Coming forward brought me back to myself

Stigma knows no borders – it just manifests differently in different contexts, countries, and societies. The time for action is now – for all the generations of girls and women to come – Elizabeth Blackney

BY CHANEL MILLER

Last year, I published Know My Name, a memoir about my experience being sexually assaulted on Stanford’s campus in 2015, the trial that followed and what I began to understand about healing and justice. For three years before the book’s release, I wrote while remaining anonymous, known only to the public as “Emily Doe.” Writing my book was like sitting at a desk inside a vast, empty dome. Every day I typed alone in the quiet, my sole job being to extricate the story. When I agreed to write a memoir, I could not guarantee that I’d reveal my identity. So from 2016 to 2019 I threaded sentences together while protected and insulated from the world, blissfully unknown. The only time my phone would ring was on Friday mornings, my editor calling to make sure I was submerged, but not sinking. She was the only person to have read a single word. In March 2019, I finished the manuscript, papers churning out of my printer, a thick stack on my desk. It was satisfying to have tied off loose ends. But I still had one little dangling string. The decision sat heavy before me: keep hiding or disclose my name.

I was warned that stepping into the public would have permanent repercussions. You will be branded for life. It’ll be difficult to get jobs in the future. Harder to shift genres. Any time a campus assault is reported, your name will reappear in the news. Every eruption that had occurred when my victim impact statement went viralm would happen again, amplified. More reporters at our doorstep. Calls to my parents, grandparents. The onslaught of online abuse. My face would live side by side with my assailant’s face, my image inseparable from his actions. There are too many crazy people. We want you to be safe. I wondered if there was a way to reveal my first name, but not my last.

In the victim realm, we speak of anonymity like a golden shield. To have maintained it for four years was a miracle. But while everyone around me discussed the protection it afforded, no one discussed the cost. Never to speak aloud who you are, what you’re thinking, what’s important to you. I was lonely. I longed to know what it was like not to have to spend all my energy concealing the most heated parts of myself. I kept coming back to a line from one of Lao Tzu’s poems: He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand firm. I could not spend my life tiptoeing.

Eight months before the assault, I had witnessed the 2014 mass shooting in Isla Vista, Calif., perpetrated by a misogynist who sought to punish others for his life of rejection. Our neighborhood was ruptured by violence and ruled by fear, and life as I’d once understood it had disappeared. For so long after the shooting and the assault, all I wanted was for things to stop moving. I was always being dropped into new realities before I’d had the chance to say farewell to my old ones. While I was writing, I was burrowing and absorbing, because that’s what healing required. Now I’d finally caught up to the present. But some of the people closest to me had not. They still thought I was an expired version of me. She’s gone, I wanted to say. I had another motive for choosing visibility; I had grown up without seeing people who looked like me in the public eye. I craved stories of Asian American women who embodied power and agency. I never wanted to wield a megaphone to announce to everyone I’d ever known that I’d been raped. I simply wanted to acknowledge who I was as a result of what I’d endured. To honor that change. To say, meet me where I am.

Whenever I hear a survivor say they wish they’d had the courage to come forward, I instinctively shake my head. It was never about your courage. Fear of retaliation is real. Security is not free. It bothered me that coming forward should feel like heading toward a guillotine. I don’t think most survivors want to live in hiding. We do because silence means safety. Openness means retaliation. Which means it’s not the telling of the stories that we fear, it’s what people will do when we tell our stories. I remember thinking, If anyone finds out they’ll think I’m dirty. We suffer from society’s shallow understanding. Disclosing one’s assault is not an admission of personal failure. Instead, the victim has done us the favor of alerting us to danger in the community. Openness should be embraced.

I just want to protect you, my mom said. But that was the answer moms are supposed to give. I knew her real answer was buried one level beneath, I just had to wait a little longer. One day the blessing finally came. She said, If you want to break yourself, to be bigger, to help other women, do that. Pain always gives you more power to go forward. Happiness and comfort don’t. It all depends on who you want to be.

I don’t know that there was ever a day I firmly decided. I did know that I wasn’t going to let the fear of what men might do dictate what the rest of my life was going to be. Through writing, all the hours spent looking at my past, dissecting it, putting it back together, I realized the assault was never all-consuming. I was full of experiences. He could not erase everything. I was emerging as a fleshed-out author, daughter, sister, artist, too many identities to be contained. I did not know the path ahead, but I was now fully aware of the person who’d be walking it. That was enough.

When I wanted comfort, I remembered a story my mom told me, about befriending a lobster when she was 12 years old. One day, her uncle boiled it and she cried and cried. The regret she had, she said, was naming it, because that’s what made the loss so painful. I figured, when I revealed myself, I’d promptly be boiled. But people would still have felt a moment of connection, my name nestled safely in their memory, the way my mom spoke so tenderly about a lobster.

Preparation began. First, you call your landlord, who will help you drill holes, snake wires through your walls, so you can add three more video cameras. You receive a notification every time a moth flies by your front door. You hire a special service to cleanse your family’s names and addresses off the internet. You are advised not to sit in your car too long after parking. Stay moving. Shred every document, in case people sift through your trash. Stay alert, no headphones, scan the street when you’re coming home. Delete all social media. Sleep somewhere safe when the news breaks. Make sure one person is always aware of your whereabouts. By releasing your name you hope to liberate yourself, but you are taught the new rules of restraint.

Deciding to use my name meant I’d have to learn to speak my story aloud. But as the requests for interviews began pouring in, I grew angry. My panic attacks returned, old unwanted feelings. I could feel myself losing my footing, slipping out of reality. I did not understand the difference between an interview and an interrogation. In court, the intention was to mock, disorient, diminish. It was never to listen.

My lawyer introduced me to Lara and Hillary, two women who work in trauma-informed communications, who offered to help me prepare. They set up a digital camera, a light, a chair. I wore a starched shirt I’d bought, looked like a pilgrim at a job fair. At one point, Lara said, What do you want them to hear from you? I’d never been asked that before. She told me I wasn’t at the mercy of the reporters’ questions, I was showing up to deliver a message. This reframing changed everything.

There was another question she asked that clung to me: Who are you speaking to? In 2001, a 16-year-old girl named Lindsay Armstrong was raped in Scotland. During trial, the defense attorney asked her to hold up the undies she’d been wearing at the time of the attack and to read aloud what was written on them: little devil. The rapist was convicted, but guilty convictions don’t undo damage. A few weeks later, she killed herself. I wish I could tell her that when a question like that was posed, it was his sickness, not her weakness, that had been exposed.

For so long, I worried that to be known meant to be undone. The more they see you, the more they can use against you. For years I worried this was true. Upon finishing this book, I knew it was not. Not for me, not for Lindsay. I often question where men like the defense attorney get their confidence, while I’m the one who struggles with self-loathing. How they move, unassailable, through the world, while I remain hidden. I decided that for as long as they’re out there, I will be out there too. I will appear on every television screen across the nation and I will not question my being there. I will be seen, open about everything I am and ever was, because I know that from the very beginning, the defense attorney had it wrong. To be known is to be loved.

My first interview would be with 60 Minutes, the episode taped in August so it could air in September. I’d never been on camera, never been on a set, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter how prestigious the platform, didn’t matter if it was 12 million viewers or two, didn’t matter the heat of the honeycomb lamps or the gaze of the heavy black cameras. The night before the interview, while studying my notes, I drew a little devil on the back of my hand. In the morning, I slipped on a steamed blouse, stepped into a black SUV. I sipped my tea as they clipped a microphone to my waistband, powdered my cheeks. I stepped aside to find a sink, slowly washing the ink off my skin, thinking, Thank you, as I began to feel bold and calm and clear. My purpose will always be greater than my fear. All of these cameras and correspondents were simply the vessel I needed in order to get to her. I was going to tell her we get to wear whatever the f-k underwear we want.

On Sept. 4, 2019, my name and photo were released. My friend Mel texted me Happy birthday, because that’s what it felt like, being born into the world. No more fragmentation, all my pieces aligning. I had put my voice back inside my body. I was inundated with messages of grief, shock, pride, but all I felt was peace.

Over the next few months, I would do over 70 interviews. Stanford students created an unofficial plaque on their own where it happened; when Stanford removed it, the students put it back, until the university conceded and put an official plaque in its place. The book would be translated into multiple languages including Korean, Norwegian and Russian. Harvey Weinstein would be sentenced to 23 years in prison. Christine Blasey Ford and I would sit cross-legged on my Grandma Ann’s carpet, drinking tea. I realized I was never coming into the world alone, I was joining the ones who had come before me. I would sit across a lunch table from Anita Hill and Gloria Steinem and other artists, writers and activists on a sunny afternoon in New York City. When I spoke, the room quieted. It was the first time I felt my own authority. They gave that to me. I emerged from that room changed.

In February 2020, I sat on a train en route to a small town called Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, the Dutch version of my book in my bag, a pastry called Slice of Heaven in my pocket. I looked out the window and thought, my mom was right, life was beyond what I could’ve imagined. How else to explain the green fields, the creeks, the Shetland ponies? At all of my book signings, each person puts their name on a Post-it note so I know who I’m addressing the book to: Mila, Noor, Lieke, Sophie. The Post-it notes aggregate like leaves on my table. Someone comes to sweep them away, but I ask to keep them. I am finally learning the names of the ones who have saved me.

My dad reads the book aloud to my mom, one chapter every night. They cry together, sit in silence, marinate in the sadness, go on walks to exhale. I stop by one evening and hear this ritual unfolding. I sit against the wall by the front door, listening. There was a time I came home with the story of my assault, crumpled and terror filled, inside me. Now my story emerges through the soft sound of my dad’s voice, a balm that can be shared. Outside the crickets are singing.

In San Francisco, my partner Lucas and two friends from college plan a secret book party. I pull up to the curb; a sign outside says Marigold. The glass walls are lined with ferns and russet poppies; they have rented a flower shop. It is populated with friends I’ve known since I was five and my favorite professors, who have driven for miles to be here. There is champagne and folded chairs, a cake. One by one they stand up and speak, and one by one we cry. We cry for what we did not know how to do, for the toll that has been taken. We cry from the relief of being surrounded by familiar faces, the awe of all that remains. As the sun went down, my sister Tiffany, who was there that night and by my side through everything, stood holding hands with me at the front of the room, everyone clapping. We had surfaced on the other side.

Almost five years had passed since the assault, and I was finally going to meet the Swedes, the two men on bicycles who had intervened, tackled my attacker. On a warm summer evening in New York City, there is Peter, there is Carl. We embrace, sit down, order calamari. The conversation could only be described as sitting by a fire. One of them voices that he’d felt regret and guilt. For what? I say. For not coming five minutes sooner. I am laughing, realizing that even the saviors felt like they could have done better. I think about all the things we wish we could change, all the “if onlys,” all the different stories that could have played out. But for all the fear, the pain, all that could not be redeemed, what I’ll remember for the rest of my days are the ones who never gave up on me, who led me back to my life.    

– First published in the Time

Writer is an artist and the author of Know My Name.

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