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How Chanel Miller took her story back after her rapist’s lenient sentence left her feeling ‘invisible’

For years, she was known to the world as "Emily Doe," the survivor of a sexual assault that garnered national attention in part because her attacker served only three months in prison, a sentence that sparked outrage. This week, Chanel Miller is stepping into the spotlight with a new memoir, "Know My Name." Miller sits down with Amna Nawaz to tell her story.

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  • William Brangham:

    Now the survivor of a rape case that captured the country's attention is reclaiming her identity and her voice.

    Amna Nawaz sat down earlier today with Chanel Miller.

    After she was assaulted in 2015 at Stanford University, she chose to stay anonymous. But now Miller is talking very publicly about the difficult and traumatic road she faced trying to seek justice.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For years after her assault, she was known to the world as Emily Doe.

    But this week, Chanel Miller is stepping into the spotlight with her own name and her own words in the new memoir, "Know My Name."

    In January of 2015, Miller was sexually assaulted while unconscious by Brock Turner, often described then as a star swimmer at Stanford University. Two graduate students witnessed the attack behind a dumpster, chased Turner down when he fled, and pinned him down until police arrived.

    After the trial a year later, Turner was convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault, facing up to 14 years in prison. But Judge Aaron Persky sentenced him to just six months in county jail, saying a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.

    The sentence sparked outrage, including among California voters, who recalled the judge in 2018, the first time that's happened in more than 80 years.

    Miller's own powerful statement in court, 7,000-words-plus, helped fuel that outrage, and gave voice to sexual assault survivors everywhere. It was published in BuzzFeed and quickly went viral, shared by millions, even read aloud on the floor of Congress.

    Turner served only three months. And Miller stayed quiet for years. But with her new book, Chanel Miller is now sharing her story with the world.

    We met in New York earlier today.

    Chanel, thank you so much for being here today.

  • Chanel Miller:

    Thank you for having me, Amna.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to ask you about the story you lay out in the book.

    And I want to begin in the early morning hours of the 18th of January in 2015, when you wake up in an unfamiliar place, and you have no memory of the night before, and a deputy turns to you and says, you're in the hospital and there's reason to believe you have been sexually assaulted.

    What goes through your mind at that moment?

  • Chanel Miller:

    I was in complete denial.

    I think you can't accept immediately that the entire trajectory of your life has just changed. You want to believe that you can return to your ordinary life, that you were on some sort of track, and that you not immediately be derailed.

    So, that's what I wanted to believe.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And at the time, we should clarify you had no idea that the night before, as you said, when you went to a party with your sister, you passed out, you had been assaulted.

  • Chanel Miller:

    Mm-hmm.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And you don't learn this until days later…

  • Chanel Miller:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    … when you see a news story pop up into your feed. The very first line of that story reads, "A former Stanford swimmer has been charged with raping an intoxicated unconscious woman in an on-campus attack."

    You wrote at the time that you knew it was you.

  • Chanel Miller:

    Mm-hmm.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How did you know that?

  • Chanel Miller:

    Because everything in the story lined up. But I still — when reading the news, I felt disembodied. I didn't want to affiliate my identity with this graphic description that was being depicted on the news.

    I felt extremely exposed and stripped down. I had no ability to cover myself up or maintain any sense of dignity or privacy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When you were first asked — because it's a choice whether or not you want the press charge, right?

  • Chanel Miller:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The state will move ahead with charges regardless. Whether or not you want to participate was a choice.

    And when you write about, in hindsight, looking back at the decision to move forward with the charges, you said this.

    You said: "I didn't know that if a woman was drunk when the violence occurred, she wouldn't be taken seriously. I didn't know that if he was drunk when the violence occurred, people would offer him sympathy."

    How did you see that idea play itself out over the year leading up to and through the trial?

  • Chanel Miller:

    In the beginning, when I read this story, it was very clear to me what happened.

    If someone runs, they're exhibiting consciousness of guilt. They don't want to be caught. But he was. And so I thought, all right, he was caught. He's going to come back with his head hung low and apologize for what he has done.

    And, instead, he lawyered up and came after me. I never thought it would go this far. I never thought we would go to trial. I didn't understand that there was so much to be discussed.

    I didn't think that, a year-and-a-half later, I would be in a testimony stand talking about FaceTiming my boyfriend and what I had to eat for lunch and dinner that day. It seemed to disintegrate into this meaningless interrogation, and what was very clear in the beginning quickly became murky.

    I feel that so much of the shame I experienced throughout that process was learned. And it's really incredible to me how much of the shame accumulated and was ingested throughout that process so that, by the end, I didn't recognize myself. I had no grasp on the situation.

    I feel like I didn't deserve to be treated well. I felt hollowed out and empty by the time the year-and-a-half was over. It was an extremely brutal process that I don't expect anyone to go through.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When the sentence came down, the — again, there was just a flurry of attention because of how lenient it was.

    And you wrote about that in the book. You said: "The judge had given Brock something that would never be extended to me, empathy. My pain was never more valuable than his potential."

    What did you mean by that?

  • Chanel Miller:

    I mean, there was nothing ever to suggest that I had a life outside of the courtroom, that I was on a track of my own, that I had my own dreams and enjoyment and goals before the assault happened.

    I felt like nothing more than a body. I was spoken about in a very just physical way. But I didn't feel human. And I always felt suffocated, like, no matter what I said, I couldn't be heard.

    I would look around and think, is anyone actually hearing me? It's a terrifying position to be in to feel like you can cry on the stand, that you could yell a statement, and people still don't hear you. You feel invisible, like you will forever be muted.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You had to relive many of those moments on the stand, in public, in front of strangers. You had to be asked and re-asked and re-answer a lot of those questions over many, many months.

    How is it that you kept going in all of those days? What did you tell yourself in those moments?

  • Chanel Miller:

    It feels like you're in the water, like taking in water, lapping it up, that you can never stop to get a breath of air.

    And only when I cried hard enough would they finally say, OK, enough, stop, and would release me to the bathroom.

    I would still wake up in the morning, and I would think, I'm still here. And I'm still showing up in court each time. Doesn't that mean something?

    The fact, even if I wasn't posturing and speaking with a clear voice, even if I was humiliating myself on the stand, the fact of the matter is, I was there, I was sitting in front of everyone, I was taking it.

    And the fact of just showing up, no matter how you show up, reminded me that I'm still going, and I'm going to make it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So let me ask you about your statement. When you saw the millions of people reading it, responding to it, writing to you about it, why do you think it resonated the way that it did?

  • Chanel Miller:

    I think it was honest, that I was honest about the panic attacks that I had, the shame, the guilt, the fear, that everyone could relate to it.

    And I think we're all so used to experiencing that in an isolated context, that we're not taught to openly speak about it. And so I think it was liberating for people to have those parts of their internal landscape finally put into light.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When you hear six months, and when you understand he will be in jail for a matter of weeks, do you start to question why you went through everything you went through?

  • Chanel Miller:

    Oh, yes.

    It felt almost like a joke. Like, it was so anticlimactic. You have all this tension and grief and trauma over a year-and-a-half, and you get there, and they say, all right, six months, which will ultimately be three.

    It felt like this really light dusting off. No big deal. Thank you for coming.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For all those years, people know you only as Emily Doe.

    What's it like to see your name, Chanel Miller, in big, bold letters on the cover of a book?

  • Chanel Miller:

    It's really wonderful.

    I feel like I can fully exist in the world. I feel like, in the beginning, I was really scared that I would be branded by this case, that that would be my label exclusively.

    So the fact that I am able to emerge as a writer with this tangible object to anchor me is really wonderful. And I feel very proud of that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Chanel Miller, thank you so much for your time.

  • Chanel Miller:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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