Review by Anri Wheeler
What is striking, as you first hold Chanel Miller’s Know My Name (Viking, 2019), are the golden slashes that punctuate its cover. The back flap of the book jacket reveals that these “represent the Japanese art of kintsugi, ‘golden repair,’ in which pieces of broken pottery are mended with powdered gold and lacquer.” This is the perfect metaphor for Miller’s memoir. In gluing back together her fractured sense of self in the wake of a horrific assault, Miller crafts for her readers something that is profound and beautiful.
On June 3, 2016, BuzzFeed published Emily Doe’s victim impact statement which was read by millions worldwide. It is now known that Miller authored those powerful words, which are printed in their entirety at the end of Know My Name. Miller’s memoir carries the reader through her awakening, both literally and over time, to what happened to her on the night that changed her life, but that she does not let define her. “I am a victim, I have no qualms with this word, only with the idea that it is all that I am.”
Instead, it is her recovery, claiming of her name, and raising of her voice, which makes Miller’s story transcend a singular act. In our knowing of her name, she sheds all previous monikers–Emily Doe, “Woman in Stanford sexual-assault case,” Chanel Doe–and along with them, the notion that she must be at the mercy of forces outside of her control.
Miller’s book traces her path from the night of the assault, through the trial of Brock Turner, and into the aftermath of the 2016 election and the #MeToo movement. It is made clear the ways Chanel and “Emily” lead separate lives, forcing Miller to compartmentalize and divide herself. Clear too are the many ways Miller is repeatedly revictimized by the actions of others she encounters after the night she is raped outside a frat party. At the same time, there are those who uplift and buoy Miller through a time that tests the durability of many of her closest relationships. Seamlessly woven throughout are scenes from Miller’s past that deepen our understanding of her as a character and a person.
Miller does not shy away from the graphic details of her assault, and yet her words are never gratuitous. The same is true of the court transcripts that are present throughout the narrative. Her ability to both devastate us, while keeping us deeply invested in moving forward with the narrator, is the driving force of this memoir. “I have created a self inside the suffering.” As Miller shares her story with her identity fully unmasked, the importance of being and feeling seen is laid bare.
The small details Miller shares–a sliver of pepper that is offered to her by an old man sitting outside a cafe in Providence, a bright-blue dog-shaped toy that she squeezes while seated in court–evoke specific moments with searing precision. These same scenes grapple with painful truths and raise questions for which there are no easy answers. In this way, Miller zooms in and out from that which is specific to her healing, while articulating universal truths that reverberate across many lives. Her joy, which is also glimpsed throughout the book, models for us her message that you must not “become the ones who hurt you.”
The word kintsugi, is comprised of two Japanese characters: kin, meaning gold, and tsugi, “to repair.” But the character tsugi can also mean “to inherit or take over.” Miller’s story is our inheritance. As millions did when they first read Emily Doe’s words, Miller’s memoir enables readers to take on her pain and in turn, draw too from her strength. As she pieces herself back together, we are moved to do so for ourselves. In knowing Miller’s name, we are empowered to speak our own.
Know My Name should be required reading for all. It is a book for anyone who has been broken but refuses to stay shattered; for those with their own “gold veins” who know or need to hear that “although an object cannot be returned to its original state, fragments can be made whole again.”