Content Warning: Sexual Assault
On Saturday, April 24, Cornell’s Sexual Violence Prevention Network hosted a conversation with writer and activist Chanel Miller. Miller’s 2019 memoir, Know My Name, is her personal narrative of the complicated and public sexual assault trial in 2016 that forced her into the spotlight under the pseudonym Emily Doe.
It is clear that Miller’s message is important to many members of the Cornell community. Naiara Bezerra-Gastesi ’21, one of the students who organized the event, said that Miller’s appearance had “lots of administrative support,” including the support of Vice President Ryan Lombardi. Bezerra-Gastesi, the president of SVPN, noted that Miller was “incredibly important for lots of survivors, because she is one of the first survivors to go public about her story,” especially in a college setting.
Bezerra-Gastesi noted that Miller’s identity as an Asian-American woman was also a reason SVPN wanted to bring her voice to Cornell. “A lot of people assumed she was a white woman because she was anonymous… we really wanted to make sure we were bringing narratives of color and people of color to the front of the stage.”
During the event, Miller first read an excerpt from the afterword of Know My Name, in which she recalls her first television interview after going public about her identity. Later, she elaborated on the elation of finally revealing her name and how it served as inspiration for the title of her memoir. Miller said when the trial first gained attention and she first released her victim impact statement (which was read 11 million times in the first four days of its publication), she had to keep her identity anonymous for her safety. When such private, intimate details of her life were a spectacle, not revealing her name kept her away from the harassment of Internet trolls. In 2019, she finally decided to go from Emily Doe to Chanel Miller in an interview with 60 Minutes. Then, Miller said, publicizing her name was a relief.
Art as a source of empowerment was an ongoing theme in Miller’s conversation with Abirami Dandapani ’21 and Andrea Maghacot ’22. Miller described the writing process as a cathartic repossession of her story. She explained how, during the initial trial and its aftermath, she felt helpless — but in her memoir, she could be the one to “make the places come into being.” During her courtroom scenes in the book, for example, she was the one to direct the scenes and paint the background setting: “I decide when people come in, I decide when people exit.” Miller said she knew what the general skeleton of her memoir would be, as there were court dates and release dates that were already public knowledge. Yet, Miller explained that her memoir allowed her to depict the timeline of the trial as she experienced it. In her story, she could choose to center the quieter memories that meant more to her.
Miller noted that writing was not only a personal release for her, but also was a way to advocate for victims and survivors of sexual assault. Throughout the conversation, Miller emphasized that she was not a “typical activist” chanting through a megaphone at a crowd of people. Instead, she is shy, the type to observe others and listen. Her words are her voice. Miller emphasized that she learned there are no set rules to be an activist. You do not have to shout into a megaphone. “You can be really loud and powerful on the page,” she said.
That was the main lesson I took away from this event: those who can harness their voice, whether through writing, art or anything else, have immeasurable power. Miller is also a visual artist (her comics can be found on her Instagram), and she explained that her drawings were a way to divert attention, both hers and others, from the oversaturation of graphic news and images on the internet. “Arts have the power in culture to redirect focus.” Art is a form of self-defense, and a claim of ownership over a narrative. It is a safe space to be yourself.
Miller explained that when the story of her assault became publicized, she was dumbfounded by the array of perspectives others had. She said that it was difficult to reconcile the public’s unsolicited opinions on her own experiences. That is why Know My Name was so important. Miller described the memoir as a “counterweight”: she knows those opinions will remain, but she is also at peace with the fact that her version of the story is out in public.
Chanel Miller reiterated many times throughout her interview that she loves her job of public speaking, writing and advocacy, but she stressed that, like everyone, she has her bad days. She urged thoughtful, empathetic self-care for those committed to activism. “It’s okay to have a bad day. You might have a bad year, and that’s okay,” Miller reassured, as long as “you remind yourself it will be temporary.” Bezerra-Gastesi notes that Miller’s quiet kindness carried the acknowledgement of shared experience: “She was just talking to survivors the whole time” they said, “That was really very beautiful.”
Ayesha Chari is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].