them in our face in a very elegant and sophisticated way. I am thankful for her story and the way it changed my thinking on these topics.
*Chanel Miller’s final statement read to the court and printed in full on Buzzfeed in 2016.
**Affiliate links used throughout this review of Know My Name by Chanel Miller