You might remember ‘the Stanford rape case’—one of many narratives about a sexual offender hailed as an upstanding citizen and star athlete with everything to lose should he be convicted of his crimes, while the victim/survivor faced an onslaught of criticism about ‘her role’ in the assault. In her memoir, Know My Name, Chanel Miller details her experience of the case that made national headlines and takes up the problematic construction of narratives about sexual violence, echoing a sentiment I wrote about previously: words matter.
Specifically, Miller takes a unique perspective on the use of the word, “victim,” proclaiming early on in the text, “I am a victim, I have no qualms with this word, only with the idea that it is all that I am” (p. viii). Many activists, however, make a distinction between “victim” and “survivor,” reserving the former term only for people who lost their lives as a result of an attack. The idea is to empower the living, and diction affects emotions. As a matter of fact, Miller writes of being presented with a stack of legal papers to sign at the hospital, stating:
I stopped when I saw the words Rape Victim in bold at the top of one sheet. A fish leapt out of the water. I paused. No, I do not consent to being a rape victim. If I signed on the line, would I become one? If I refused to sign, could I remain my regular self? (p. 9)
The reader, then, bears witness to Miller’s journey from fearing the word—the identity—to embracing it, perhaps even more so than many of her counterparts. In doing so, she raises the implicit question of whether we do a disservice to the subject position of surviving an assault by not using, or advocating for, the word “victim.” Certainly, from a criminal justice standpoint, the word “victim” remains, since prosecutors would face increased difficulty in achieving a conviction if jurors listened to narratives about survivors; on a very basic level, crimes yield victims.
Of course, Miller’s identity as a victim is also an identity she fought for, not in the sense of being assaulted but in the sense of having the assault validated and understood by others. Miller reflects on the many times she read news articles about her case online—and readers’ responses to those articles. She writes, “They [online commenters] seemed angry that I’d made myself vulnerable, more than the fact that he’d acted on my vulnerability” (p. 47). To her surprise, she would often find no empathy from other women, whom she may have expected to be allies. Not only did women cast blame online for her assault (p. 50), but Miller recalls:
My DA would later tell me women weren’t preferred on juries of rape cases because they’re likely to resist empathizing with the victim, insisting there must be something wrong with her because that would never happen to me. I thought of the mothers who had commented, My daughters would never…which made me sad because comments like that did not make her daughter any safer, just ensured that if the daughter was raped, she’d likely have one less person to go to. (p. 152)
These notions perpetuate assertions such as the one below:
I have told each of my girls heading off to college: If you walk in front of a semi truck expect to get hit. Don’t walk in front of a semi. If you go to a frat party expect to get drunk, drugged and raped. Don’t go to a frat party (p. 50).
But as Miller refutes:
I understand you are not supposed to walk into a lion’s den because you could be mauled. But lions are wild animals. And boys are people, they have minds, live in a society with laws. Groping others was not a natural reflex, biologically built in. It was a cognitive action they were capable of controlling. (p. 50)
While defending her ‘victimhood,’ Miller also notes that she had to ‘play the part’ effectively. She speaks of her initial meeting with her DA as feeling like a “job interview,” during which the DA would determine if her “character,” her likeability, and her strength would make her a “good victim” in court (p. 57). Then, when testifying, she came to learn that, “if you’re angry, you’re defensive. If you’re flat, you’re apathetic. Too upbeat, you’re suspect. If you weep, you’re hysterical. Being too emotional made you unreliable. But being unemotional made you unaffected” (p. 149). To be taken seriously, she had to earn credibility as a victim, she had to persuade others’ of her victimhood in light of their efforts to view her as an irresponsible character in her perpetrator’s story.
Miller’s battles are rooted in the construction of women’s worth as directly related to their interactions with, and associations to, men. She noticed even in the midst of chaos:
I was thankful to have Lucas. But it bothered me that having a boyfriend and being assaulted should be related, as if I, alone, was not enough. At the hospital it had never occurred to me that it was important I was dating someone; I had only been thinking of me and my body. It should have been enough to say, I did not want a stranger touching my body. It felt strange to say, I have a boyfriend, which is why I did not want Brock touching my body. What if you’re assaulted and you didn’t already belong to a male? Was having a boyfriend the only way to have your autonomy respected? Later I’d read suggestions that I cried rape because I was ashamed I had cheated on my boyfriend. Somehow the victim never wins. (p. 66)
And these narratives about a woman’s worth and credibility—and about a woman’s safety—in relation to men infiltrate every aspect of women’s lives. For example, over the course of my life, I have learned many practices that I should utilize to protect myself: don’t take the same route when you walk or run outdoors because it makes it easier for people to stalk you; don’t pull over for police officers in secluded places because it makes it easier for them to sexually assault you; don’t stop your car too close to the car in front of you because it makes it easier for someone to pin you in and do harm; don’t accept drinks from strangers in bars because it makes it easier for someone to slip you date rape drugs; don’t dress in “provocative” clothing because it makes it easier for men to be enticed; don’t go out alone at night because it makes it easier for someone to target you; and the list goes on. Miller recalls:
I bought a desk on Craigslist. A nice couple arrived to deliver it. The woman called me, said they were outside. We can help you carry it in, but I understand if you don’t want us in your home, because you know, Craigslist people. I just don’t want to—The man said, Well how else is she going to carry the desk? I understood what the woman meant, that a transaction as simple as receiving a piece of furniture from a stranger possessed an inherent threat, that any time we met someone online, we must scan for signs of assault, rape, death, etc. We knew this. But the guy did not speak this language; he just saw a desk. (p. 79)
And of course, all of this puts the onus on women. This is not to say that women should not be proactive in protecting themselves (as should men). It is to say that placing more responsibility on women than on men to end gender violence leaves women as the victims, while also stripping them of their victimhood, as Chanel points out. The stories we tell, and the words we use to tell them, matter. Each conceptualization of a word marks our stake in the narrative. Chanel Miller reminds us that words will always be used against us, but that, to some extent, we can gain control of our story.