Chanel Miller’s memoir begins: “I am shy. In elementary school for a play about a safari, everyone else was an animal. I was grass.” As you read deeper into the book, you realize it’s the perfect opening for the story of a young woman who got dragged into the long blaze of a limelight that she never asked for, and never wanted.
By Chanel Miller
Viking, September 2019, $28, 368 pp., cloth
The story began on the evening of January 17, 2015, in Palo Alto, when Chanel—who had gone to a fraternity party on the Stanford campus—was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner, a student at Stanford. Two Swedish graduate students, passing by on their bicycles in the dark of night, noticed something disturbing going on outside the fraternity building. When they stopped, they saw a young man astride a young woman who appeared to be unconscious. They chased after him, and he was later taken to jail. Were it not for their actions, Chanel might never have known the identity of her assailant.
When Chanel returned to consciousness, she was under the bright lights of a hospital room, being questioned by a police officer. Vividly, she conveys the extreme disorientation she experienced as her mind struggled to comprehend what had happened to her body. Having been treated like a thing by a man who pinned her down on a cold, hard stretch of cement behind a dumpster, now she must submit to the various verbal and physical proddings of police and medical personnel who, even as they are trying to support her, can’t help but be part of a process that is humiliating and invasive. In essence, this scene from the opening pages of the book reveals what the book as a whole is about: a young woman’s struggle, in the aftermath of trauma, to come back to herself, to piece together her memories, to retrieve the fullest possible sense of her past and reclaim a sense of her own agency.
Because, of course, Chanel Miller’s life story didn’t begin with Brock Turner’s assault on her body. Born in 1992, she was raised in Palo Alto by her father, a psychotherapist, and her mother, who was born in China and came of age during the Cultural Revolution. The portrait she paints of her family, which includes her younger sister, Tiffany, is rendered in lovingly quirky detail. By the time you finish the book, you feel you’ve come to know the people who make up her inner circle—including her boyfriend, Lucas, who, through all the tears and turbulence, did his best to remain a stable and compassionate presence.
For me, this was key to the power and beauty of her book: even as she recounts, in searing detail, the suffering that began for her on that terrible night, she refuses to be wholly defined and devoured by the sexual assault and the long, harrowing legal process that followed. Reading her memoir, one is not just encountering a compelling report of events in the past tense, one is witnessing the process whereby a highly gifted writer is reclaiming her whole self. This gives an urgency, an immediacy to the prose that I have rarely encountered in an account of sexual abuse. As someone who has taught classes in memoir writing on a college campus for the past 20 years, I have—alas—read many such accounts. I have always found them moving—and deeply disturbing—but I have never before seen a writer so determined to wrest the fullness of her own being back from the chaotic swirl of events that began when a man thrust his way into her body. When he did so, he broke the continuity of her sense of self and the arc of her life story. But as I turned the pages of her book, I could feel her calling to herself, picking up the shattered pieces, then beginning to reassemble them, even to appreciate the new ways that some of them seemed to catch the light.
One is witnessing the process whereby a highly gifted writer is reclaiming her whole self.
This memoir is a form of manifesto. It is a powerful indictment of the pervasive culture that for so long has tolerated male sexual aggression and sees an intoxicated man as being less responsible for his actions while excoriating his female victim for being intoxicated. It is also an indictment of the shocking inhumanity of the legal system: its maddeningly slow bureaucracy puts people’s lives on hold for years, while its intensely adversarial process ensures that the victim of a crime—who has already endured the trauma of the crime itself—will be painted in the most one-dimensionally negative light. Then, in our social media-fixated world, this negative perspective gets amplified by the throng of other voices spreading rumors and scathing comments—all indicated by the force of the memoir.
But inseparable from the book’s powerful argumentative strand is its sheer poetry as Chanel describes the tangled garden and inviting jumble of her family home, her parents’ offerings of comfort food, her pleasure in drawing, the wonder of scuba diving. For me, the most groundbreaking aspect of her memoir is its insistence that these elements of her life are no less important than what happened to her on that fateful night. From now on, whenever I hear about a crime, I’ll be acutely aware that for the people involved, huge swaths of their lives are utterly discounted or distorted by both the official reports and the clamor of public opinion. And it’s not just “the good things,” the sweet things—the blossoms and bean cakes—that Chanel wants to reclaim from the sordid ordeal she was forced to endure. She also claims her right to complexity. A shy girl, a good student, a disciplined artist, she can also be a stand-up comedian, she can be goofy at a party—and yes, she can drink too much and fall into the hands of a sexually aggressive man.
The book ends with Chanel’s actual manifesto, the victim’s statement that she read in court beginning with the words “You don’t know me, but you have been inside of me, and that’s why we’re here today.” Even that opening line, in such a powerfully distilled way, is saying: If you hadn’t forced your way into me, I might have been spared the pain of this long nightmare. I might have had another life entirely.
She might have been grass, if she wanted to be grass.
But that choice was taken away from her. She felt compelled to become a fighter, not just for herself but on behalf of other victims of sexual violence. And though Brock Turner was given the shockingly light sentence of six months, her persistence through the dreadful years of being dragged through the legal system did have an impact. Thousands of people signed a petition that resulted in the recall of the judge who had presided over the trial. Her victim’s statement made its way into the public sphere, read by millions of people on Buzzfeed, garnering responses not just from celebrities and major political figures but from people all over the world who told her how much her words meant to them as they struggled to heal from their own experiences of violation.
Yet the memoir is powerful also in the way that it refuses to be triumphant. Even as Chanel acknowledges, with gratitude and amazement, the outpouring of appreciation and support that eventually came her way, the sadness never disappears completely of knowing that she is not, and never will be, the person she was before this happened. Even if not explicitly, the book raises the question that life asks each of us: who am I in relation to what happens to me? In Buddhism we encounter an ideal of supreme disidentification with the events that make up our life story, perhaps best represented by the Zen master Hakuin. Falsely accused of having impregnated a young woman, he says simply, “Is that so?” and then devotes himself to the care of both the baby and its mother. When he is later exonerated, he replies with the same unshakable equanimity, “Is that so?”
In Chanel Miller’s memoir there are glimpses of that timeless, formless essence from which we all arise, and which in Zen we call the face before you were born. But she doesn’t try to short-circuit her way to healing, to leap into transcendence. Her process has been long, slow, made of painful fits-and-starts—and she wants us to understand this, not to force her into some static, heroic role as warrior-survivor.
Originally, Tricycle had asked me to interview Chanel Miller. For some reason (well before the COVID-19 pandemic), that never worked out. Although I was looking forward to meeting her, I was also somewhat relieved. This young woman whose memoir begins with the words “I am shy” had been living in a spotlight for years, praised and excoriated, interviewed and photographed. What I really wanted was to catch a glimpse of her grass-self, to ask her what new creative projects may be hatching in the quiet of her own space and what glimmers of hope she discerns in her future. I was afraid it wouldn’t make for a very salient interview if I didn’t focus on the core subject of her memoir.
In the end, I came to think of that subject as a giant boulder that shook loose and crashed into the stream of her life. The obdurate fact of that boulder will doubtless affect, forever, the sound of her past, just as it will continue to reverberate through the flow and ripples that follow. But her life is not that rock. She has let us know that it is something vastly more fluid and multiple.