illustration by Clare Reid
This semester’s transition to learning at home has brought a lot of stress. But for some students it may have actually been a relief to leave campus, feeling safer at home, far away from the person who committed sexual assault against them. In this moment, and particularly with the U.S. Department of Education now radically changing the guidelines for how colleges and universities are expected to handle sexual assault and harassment on campus, it is worth being reminded of how traumatizing and destructive the experience of sexual misconduct can be for the victim and those around them, and how a school can help or exacerbate the situation.
The book Know My Name by Chanel Miller (aka Emily Doe) is not an easy read, but it is a necessary one. Chanel Miller was sexually assaulted in 2015 by Brock Turner, an event that, along with its subsequent trial, made national headlines. Her impact statement, read at Turner’s sentencing hearing, went viral, and her words resonated with sexual assault and rape survivors around the world. But, throughout the ordeal (and it was an ordeal), Chanel Miller didn’t exist, not really, in the media or elsewhere, shielded by anonymity meant to protect her. This book is her telling of the entire event, under her own name, and it serves as a reminder to us, as educators, to remember the silent trauma so many of our students are carrying.
The book starts by recounting the day of the assault and goes right up to the recall of the judge who gave Turner a laughably short sentence for his crime and Hillary Clinton quoting Miller’s victim statement in her concession speech. This is a necessary read because it outlines all of the ways institutions (including institutions of higher education) fail the victims and survivors of sexual violence. We still place too much of a burden on the victim to be perfect, with the result that men too easily get away with the benefit of the doubt—a problem that the new Department of Education policy may make worse. The book also highlights the ripple effect that a sexual assault has, impacting all those around the victim; Miller focuses on her and her family’s suffering, rather than the media’s lamentation of Turner’s “bright future” being ruined.
Despite the rage I felt while reading the narrative—rage at the injustices, rage at the system, rage at the unfairness—ultimately, the book is a testament to the transformative potential of speaking the truth. Most powerfully, it is about finding and reclaiming your voice, your story, and it’s about the power of words to, among other things, invoke empathy, sympathy, and compassion. I felt deeply for Chanel and also Chanel’s sister, who was trying to remain a “normal” student and finish her undergraduate degree while also serving as a key witness at trial, as well as living with the guilt of leaving her older sister alone, just for a moment, that fateful night at a party. Remember that our students are carrying so much more inside themselves than just a full courseload, including possible trauma that they may never share with us. We need to be mindful, as we create our learning environments, of these realities.