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Chanel Miller On What Happened After Her Victim Statement Went Viral

"It was common to have people forward me the statement saying, 'You have to read this.' I wanted to respond, 'I wrote it,'" writes Chanel Miller in an exclusive excerpt from her book, Know My Name.

Posted on October 2, 2019, at 8:08 a.m. ET

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Courtesy Penguin Random House

In the morning my eyes were sore, it was bright outside, a fresh day. I wanted to relish being released from the clenched jaws of the case. I would fill my Friday with slowness and sun. I was going to ride my bike down to the salt marshes to see the white herons. I would buy a milkshake from the creamery. I would go for a swim. At that moment in time, that was the entirety of my life’s plans.

But my phone was cluttered with missed calls and messages. Katie J.M. Baker was waiting for my permission to release the statement on BuzzFeed. None of the coverage of my case had given me reason to think a reporter would have my best interests at heart. But Katie had handled these kinds of cases before, and I felt so worn out, and the statement seemed of such little consequence, that I didn’t care much where it ended up, as long as my name wasn’t on it. I sat in bed saying hellooooo to clear my morning voice away, then called her. She sounded excited, effusive and kind. I told her they were free to cut whatever they wanted. She said the editors weren’t going to touch it. This struck me as strange; I knew there were too many pages, run-on sentences, misplaced commas. Instead, she asked if there was anything I’d like to add. I told her, I want the judge to know that he ignited a tiny fire.

The statement went up at 4:00 p.m. that afternoon. At the top of the article was a red rectangle calling out sentences from the statement in white lettering. Powerful formatting. But looking at it was like standing in an empty auditorium decorated with crepe streamers, worried nobody would show up. I couldn’t stand it. I shut my computer, went to the kitchen. I took the plastic ice-cube trays out of the freezer, popped ice cubes out into my cup. I wished for a silver refrigerator with dispensers from which ice effortlessly tumbled out. Those were the mundane things I wanted to go the rest of my life thinking about.

I returned to the article; in the upper-left corner, there was a counter. In twenty minutes, there’d been fifteen thousand views. Katie had begun forwarding me emails from readers to me.

I am crying at my desk. I can’t say much because I am at work but I will say that . . .

I wept for your pain and wept for your triumphs. I do not easily weep . . . While I feel sick to my stomach after reading your article, I . . .

It was hard to read, I had to stop and come back to it multiple times. I barely made it through, but I am glad I did . . .

I may or may not have almost thrown up at work given my ability to relate to a lot of it, but it was comforting to have—for a moment . . .

Almost every message I received opened with someone telling me the location of where they were crying. They were enraged and then devastated, and then they said thank you, said everyone must read it. It was a reaction too complex to categorize, but it sounded like, by the end of reading, they’d emerged in a clearer space. I was taken aback by this collective murmuring, a little worried I’d made them cry.

Almost every message I received opened with someone telling me the location of where they were crying. They were enraged and then devastated, and then they said thank you.

At one million, I texted my mom, who was at the grocery store. My story went viral. She responded, Mama bought 4 different kinds of ice cream for you! Three firework emojis. I don’t think any of us had grasped what it meant. The emails were steadily streaming in. I was nervous to look at the comment section of the article, expecting the same minimization I’d heard from the judge. But when I looked, I found heartening words. She looked straight into the sun and laid it all out for us. You mean something to this world. PREACH IT.

When my dad got home, he began printing out some of the comments; he liked to underline them and sit with them. I, too, was fascinated by the words people were using. Eloquent. Searing. Gut-wrenching. Visceral. Courageous. Cogent. A newly minted hero. Emily was a hero. Courageous and clearheaded, defiant and unapologetic, a figure of truth and power. In this person, I did not yet see myself.

I think if I read this years ago, I would have felt less guilty, less stupid, more empowered, more validated, and simply worth more as a human being.

As Friday came to a close, I stared at my glowing screen. My dad came in to say goodnight, smiling, Maybe the White House will call next! This was the very thing a dad would say, reaching for the moon. Saturday morning, the count kept climbing. My household was tingling and sweet, ripening with affirmation. Katie was forwarding me emails by the hundreds. My mom came in with a bowl of rice congee. She told me to stop leaning so close to the computer screen, bad for your eyes. But I was addicted to the unending streams of messages, felt the need to fill up on them before the moment passed. In the last year and a half, every time my case came up in the news, I’d watch it give way to bigger news.

By Sunday evening, I assumed my celebration would be ending. The new week would begin, the world would redirect its attention. When I fell asleep, I wrote down the count:

Sunday June 5 11:00 p.m. 4,432,947

Soon, the statement was published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times. The statement was shoving its way through the world, clearing its own path. I began texting myself numbers as if I’d be able to map the trajectory.

Monday June 6 8:50 p.m. 6,845,577

Tuesday June 7 8:40 p.m. 10,163,254

Wednesday June 8 5:04 p.m. 12,253,134

Thursday June 9 11:30 p.m. 14,523,874

Friday June 10 12:40 p.m. 15,250,000

Video compilations emerged of people reading the entire statement aloud. Rape hotlines were ringing, calls and volunteers increasing. New York mayor Bill de Blasio hosted a reading with his wife, Chirlane McCray. California congresswoman Jackie Speier led a one-hour reading on the House floor. Congressman Ted Poe of Texas said, She wrote the Bible on what happens to sexual assault victims. The statement was translated into French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Japanese. An undergraduate in Korea, named Youngki Kim, asked for permission to translate it into Korean. The statement was performed in sign language, in a video produced by Crystine, who was unaware we went to high school together. A feminist group in China posted photos of women holding signs: Nobody earns the right to rape. It is still rape when he is a good swimmer. I received emails from around the world. For days I was sitting in my room with my laptop next to a crusty bowl of conjee, in tears. Every message was pushing me closer to a space in which I was beginning to see myself more clearly.

If you had told me that morning on the gurney that in a year and a half, a woman would be licking a stamp in Ireland to send me a package full of candy, I would have laughed. My mom was right: You have to wait and see how your life unfolds.

One day I heard from the White House. Joe Biden wrote me a letter. I was in disbelief. I still had blockades up to protect me internally, scared to fully open up to all that was happening. I told myself to move my internal obstructions aside for a moment, to truly listen.

In his letter, he wrote, I see you. What did it mean that the vice president of the United States of America had stopped every important thing he was doing, to write I see you.

Assault buries the self. We lose sight of how and when we are allowed to occupy space. We are made to doubt our abilities, disparaged when we speak. My statement had blazed, erupted, was indomitable. But I was holding a secret fear, that there must be a cap, an end to this road, where they’d say, you have achieved enough, exit this way. I was waiting to be knocked back down to size, to the small place I imagined I belonged. I had grown up in the margins; in the media Asian Americans were assigned side roles, submissive, soft-spoken secondary characters. I had grown used to being unseen, to never being fully known. It did not feel possible that I could be the protagonist. The more recognition I gained, the more I felt I was not supposed to be on the receiving end of so much generosity. Yet people kept pulling me up and up, until I heard from the highest house in our nation. The vice president was not lowering down to my level, he was lifting me up to bow with gratitude.

Assault buries the self. We lose sight of how and when we are allowed to occupy space. We are made to doubt our abilities, disparaged when we speak.

What did it mean that he stopped to read my statement? That millions of people had paused what they were doing to take it in? I see the limitless potential of an incredibly talented young woman—full of possibility. I see the shoulders on which our dreams for the future rest. For the first time, I was beginning to understand what my dad meant when he said he was proud of me. I believe, out of the millions who knew I was brave and important, I was the last to know it.

Even when 99 percent was positive, the 1 percent still invoked my worst fears. When my house phone rang, the illusion of safety was broken. It was a news anchor from a major morning talk show. She said, I’m half Asian too so we can be friends. This is like me saying, You look pretty when you’re sleeping. How could she see me? The media offering to blur my face and warp my voice, to protect me, they said. Disturbing letters from strangers started showing up at my house. I submitted them to the lab for fingerprinting. Reporters came knocking, my dad saying, I don’t know who you’re talking about, shutting the door while I hid under the covers.

The statement would be read eighteen million times on BuzzFeed alone. You can find virtually anything online, but I remained unknown. I see this as a testament to the world’s grace; they did not push me into the glaring light, to a microphone, saying we want more. They did not ask for credentials, did not say, Well, who are you really.

The statement had created a room, a place for survivors to step into and speak aloud their heaviest truths, to revisit the untouched parts of their past. If I had come out with my identity the room would have collapsed, its roof weighted by distractions; my history, ethnicity, family. Instead, I became the lady with blue hair, the one with the nose ring, I was sixty-two, I was Latina, I was a man with a beard. How do you come after me, when it is all of us? One of the greatest dangers of victimhood is the singling out; all of your attributes and anecdotes assigned blame. In court they’ll try to make you believe you are unlike the others, you are different, an exception. You are dirtier, more stupid, more promiscuous. But it’s a trick. The assault is never personal, the blaming is.

Looking back on this summer, I remember it in scenes, given to me through thousands of letters in grocery bags, handed over from my DA. I received an email from a 16-year-old who said that for the first time in two years she could finally get out of bed in the morning. That’s the image I am left with, the now-empty bed.

I believe, out of the millions who knew I was brave and important, I was the last to know it.

Can I tell you, throughout the year before the trial, I spent nights secretly peeling back a curtain that concealed a life parallel to the one I was living, a life in which none of this ever happened. I imagined what I would be doing, who I would be; my nine-to-five, sunny days, a healthy body, holiday parties. Then I’d close the curtain, sitting back in my reality. Now, I see her vacant bed, and I understand why I went on this journey: It was the only way to get to her. Finally, I accepted what happened, aware of what it led to. I never touched the curtain again, knowing that one morning, a 16-year-old swung her legs out of bed and gently stepped back into her life.

It was common to have people forward me the statement saying, You have to read this. I wanted to respond, I wrote it. Once a friend said, I heard it’s someone we know. I froze, searching her face to see if she was testing me, but there was nothing. I feigned indifference, shrugged, I haven’t heard anything. When my sister met a guy in her neighborhood with a dog named Broccoli, the owner explained, Well at first his name was Brock, but have you heard of the Brock Turner stuff? My sister nodded. It hurt my dog’s brand, so I changed it. I found a new therapist in San Francisco, but it took me months and multiple sessions before I told her I was Emily Doe. All I said was that I’d been sexually assaulted, and in response she said, Have you read the Stanford victim statement? She’d recommended me my own story, said something about thoughtfulness and power, turning the tables. I nodded, and moved on to another topic. I wanted to be known as Chanel, in all my fumblings, my confusion, managing everyday life, before being seen as Emily, who was defiant and courageous, who seemed to have all the answers.

When I left the courtroom that June day, after reading my statement, my courage had been the furthest thing from my mind. Now I understood that in this life I’ve been given, I had done something good, created power from pain, provided solace while remaining honest about the hardships victims face. In turn, they showed me who I was. Now it was just a matter of figuring out how to say thank you.

After struggling for so long to move away from this case, it felt counterintuitive to immerse myself again. But I also understood that moving through was a way of moving on, that I needed to go backward before I could go forward again. I now had my instructions. The statement was the wave. It was time to submerge even deeper, return to the beginning. ●


Courtesy of Viking

Adapted from Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Chanel Miller.

Chanel Miller is a writer and artist who received her bachelor of arts degree in literature from the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She lives in San Francisco.


Listen to an audio recording of Chanel reading a section of this chapter below:

Courtesy of Penguin Random House. From Know My Name the audiobook, narrated by Chanel Miller

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