As MeToo slides from intense focus to history, we risk sexual misconduct offenders creeping from their hiding places to harm again. Media attention has moved on to the coronavirus and other pressing issues. Fortunately, we have a force for change that remains – fiction and nonfiction authors who don’t let us simply move on.
Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller is a New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Book Review Notable Book, and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner. The author takes us on a real-life, arduous journey – post sexual assault. She didn’t have to invite us into her world, but she did and we’re better for it. She shares the day-by-day recovery process with a rare honesty that draws the reader in, accompanying Miller, seeing through her eyes, feeling her pain.
Miller’s assault went public. She had no choice when passers-by interrupted the Stanford University campus attack on her nonconscious body. Police were called. The press became involved. For a while, she tried to stay quiet – not an uncommon reaction. She moved to another state for the summer, but even that didn’t protect her from intrusions.
In one chapter, she describes male strangers who feel entitled to harass her on walks to and from a printmaking class. Why, she wonders, do they get to do that? If her boyfriend were with her this would not happen. He could walk alone on this route. We feel her anger and indignation. Yet, in defiance, she continues to walk. Why should she have to give up what she enjoys?
Miller notices a campus poster reporting that approximately one in four women are sexually abused. It depicts a number of figures like those on female restrooms, every forth one colored red – a victim like herself. She turns and sees young women crossing a quad. One in four of them will be metaphorically red someday. Clearly, sexual abuse is not going away.
Miller writes about what happened to her in real life. While I’ve researched and written about sexual misconduct, I also turned to fiction as a vehicle of change. My debut crime mystery, Shadow Campus, tackles toxic cultures for women. In the sequel, Damned If She Does, a young professor, Meg Doherty, keeps her assault secret for six years – even from her family. She pulls back from much of life for some time, like Miller, piecing together who she’d become – to rebuild – only to have that work dismantled time and again.
Meg envisions lecturing, her students thinking about what she’d endured – questions in their minds: Had she put herself in a bad situation? Was she partially to blame? Did she dress provocatively? Shouldn’t she have done something differently?
Both Miller and Meg wonder if they’ll ever be seen outside the confining box of rape? As happened in reality to Miller, would their attackers pay with a short prison sentence, if any? Who would be by their side in court and in life? Where do women go for help?
Assaults on women are still shockingly high. Domestic violence has increased during the coronavirus. We can’t afford to let the MeToo movement become a flash-in-the-pan. While far more the exception than the rule, “manosphere” online groups characterized by anti-female disdain and some committed to punitive actions need to be watched and written about.
If you’re a writer and think the time has passed for writing about sexual harassment and abuse, think again. We need you.
I used to wonder if nonfiction could viscerally convey the enduring costs to victims of sexual assault. Know My Name is not a dry report – far from it. Miller shares a true story told beautifully, candidly and in a manner you won’t soon forget. Crucially, she has not let the door close on sexual abuse because other issues have naturally taken precedence. Perhaps one day that will be her greatest contribution.
*Damned If She Does has been selected by Kirkus Reviews for their September 2020 announcement of “Great Indie Books Worth Discovering.”
Kathleen also blogs at www.kathleenkelleyreardon.com