By Ava Cohen
Bay Area native, artist, and sexual assault survivor, Chanel Miller, discussed her memoir, Know My Name, and the importance of community support for survivors at two book readings, one of which over 1,600 people attended on Zoom through San Francisco Public Library’s One City One Book program.
On March 16, Miller did an interview with community connector Robynn Takayama on Zoom, with over 1,600 people in attendance. In the interview, Miller spoke candidly about her path to fame, and the global outpouring of support she received after sharing her story of sexual assault.
Although Miller’s first sentence in her memoir is about her being shy, she says that “you can activate shy people by creating the right environment.” When Miller took the stand to testify against her assailant, Brock Turner, his defense attorney prodded and poked her with doubtful questions, contributing to an unsafe environment where she couldn’t really come out of her shell.
But when Miller started to share her story with the public and do readings, she says she could feel the energy; the eagerness to listen and support her, the love people were emanating for her.
Women, and particularly sexual assault survivors, “carry shame and guilt so readily, so constantly,” said Miller. That made it easier for those in the courtroom to feed off her own self doubt and self hatred, she said.
But with this realization, she was able to recognize how important it was for her to give love to herself. “When I wrote my book, I was literally building the ground beneath me that I needed to walk on,” said Miller.
Miller’s second Zoom interview with Dulce Garcia, an advocate for survivors of sexual violence, was emotionally tumultuous in the best way possible, ranging from the “ugly” feelings of sexual assault to the power that comes with sharing your story.
Miller described her artistic ability as her secret weapon in the courtroom, one that the officials and her assailant and his defendants didn’t know about, which helped her heal and share her story in solidarity with other sexual assault survivors. Remembering her art during her trials was seemingly cathartic, it was one of the “things that I forgot about me, and that was really painful,” said Miller.
In reference to those “ugly” feelings that come with sexual assault, Miller said she felt like she had been “completely stripped of agency.” She was angry, but she reflected that allowing herself to feel that rage was important.
While writing her book and reading the court transcripts, “There were times I lit my papers on fire,” Miller said.
Miller recounted a Chinese American woman who was tried before her, one whose second language was English.
She remembered how the woman had symbolically worn the shirt she was beaten in, and that she stumbled over her words, trying to recall the right ones. The judge held his hand up in dismissal multiple times, urging her to wrap up her story.
“I think about her all the time,” Miller said. “There are so many stories that never reach the surface.” As she recounted the woman’s story, Miller started to shed tears (and I won’t lie, so did I).
“The only reason that I am here, and that I have anything at all, is because people found me,” she said. Miller stressed that this was a privilege not available to all survivors, and that some people have to fight fiercely for “a chance to be humanized, for a chance to be heard.”
Miller expressed how grateful she was to be able to have the gift of language and to have grown up with a mother who encouraged that so substantially. She reminisced on the copious amounts of support she received, instantly, in sharing her story. “All of how it’s received is up to the public,” Miller said. She repeatedly emphasized how thankful she was for her community, for the chance for her story to be told.
Aside from her book, Miller also has an art exhibit on display at the Asian Art Museum, entitled “I was, I am, I will be.” The exhibit along with two other female artists’ exhibits, can be publicly viewed on the Hyde Street side of the building
When asked by Takayama how it feels for her art to be on display alongside that of two other Asian American women, Miller said she was never emerging into the spotlight by myself, there are always people in the wings,” cheering her on and supporting her.