Chanel Miller on Putting the Shame to Bed

Content warning: sexual assault.*

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When Chanel Miller was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner in 2015, she was told that the crime had occurred under ‘the perfect circumstances.’ It’s hard to believe that any case of rape – let alone, one that occurs while the victim is lying unconscious behind a dumpster – could ever be called anything other than horrific and inhumane. Yet, for Miller, an almost once in a lifetime opportunity presented itself. Miller was not only in the small percentage of survivors who actually report their experiences but in the even smaller percent, who had a witness (in this case, two) to back up their statement.

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According to Miller, pressing charges was something she “couldn’t not do.” The case ignited global debate and triggered a cultural shift that predated the now famous #MeToo movement (although the creator of the movement, Tarana Burke, originally coined the term in 2006, for women of colour who were victims of sexual violence). The California legislature now requires state prison terms for rapists whose victims were unconscious and includes digital penetration in the definition of rape. Further, the judge responsible for Brock Turner’s short six-month sentence, Aaron Persky, was fired after immense public backlash.

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“It’s not luck but it’s more than most victims get,” Miller says to the audience at this year’s All About Women Festival on March 8. She’s there to talk about her best-selling memoir, Know My Name. The memoir was released in September 2019 to widespread acclaim that identified her as the anonymous Emily Doe of the highly public People v Turner (2015) criminal case. Know My Name intentionally embeds the assault into a greater story; “I am this full spectrum of experiences and you can’t deny that.”

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Thanks to host Dr Edwina Throsby, Sydney Opera House’s head of Talks and Ideas, before anything else, we find out that Chanel Miller is a writer, illustrator, and stand-up comedian – it’s also abundantly clear that she is a young woman hell-bent on changing the world. However, since retiring her better-known alias, she’s been reduced to introductions that centre on what happened to her rather than who she is. It’s unfortunate yet understandable because as Emily Doe, Miller went viral. Her 7,137-word-long victim impact statement, released on Buzzfeed, left no one untouched. Women around the world cried simultaneously. The anger, disappointment, and exhaustion laced in her words were all too familiar. Little did we know that we’d soon endure more grief together, when her assailant’s already light sentence was reduced down to an unacceptable three months.

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To see and hear Miller speak at the All About Women Festival on International Women’s Day is to witness a more self-assured yet equally as impassioned woman. She’s warm and humorous, somehow not taking herself too seriously despite the very serious nature of her experience and the conversation that surrounds it. Her beautifully articulated reflections are considerate and thoughtful. Miller’s very presence at the festival feels hopeful because it’s proof that after a tragedy, victims can not only survive but rebuild their way to happiness.

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Understandably, the case still brings up a lot of raw emotions. It’s difficult to believe she can even discuss it with such composure given how recently everything unfolded. Miller wells up when recalling sitting in court with only a few supporters on her side – her family and friends were considered witnesses and banned from entering the court – as her assailant’s side remained consistently full. Here, she looks out at an almost sold-out theatre, filled with strangers from across the globe who feel bonded to her in one way or another. It’s a moving reminder of how far she’s come and as an audience, all we can do is hope she can feel our collective gratitude and admiration.

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“The only reason I’m here now is because people refused to give up on me,” Miller says. Even under an alias, the weight of scrutiny placed on her was almost unbearable. She puts it poignantly, “Trauma is what happens when you’re put into a world where you no longer understand the rules.” Like many women, Miller was a first-hand witness to how powerful institutions like the criminal justice system are committed to maintaining rape culture. The legal system is lengthy, puts victims through arduous questioning and can involve invasive medical examinations, and yet still, many rapists are never convicted. Some perpetrators even go on to attain positions of power. Their potential is deemed more important than the victim’s; the damage caused by assault is underestimated and isolated. It’s a devastating realisation that lingered with Miller far beyond the final verdict.

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“He [belonged] to greater institutions and programs. […] It was not implied that I belonged to a family or a life that I had been extracted from.”

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When asked about some of the biggest ways the trial changed her, it was a remark about her freedom to live spontaneously that surprised me most. It’s that need to second guess your every movement in case you’re made responsible for someone else doing something unlawful to you that becomes ten times more real when you’re violated. For example, Miller shared that before the trial, she would enjoy skinny dipping at night with friends. Now, she’d be too hesitant, explaining that if something happened to her, she wouldn’t be able to justify being naked in public at night to officers and defence lawyers who would use her decision against her. Similarly, when purchasing alcohol, Miller anxiously commits the brand name and her drinking time to memory, should something happen while she was under the influence and she’d need to defend herself.

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Victim blaming is essential to rape culture. There are measures put in place to silence and invalidate victims from the minute they file a report, which is exactly why the statistics show that so many instances are never reported to the authorities. “They didn’t have to convince the jury [I was lying], [they] just had to turn me against me.” There were times when Miller felt guilty for giving her team “nothing”, as her memory prevented her from recalling the specific details. Miller wasn’t even aware of what happened to her when she was dispatched from the hospital until a media headline informed her that she was left “half-naked on the ground behind a dumpster, and fingered.”

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Her statements would be consistently rejected in court with a simple, “Objection! She has no memory.” It pained her then but now she laughs about it, “I’m about to drop 400 pages of memory on you!” Her 400 pages of memory have been overwhelmingly applauded. Dr Throsby points out that surprisingly, it’s a book that features the absence of shame, rejecting the typical “it’s your fault” narrative. In Miller’s perspective, that’s the most important takeaway of her story. Know My Name serves as a call to action which begs victims to put their shame to bed. As soon as she identified what was going on, she could squash it. “We’ve all been sent to our little corners of self-punishment. Who put us there?”

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Sitting on the stage of the Sydney Opera House only four years after the trial ended, she vows to never again wait for external validation. Whether that be in response to her hobbies like drawing, or the unanimous response of a jury finding her assailant guilty. She had been holding her breath to receive validation for something she had already wholeheartedly known but was made to forget. “Why did I spend a year and a half hating myself?”

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Trusting her intuition and refusing to be silenced is non-negotiable. “Was pressing charges worth it?” an audience member asks. She hesitates, she wants her advice to be hopeful but despite the pedestal we’ve put her on, there are decisions that she can’t make for us. But she leaves us with this, “I want it to be worth it. I want us to not have to fight for our own humanity.”

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As I finally reach the top of the queue for her book signing, a newly purchased copy of Know My Name in my hands, I smile and introduce myself. She smiles back at me and we chat. We chat about the case, her talk, and how much Ice Cream she’s eaten since she landed in Sydney. Together we laugh. She thanks me for my praises, and gushes over my name. I feel like I know her personally, even if I don’t.

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“Is it okay if I hug you?” I ask. She smiles and nods, “Of course.” It’s the least I can do, and I hope with it, she hears the things that go unsaid.

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*If you or someone you know is experiencing, or has experienced sexual abuse, you can call or refer the person to the following confidential hotlines.
General: 1800 737 732
Counselling: 1800 211 028
Crisis Centre: 1800 424 017