Chanel Miller is not, she says, a “perfect victim.” Yet until last month she was a silent one, known only as Emily Doe, the anonymous woman at the centre of a highly publicised campus rape scandal.
Discovered unconscious behind a fraternity house bin while being sexually assaulted by Brock Turner, a 19-year-old Stanford University student dubbed the ‘Stanford swimmer’, a highly publicised 18-month trial in 2015 and six-month sentence for Miller’s assailant followed, of which he would serve just 90 days in prison. The world knew her story; only now do they know her name.
And so it is only since revealing the truth in September that Chanel, now 27, has become a “full person” again. She speaks gently, thoughtfully, her hair neatly curled on the morning we meet in the lobby of a London hotel where she is staying during a visit for Know My Name, the book she has published about her life since those unbelievable 20 minutes five years ago.
A writer and artist, her prose follows in kind; a picture eloquent and vivid, painted in order that she might piece together her story. For she learned that she had been the victim of Brock Turner’s vile assault on the news, a week after the event. Her memory of 15 January 2015 ends at dancing at a party and restarts on waking up on a gurney in a hospital hallway, covered in smatterings of dried blood and bandages, unaware of what occurred in the space between. There, she was told that she had been assaulted, which she was sure must have been some kind of mistake. But only on going to the bathroom and removing her hospital underwear, pine needles from the ground on which she’d been attacked falling from her hair as she bent down, did the first etchings of that night begin to emerge.
Those pine needles would trail after her as the 22-year-old went from hospital room to hospital room wrapped in a blanket; her clothes confiscated, she stood naked for hours as a camera was pointed at her wounded body parts and between her legs. She signed papers that said “rape victim.” Three of them worked to brush the pine needles from her hair, which filled a paper bag to the brim.
Everything about Chanel’s story is by turns harrowing, appalling and inconceivable: that what had happened to her might never have been discovered had two male Swedish students not been cycling by at the time, who chased Turner as he tried to flee and enlisted immediate help from the authorities (one of them was crying by the time of his police report, so devastated by what he’d seen). The hours spent baring her injuries in front of a lens; the painful court process, which included a room full of people being shown close up pictures of her vagina after the attack, after which she had to speak in front of them. That in spite of her comfortable upbringing, good education, loving boyfriend and supportive family - “this was like VIP service in terms of going through the criminal justice system and a sexual assault case” - it still turned out as it did.
“That’s a terrifying thing to live with,” she reflects. “To think my case is the best you could hope for.”
It was only because of Turner’s guilty verdict - paltry as the sentence was - that Emily Doe’s statement was read out to those present. When those 7,000 words were published in full on BuzzFeed the next day, they were read 18 million times. She later received a letter from the White House.
Chanel, an anglicised version of her Chinese name, Zhang Xiao Xia, spent what she believed would be the first quiet post-trial week she had experienced in a year and a half tracking the worst night of her life go viral - a concept all the stranger given the number of people aware Emily and Chanel were the same could be counted on one hand. It had taken her six months to tell one person, and eight months to seek therapy.
Chanel had been a “shy” child, one who “wanted to grow up and become a mascot, so I’d have the freedom to dance without being seen”. She studied literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara - she hid inside a classroom there when Elliot Rodger, a fellow student whose murderous manifesto listed his failures with women, killed six people in 2014 - and had graduated a year before the fateful party she attended with her sister, on a whim.
Before then, she competed in slam poetry recitals which were not, she laughs, “just finger-snapping” but “wacky and emotional”. Before then, she “drew all the time” and did printmaking. As a student, she worked every summer as a nanny and loved - still loves - “spending time with kids.” They “can be naughty, but it's this... meanness,” she says, slowly, of adults “where I’ve thought, ‘how do you sleep at night knowing you’ve torn apart a person? That you're intentionally dimming their spirit? Making them go home and spin in circles and find it harder and harder to wake up?’”
In the years since the trial ended, Chanel has been forced to consider all of the above in punishing detail; the book-writing process involved poring over courtroom transcripts - eviscerating verbal attacks heaped on top of the physical one she had already fought to overcome, which had until then been unknown to her - at her home every day. At one point, she contemplated suicide, thinking: “I’m just going to slip out the back door.” But “this can’t be it,” she told herself. “This can’t be the ending.”
In Know My Name, which is now the subject of a Stanford petition to become required reading, she has done what the justice system failed to do by telling her own. In its pages, Chanel comes to life speaking of Lucas, their dog, her skills and ambitions - all flattened into nothing by the faceless woman at the centre of the ruling by Judge Aaron Persky who, like Turner, was a Stanford alum. He was last year recalled from the Supreme Court after a decade and a half on the front bench, a result said to be down to that lenient sentence in June 2016 (he was later cleared of misconduct). Turner’s convictions could have seen him imprisoned for 14 years.
For someone who has always dreamt of being a writer, having a book published at 27 must feel like an inordinate achievement. Is that soured, I ask Chanel, by the blood spilled to get it?
“Yeah,” she demurs. “Yeah. At first, I was bitter, I thought: ‘I don't want this topic.’ But I've been given access to a system that very few people have access to, I'm in the smallest percentage of victims that gets a conviction.
“It is the least I can do,” she continues, to expose just what that means. Which amounts to this: fewer than one per cent of rapes resulting in a conviction in the US, while prosecutions remain at their lowest ever level in England and Wales.
Chanel didn’t think hers was even a case to answer - there were witnesses, DNA samples, physical marks of assault. What was there to discuss? And yet Turner, portrayed in headlines worldwide as a rising sports star first, sex attacker second, would ensure the conversation went on for 18 arduous months. And then a lifetime. “Anything I do in the future will be by the victim who wrote a book,” she says in Know My Name. “His talent precedes the tragedy.”
That tragedy remains two-fold in both crime and scant punishment. “When society questions a victim’s reluctance to report,” Chanel writes, “I will be here to remind you that you ask us to sacrifice our sanity.” Because “this is not about the victims’ lack of effort. This is about society’s failure to have systems in place in which victims feel there’s a probable chance of achieving safety, justice, and restoration rather than being retraumatised, publicly shamed, psychologically tormented, and verbally mauled. The real question we need to be asking is not ‘Why didn’t she report?’, the question is: ‘Why would you?’”
The only answer Chanel can cling to is that doing so might mean something for others. Since parting with Emily Doe for good last month, she has appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s podcast, BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and in the New York Times. She has received letters from parents with photos of their teenagers attached, telling her “you did this for them”.
None of which will erase what happened that night, nor the feeling that “my pain was never more valuable than his potential”. But as the quote that precedes her book reads: ‘It is our duty, to matter.’ Chanel Miller does; she knows that now. And the victims she fights for do, too.