Know My Name, Take the Blame: A Victim’s Burden to Hold Her Rapist Accountable
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
Trigger warning: This essay discusses sexual assault.
Spoiler Alert: This is an essay about the book Know My Name by Chanel Miller. Spoilers abound.
Note concerning word choice: Chanel Miller approves the label victim with the understanding that it is not all that she is.
In the memoir Know My Name, author Chanel Miller, the previously unnamed victim who was sexually assaulted in 2015 by Brock Turner of Stanford University, delineates what happened from the day leading up to the assault to the present, most notably the trial and sentencing of Brock Turner and Chanel’s life in the aftermath. In going to trial, Chanel postpones her own healing from the trauma, holding her perpetrator accountable when no one else does. Brock rejects this call to accountability, behaving as if he were Chanel’s victim, as does his family and community. Chanel’s story shows that when rapists are not held accountable by society, the victims of rape carry the burden to pursue justice and social change at the cost of their own well-being. However, Chanel’s case also shows that by seeking justice, once-invisible allies emerge to support such victims in their work to transform society.
In the days after Chanel wakes up in a hospital, discovers she was possibly assaulted, and undergoes an extensive examination, she is asked if she would like to press charges. With little understanding of what that would entail, thinking it is the right thing to do, she agrees. She expects Brock to take responsibility and show remorse. He does neither. To her surprise, her attacker does not plead guilty and settle out of court; rather, he takes them through the arduous process of a trial by jury, pleading not guilty. This plea sets the stage for Brock to deny wrongdoing, a denial enabled and reiterated by all who defend him.
While Chanel never describes the trial as traumatizing, her telling of the experience depicts what can only be described as traumatic. During the trial she answers literally hundreds of questions about the assault. Though Brock was on trial, Brock’s lawyer interrogates Chanel about her drinking, previous blackouts, what she was wearing that night, what she ate before the party, as if any of those factors would assuage Brock’s culpability. At the trial she, her family, and strangers witness photographs of her lying on the ground after the attack with one breast exposed, photographs of her phone and underwear left lying on the ground, photographs of her naked body from the medical exam. Because Chanel was unconscious during the rape, Brock alone tells the story of their encounter under oath, relaying dialogue that he invents, dialogue that includes consent. He says it seemed like she liked what he was doing to her. To have no way of countering these lies makes Chanel powerless against Brock a second time, echoing the trauma of Brock raping her.
When the jury finds Brock guilty of three sexual assault felonies, the judge sentences him to a measly six months of jail time. The judge feels that becoming a felon and registered sex offender is already extreme punishment for fondling and fingering Chanel, unconscious, behind a dumpster outside of a frat house. Brock is a stellar student and outstanding swimmer who does not deserve to have his life ruined for one error in judgment, according to the judge. Brock in fact only serves half of his already-brief jail stint due to “good behavior”, a mere thirty days per felony charge. Even as Chanel suffers through the trial, the judge negates the potency of a guilty verdict and diminishes the significance of his crime with a lenient jail sentence.
Over the trial and sentencing Brock’s community stood in his defense, speaking to his character and his performance as a student and swimmer, disregarding his crime and enabling him to persist in his belief of innocence and to resist learning from his transgression. During the trial Brock, his lawyer, and witnesses such as his ex-girlfriend defended his not-guilty plea as if he were the victim of Chanel’s aggression, if pressing charges for sexual assault can be construed as an aggressive offense. They did not act as if his rape of Chanel constituted a crime, but rather as if it had been a drunken mistake in which he had acted out of character. Chanel could see the problem lay not only in Brock’s actions but in his beliefs enforced by those closest to him, that he could rape someone and insist that he did not do anything wrong. During his sentencing, that Brock, his parents, even former teachers vouched for his character and refused to acknowledge his wrongdoing made the six month jail sentence all the more insulting to Chanel. Chanel hoped that the guilty verdict would send Brock a message that what he did was wrong so that he would, in Chanel’s words, “get it” and “get help”. Being found guilty of sexual assault was supposed to alert Brock that his version of morality disregarded the rights of others and was thus incorrect. Instead, his defenders enforced and amplified Brock’s righteous attitude despite being found guilty. Chanel put herself in a position to be further traumatized in order to hold Brock accountable, and for that he acted as if he was the victim, that it was Chanel’s fault for pressing charges, not Brock’s fault for the crime.
What would Chanel’s healing have looked like had she not pressed charges? Would she have healed more easily without the indignity of Brock’s lawyer angrily questioning her every decision? Without having to recall each minuscule detail surrounding the attack? Without Brock’s insistence that she liked when he violated her? Without seeing her image emblazoned on a screen, lying in a bed of pine needles, partially disrobed and utterly disregarded? Without Brock and his defenders denying his culpability? If Chanel could change the last five years in the fallout of the assault, would she?
Chanel’s healing could have looked like most victims’ healing, done in private without a rape kit or national headlines. Not only did the trial pause her healing efforts, the trial punctured any attempts to move beyond the night of her rape. She left her job when appointments and preparation for the trial consumed her schedule. When the time came for her to write her victim statement to present at Brock’s sentencing, she procrastinated as long as possible, avoiding having to occupy the part of her mind that contained the suffering she endured, suffering that stemmed not just from being raped, but from events of the trial intended to bring justice for her.
Fighting for justice became Chanel’s full-time job. She chose to do the work needed to make Brock answer for his actions. No one else required Chanel to do the work, yet no one else could do the work in her place. So Chanel committed. Chanel didn’t have to press charges, but she did. Chanel didn’t have to appear for Brock’s sentencing but she did, and gave a powerful victim statement to boot. She didn’t have to write a book, but she did. Chanel has shouldered a burden that victims shouldn’t have to carry. She’s doing the work to help us all “get it”, that victims of rape endure trauma, and that rapists are responsible for rape. That rapists are not entitled to other people’s bodies. That rape is wrong. By fighting for her own justice, Chanel took on the work of changing society, work that the rest of us ought to be doing, so that victims like Chanel can heal. At the same time, victims occupy a unique position that lends itself to such work. Only a victim can write a victim statement. Nevertheless, shifting society’s paradigm of morality with regard to rape and assault requires work of all of us.
While Chanel took on the onus of holding Brock accountable, not only committing herself to the ordeal but subjecting herself to further trauma by trial, Chanel remembers the individuals who fought beside her and for her. She tells of two Swedes who encountered Brock mid-assault, chased him when he ran and brought him to the police. She recalls the three nurses who conducted her exam in the hospital, collecting pine needles from her hair, completing her rape kit, photographing the cuts and bruises. She explains how the district attorney assigned to her case got promoted to another position, but ensured she would be able to stay with Chanel until she completed the case. Chanel received a new fidget toy from her advocate each time she had to give testimony, an object to absorb anxiety and remind her of the person whose sole job that day was to support her. She describes how her sister, still in college, perpetually rearranged assignments and exams in order to be available for the trial every time it was postponed and rescheduled. Chanel’s mother offered her wisdom, her father told her he was proud of her, and her boyfriend stood by her throughout. After the sentencing, Chanel worked with Buzzfeed to publish her victim statement in its entirety, garnering nationwide support. While Brock had his own team of defenders, Chanel never faced him alone. Prosecuting Brock may have caused Chanel further harm, but the process also revealed to her the people who believed in her case and lifted her up.
Chanel displayed unparalleled grit persevering through the hardship of sexual assault and the subsequent trial. The work she did not only benefited her case, but served to educate society. While she wanted Brock to “get it”, her victim statement and her memoir help us all to understand more fully what it means to be in her place, to be a victim of rape. In her hope that Brock “get help”, she actively promulgates knowledge that helps us all. Her words and her story prompt us to examine ourselves, our beliefs, and our behavior, so that we may improve ourselves and our society. Chanel’s work sets the stage so that when another victim comes along, perhaps she will have less work to do, more people in her support, and more space to heal.