Emily and Chanel - Transcript
This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled “Emily and Chanel.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.
Content note: sexual assault.
Listen to the episode here.
We are recording this in weird times, okay? We’re not in a studio anymore. We’re all working from home. I’m also working from home. So… just, ya know, if you’re tuning in for the first time, that is why this sounds like it was recorded in my basement. And if you’re a longtime listener, thank you for your grace while we try to still make a podcast “from a distance.” I don’t think I’m allowed to sing that full song without the rights, but I would.
Anyway. I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”
Have you ever really, really thought about what makes you, you? If you had to describe yourself to me right now what would you say? When I have to do this, I always start with “I’m tall.” I do that for a few reasons. One, I am. Two, when people have not met me in real life and then I show up and I’m 6’1” they’re like OH GOD. Or if I’m wearing heels and they’re like you’re 6’4” I was not expecting that. There’s a physical, like, startle to them. Anyway, that’s what I usually say. I’m tall.
Chanel is a person who describes herself, first and foremost, as shy.
Chanel: I love drawing for hours alone in my room. I love observing and listening and processing for a long time.
For most of her life, Chanel has been the kind of shy person who has never asked a question in a large lecture hall. The kind of person who picks the corner spot in any fitness class. The kind of shy where if the coffee shop doesn’t have half and half on the counter, she’ll just drink her coffee black rather than ask for a new decanter. The kind of shy where, given the choice of any role in the kindergarten play… a play where kids are choosing to be lions or tigers or elephants… she chooses to be… GRASS.
Chanel: I remember that play literally lying down on my belly, holding up this piece of cardboard with all these triangles in it to represent grass, and that… that was my single role.
Chanel grew up in northern California near Stanford University. She is the oldest of two girls. Chanel is the shy one. Tiffany is the loud one. Their parents are… absolutely dreamy. Her dad is a therapist. Their mom is an author who emigrated from China. Between the two of them, Mom and Dad give their girls a childhood that is cozy, comfortable and creative.
Chanel: There's this feeling of you can fail and you won't be punished and you can make a mess and it won't reflect on your character. It is simply an accident and a part of life. You know, I love that my parents allowed us to draw on the walls. You know, I filled my walls with drawings in Sharpie. And I don't know, they never dismissed an idea as crazy. You know, I remember my mom and I were driving past one of my favorite childhood parks and they were tearing it down. And I was so sad. And we saw the slide that I love and it had been disconnected. And it was just on the ground. And my mom's like, “Let's get the slide.” I was like, what? So we just ran through this construction zone and like, lifted my favorite childhood slide and put it in the van. And it was like dangling out of our van. We carried it home and we're like, we're gonna rebuild this slide in our backyard.
One time, you know, we were driving through the city and it started pouring rain. And my mom's going to a meeting, and she knows I love the rain. And I was like, “Can we please just, like, get out onto the shore for one second and let me run around? And she pulled over on the bluff. And I, like, sprinted outside and was just like screaming and running and came back all wet. And then we just, like, carried on. The fact that she sort of embraces that wildness, you know. My sister and I felt very free to be ourselves. And our parents kind of sat back and watched us in, like, let us tell them who we wanted to be.
Chanel and Tiffany were weird and funny, two creative little creatures who loved to make stuff together. Chanel was a little modern-day Jo March, writing one-woman plays for Tiffany to star in… and they collaborated on what COULD be considered the very first podcast.
Chanel: We started a radio station in my closet. And it was called, “R U OK?” — like, the four letters. And we thought that was so smart. And we had like a little stool with a tape recorder. We didn't have a light in the closet.
Nora: Don't need one for radio.
Chanel: Nope. Total darkness. We would interview each other, do different voices like sing songs from Space Jam. Talk about the weather. Do traffic updates.
It’s genius. Chanel is a genius, is what I’m telling you. She’s a COMEDIC genius, because when she gets to high school, the Sadie Hawkins dance comes up. For those of you who are not familiar, this is a dance where… gosh, this dance is just steeped in gender roles, because the whole point of it is girls do the UNTHINKABLE act of asking a boy to a dance. Wild, right? Chanel doesn’t just walk up to a guy and say, “Hey wanna go to the Sadie Hawkins dance with me?” Heck no. Remember… she’s shy. And funny.
Chanel: So I was going to ask this boy. And, yeah I just basically trailed toilet paper through this school and I wanted it to end in a very private place because I didn't want to ask in front of people. And so I was, like, hiding in this dark little hallway by the music room with his, like, broken trail of toilet paper leading to me, just standing in the dark with like a toilet paper roll. And he finally arrived and I gave him this index card that said, “If you gotta go, go with me.” And then I drew, you know, like the Charmin bear and I did like, “Cha cha cha, Charmin. Cha cha cha cha, Chanel.”
She’s a shy, comedic genius. And when Chanel graduates from her high school, which is known nationwide for being filled with high-performing kids, she goes to college at UC Santa Barbara. She studies English and she joins an improv group.
And it’s not like her life is idyllic. It’s not like Chanel doesn’t know that life is hard and bad things happen. She SEES them happen.
Chanel: Where I went to high school in the Bay Area, there were multiple suicides. And since graduation, there's been 10. And then when I was a senior in college, there was the shooting, and six people died. And both of these events were communal. They were communal traumas that affected hundreds or thousands of people. And I never thought... y'know... it almost felt selfish to acknowledge that it had affected you, because you looked around and everybody was hurting. And there are people far more broken than you.
Those incidents affect her. They are a part of her story. But she is still Chanel. Still a shy, funny girl from a family who loves her. She is a girl with a future she is free to figure out as she goes, which is exactly what she’s doing when she graduates from college and gets her very first post-grad job. Her first job as a degree-holding adult woman.
Chanel: I got a job as a hostess at a Chinese restaurant, and the only reason the job was opening was because the girl who was hostess at the time was leaving to begin college. And I was like, this is very depressing. But I just finished and moved home, and I'm working a minimum wage job. I mean, any transition is hard, especially transitioning into adulthood. And I was living with my parents. Eventually I did get an office job at this wonderful little startup that did educational apps for kids. And I really enjoyed it. I love adults who value imagination and have very serious conversations about how important imagination is.
This job is part of the post-grad upswing. Chanel has meaningful work that she enjoys. And yes, she’s living with her parents. But it’s the Bay Area — where the heck else could she afford to live? I realize my Midwestern-ness is showing here but it is very expensive out there! Plus, Chanel lives with parents she LIKES, in a place she likes, where she can go out and do the kind of wild things that any young person likes to do. Which is actually how she met her boyfriend, Lucas.
Chanel: I went to an orchestra concert alone on a Friday night. And then I came home and got into bed, and I felt quite sad and lonely. My friend called me and said she was at a bar and that a guy was bothering her. And this was enough to propel me out of bed. I'm not going to come out just for you, but I will come out in order to protect you. And so I took a shower. I went out. And, you know, I was standing by her for the evening. And then Lucas came up to me and he's like, “Do you wanna dance?” And there was no dance floor at this place. And so I told him that I was very... just all logic at that time. And he also was living in Philly. So I thought this isn't going anywhere, you know? But he asked me to dinner that night. The very next night before he flew away. And we went to dinner. And it was lovely. And then he flew away. And I thought, that's that.
Lucas is tall. He’s handsome. And his eyes…
Chanel: How do you describe blue. Not ocean blue, not sky blue, not blueberry blue...
The two of them end up building a relationship, despite the distance between them. They talk, they text. They fly back and forth to see one another.
Four months after they met at a bar after Chanel’s wild solo night out at the orchestra, it’s January 2015. Tiffany is a junior in college, and she has come home to visit for the weekend. She’s staying with her family, but she’s also mostly home to visit her friend Julia, who goes to Stanford.
The three of them — Julia, Tiffany, Chanel — all hang out. They go out for tacos and then watch the sunset. They have deep conversations about whether you should fold your toilet paper into neat squares before using it or just crumple it up.
(I’m gonna interject here. I prefer a neat fold, but I respect a crumpler… just everyone remember to wash your hands.)
The three of them debated over whether pigeons sleep — I mean, I’ve never seen it happen — they go back to Chanel and Tiffany’s parents house for a home-cooked meal of broccoli and quinoa. And they teach their dad how to pronounce it correctly, which is definitely Kin-Oh-Uh. I’m kidding.
And then, Tiffany and Julia invite Chanel out with them for the night. They’re going to a frat party on the Stanford campus. More of Tiffany’s friends arrive, and they all agree that Chanel should go with them. Come on! It’ll be fun!
Chanel is not SUPER pumped about the idea. I mean, a college party? Would it be dumb if she went, or kinda funny? There’s only one way to find out! She goes. And guess what? It is kinda funny.
Chanel has fun dancing like a goofball with her sister and her sister’s friends, noticing how shy the college girls look entering the party, looking for a familiar face. You know what? It’s kind of fun to go back to college when you’re just a few years out from it yourself. You get to shed all of your self-consciousness and just HAVE FUN because you are not an insecure college kid anymore. You’ve got a job! You have a boyfriend! This is just a night to goof off with your sister and her friend.
And it is also, completely unbeknownst to Chanel, the night another person will take over her life and her existence. This is the very last night that Chanel gets to be just Chanel.
We’ll be back soon…
And we’re back.
Chanel woke up the morning after that party in a bright room. It’s hard to tell at first where she is… and why she’s there… and why everyone is asking her if she’s okay. Should she not be okay? Did she get so drunk she had to be taken to detox? That would be embarrassing.
It turns out Chanel is in a hospital. There’s a Stanford dean there, and a deputy, who informs Chanel that there is reason to believe she may have been sexually assaulted. Huh, she thinks, he seems so serious. EVERYONE seems so serious. The women who hand her a folder of pamphlets about assault and PTSD and mental health seem serious.
Her sister, Tiffany, who bursts into tears when Chanel calls to tell her that she’s at… where is she, exactly? A hospital in San Jose, about 40 minutes from their home. Tiffany seems very serious.
The nurses who helped Chanel undress, who gathered the hundreds of pine needles and pine cones that tumbled from Chanel’s matted hair, who swabbed and poked her, who documented every single abrasion with cameras and q-tips and stirrups and latex. Who took her clothing as evidence and dressed her in clothes donated especially for this purpose… they seem very serious.
The police officer who walks her through the night before, asking her what she remembers about the evening… which is, after a memory of her standing on the patio of the frat house, drunk and happy and just 10 minutes from the childhood home where her dad had just served them a dinner of quinoa and broccoli… nothing at all. That police officer also seems very serious.
Nobody says rape. Not outright, not out loud.
Chanel: So I thought I went to the hospital just in case. But it just sounded like there was someone who was acting weird at the party and had been arrested.
The police officer tells Chanel that she was found unresponsive. That there was a guy around her acting “hinky” — that some other people saw, and thought it didn’t look right — and Chanel thinks… okay, this is all just IN CASE.
Chanel just wants to get back to normal life. To their parents, who haven’t even thought to worry about Chanel yet. Their house is one where the girls can come and go, spend some nights at friend’s houses… where things are warm and safe and happy. Chanel doesn’t want to lose that. She wants to keep whatever darkness may have befallen her from entering that house.
Their dad is a retired therapist. He spent his whole professional life shepherding people through the hard things. Their mom is Chinese and grew up in the Cultural Revolution. The two of them have seen more than their share of atrocities, but Chanel doesn’t want them to take on this one yet, because she doesn’t even know what it is. It might be nothing!
So she doesn’t tell them when she gets home. Later, when a police officer calls to ask if she’d like to press charges, Chanel says yes without truly knowing what that means. She thinks sure, if something happened, then I’ll press charges.
But as far as she knows, nothing really happened. So the only people who know about that morning in the hospital are Chanel and Tiffany, and Tiffany’s friend.
Ten days later, Chanel is at work, having a normal workday, sitting at her cubicle.
Chanel: It's not even a cubicle. It's, like, open-desk seating. So... you can see everyone. They can all see you.
Chanel is perusing a lunch menu when she clicks over to the news homepage, and sees a headline. A few words jump out to her:
Hmmm. She clicks and sees a photo. Blue eyes, straight teeth, suit and tie. A name. Details about who he is, what he’s done with his life thus far, what he plans to do with his future.
The assaulted woman is named Emily Doe. And the newspaper says that she was raped. Chanel thinks: Is this... me? It can’t be ME, right?
Chanel: I also thought nothing had happened up until then because I haven't been contacted. I thought the exam had been precautionary, um, because adults like to do things just in case.
But as much as it can’t be her… it seems like it IS her. There are just too many coincidences for Emily and Chanel to be two different people.
Chanel: I mean, it was so weird. I was literally, like, looking at my body, like my body is here. I can still walk and talk. I'm going to be okay. Nothing is going — like, this story will not enter me, because it will be kept inside the screen. Um, yeah, I could not pair the body that I was living and breathing in with the description that I was reading on the news, even though there were little clues... you know, like ruptured skin and bruises that did verify that it was me.
All Chanel knows about that night is that someone was acting “hinky” around her. But
the more Chanel clicks, the more she learns about what happened that night. To her. To Emily. Who is her.
Emily was found on the ground behind a dumpster, her dress pulled up to her hips, hair knotted and filled with the pine needles that had rained down on the floor during Chanel’s examination nine days before. And those details about Emily — about her body, and what happened to it — were being consumed by people all around the country.
The elements of grief are the same, no matter what you are grieving. And Chanel is grieving. And the first step she enters is denial. The things she is reading cannot be about her, not really. And that even if it is, she can keep all of this contained, she can control it, she can protect her family from knowing this kind of pain.
Except that she can’t. Because they’ve read the same articles she has. They know the story of Emily Doe, and they don’t know that the stories they’re reading are about their daughter. It’s a secret that is too big for her, so she tells them. And that chips away at that denial just enough.
Chanel: I think it clicked when I told my parents because... because all of the pretending I was doing is not possible when you tell someone who is more grounded in common sense and can see the larger picture. So I think when I told them, that's why I completely broke down. I had been really composed, up until that point, I hadn't cried about it. I hadn't accepted it. And when I saw the way my mom looked at me, it just registered… like, wow, this... this thing happened to me. And then I, like, was not standing up.
Nora: How did she look at you?
Chanel: Um, it was so grave. It was so scary, just totally unflinching. There's so much heaviness in the look. I didn't want to be on the receiving end of the gravity of that look. I wanted my life to be lighthearted and steady and normal, whatever that means. Um, but you know, the fear and, like, devastation and seriousness in her face, she didn't even say that much. Um, yeah... just crumbled everything.
Not long after Chanel told her parents, Lucas — with the sky blue, blueberry blue eyes — came out to visit her. Chanel had left him a drunken voicemail that night, and the police needed a copy of it. But how was she going to ask him for it without sounding odd? Without raising alarm bells for him? Without ruining what they had with the details about this thing that had happened to her?
Chanel: I was acting so fishy, being so weird about getting this voicemail and, like, how important it was because I needed to send it to the detective. So finally, he was just, like, looking at me like what? What is going on? And he's the one who said, you know, “Were you raped?” Like and that… that word is so strong. And even still, I hesitate using it. But he just laid it on the table and I... I didn't have... I still, like I said, could not say those words and I tried to make it seem like, well, it's not a big deal because two people stopped it, it's actually a really cool story. You know what I mean? So, again, I think it's like the people who loved me processed the gravity much faster than I did. Um, and I remember he was sitting at the desk and I was sitting in bed and he just wordlessly crawled into the bed and, like, held onto me. And we just didn't move for many hours.
Emily Doe was born to protect Chanel. Emily Doe exists only in the context of that January night. Her entire existence is limited to what she was wearing, what she drank, what happened to her body. The articles about the assault, and about the ensuing trial, will rehash those details over and over.
It will introduce two new characters: Swedish men who were biking by saw the assault happening and chased down her attacker, holding onto him until the police arrived. The articles will talk about how one of the men wept as he recounted the scene for police. They will also describe her assailant in great detail. They will recap his accomplishments and his plans for the future. They will quote people who know him outside of the context of that evening.
But Emily does not get that same treatment. She can’t. To share any more details about herself means risking Chanel’s anonymity. But Chanel is still a person out in the world. Her existence has been split into two: into Emily, frozen in time, and Chanel, trying to keep living while being continuously pulled into the details of that night over and over and over.
Emily doesn’t read any internet comments. But Chanel does.
He was only 19! She hooked up with a freshman? Doesn’t that make HER the predator?
Bored suburban kids can’t keep it in their pants. Lame.
If she had a boyfriend, why wasn’t he there?
Not trying to blame the victim but something is wrong if you drink yourself to unconsciousness.
Did he give her a roofie? If not, why would any woman get so drunk? I have never allowed myself to get so drunk that I don’t know what I’m doing.
Who are these people, commenting on her hometown newspaper? And how can they read what Chanel read and think these things??
Chanel: And so even when I was grocery shopping, I started feeling paranoid. Like, who can I trust? You know, who has condemned me? Who thinks I'm disgusting? Who thinks I'm stupid and will amount to nothing? Like I was very sad that this was taking place in the town where all of my memories of growing up reside. I remember thinking, I wish we could have the trial in some random state, some neutral territory, because everything that was happening was clouding up all my previous memories and was making my hometown somewhere I could not be.
Right. A trial. By now, you might have already figured out who Chanel is. Who Emily was built to protect. You might be thinking, yeah, I remember the guy’s name. I remember the judge’s name… I remember the verdict. That sentencing.
But we’re not going to talk about any of that. We’re not going to say those names. Because this is the story of Chanel and Emily. Two identical strangers — one frozen in time, one out and about in the world — experiencing the effects of this kind of anonymity. Imagine for a moment being a fly on the wall while everyone examines the worst night of your life. That’s Chanel — walking through a hometown where everyone knows what happened to Emily, but only her parents, sister and Lucas know that she is Emily. Living in a world where everyone on the internet can form an opinion about an anonymous young woman they’ve never met, completely oblivious to the fact that she can see those comments and internalize them.
We will be right back.
We’re back. Chanel has been forced into an identity crisis — one where she walks around pretending to be the same person she always has been while hiding a version of herself that is frozen in time on a January night.
Chanel: Six months after the assault, I left my job and moved to Providence to take a single art class. And that was enough of a reason for me to move, because I knew that's what I needed to do. I needed to create, and I needed products of my creations in front of me to show like, OK, I can make things in the world, even though so much is being taken at the moment. After that, um, Lucas returned to school for his second year and we drove to Philly. I moved in with him and I just thought, oh, I'll just be here until the trial. And then the trial ended up, like, everything kept getting postponed. So I ended up being there all the way through his graduation, because that's how long it took.
What Chanel is describing here are several years of living a double life. Years of living with her boyfriend, meeting new friends who know her only as the Chanel she presents to them… friends who think nothing of the fact that she flies back to her hometown… who have no idea that she is flying home to defend the anonymous girl — Emily Doe — that they’ve all read about.
Chanel holds this secret right out in the open. In court, her assailant’s attorney brings in character witnesses to humanize him.
Chanel: His ex-girlfriend and his high school French teacher and high school swimming coach were all allowed to testify. That a whole day was devoted to letting them tell stories about him was so fascinating to me, because I thought we're supposed to be sticking to the facts of that evening, and here they are talking about how he helped them move and, like, loves Chipotle and, you know, helped these young kids as a lifeguard.
Chanel’s humanity is not on display at court. She doesn’t get up and talk about her standup routine, or about how she unloads the dishwasher. Her job at the trial is to protect Emily.
Chanel: You know, it's very dangerous to laugh. Even when I was doing standup, I was very scared that if it got back to the courtroom, you know, they would say this is evidence she's not truly suffering. If in her downtime, she's going and laughing and making inappropriate jokes on the stage, you know, that's one way for them to discredit me, to show inconsistencies in what sadness or true trauma is supposed to look like. And um, so I felt fear for expressing any joy. I felt I would be punished if I laughed. You are forced to sort of shut down and be an emotionless person and ask, I mean, answer directly what is asked of you and nothing more than that.
I felt like Emily Doe was never allowed to grow. She was, like, anything I liked would be frivolous and irrelevant to the case. You know, I was... existed in a very physical state. You know, the details they examined about me were the inches of an abrasion on my butt cheek. That's what they were looking at on the projector instead of, you know, what breakfast foods I enjoy.
It was lonely being Emily. And it was lonely to be Chanel. Because that flatness of Emily — returning to a play where she isn’t even allowed the dimensions of GRASS — flattens Chanel, too.
Chanel: And I felt myself disappearing. Like, when I would leave court, I genuinely felt, like, blank and empty. And I would just sleep and feel disoriented and not remember what I even liked about myself or what I did have to offer. I completely stopped drawing and writing. It was really scary because what they were doing was working. And I remember thinking like, well, what extracurriculars can I, can I share? What is valuable? I stood at the front of the courtroom and they had this huge white piece of paper that they had used to create a timeline. And I had to write in times that I made calls, blah, blah, blah in front of the jury. And I, in the book, I say, I wish the jury could yell out animals and objects that I could draw in front of them and show them that I can make any image come to life. You know, I love illustrating and I can do it from my own mind endlessly, like… I was so craving the chance to show them who I was.
There’s a very popular movie from the ‘70s that honestly I wasn’t allowed to watch, and the message of it is basically, “change so a boy will like you,” and the name of that movie is “Grease.” And there is no way I would have thought to draw a parallel between Emily and Chanel and the plot of “Grease”… but Chanel did think of it. It’s a parallel she drew as an adult, looking back on how as a child, the movie was so confusing for her.
Chanel: When I watched “Grease” and Sandy emerges in the end in that leather jumpsuit and heels, I literally thought she was a different person, that John Travolta was cheating on nice Sandy with this random woman who he had never been introduced to. And then she, like, runs through the carnival with all of Sandy's friends, and nobody cares that Sandy is gone and is not even being acknowledged. I was so angry at all of the characters in that movie and so bitter and sad that Sandy had been dismissed and that the movie just ended like that. That's literally what I thought for so long, until my parents explained to me that that was the same Sandy. Just because her persona was so different and the way she carried herself was so different, I could not recognize her in both of those people.
And so I compare that to how I was being portrayed in the trial. You know, the way... the way the defense attorney was like, well, you partied in college, I wanted to be like everybody partied in college, but I couldn't. You know, and... I think... it was fascinating to me that Emily only existed on that night, and they were doing this whole trial about the harm inflicted that night, but no one was calculating that I was a person with a life that was continuing to suffer. That there is an aftermath to the trauma, that each time I am returning, there is more damage being done. And I felt in the end that the judge had failed to calculate the aftermath of the trauma. He treated it as a singular incident on one night that happened to a character rather than a human who has been trapped inside a case for a year and a half. And that was fascinating to me, that Emily was frozen, and that the facts of the case were just simple and scientific rather than all the internal damage that's unfolding as the case went on.
I mean, I, I would look out from the testimony stand into the empty seats in the courtroom and have to actively remind myself: You have friends, but they don't know that you're here. I think what killed me was that there's this myth of a perfect victim, and I always felt like Emily had to be good, had to be polite, had to have a clean track record. And I never liked that because I wanted to say, no, I'm... Emily belongs to a life where I have had a lot to drink many nights. You know, it felt always like the defense attorney would say, you know, how many times have you blacked out? And then if I said many times, there would be this aha moment where he'd say, “Oh, this is why she deserved what happened. Oh, you've had casual sex before? Aha. Now we've pinned you.” And I wanted to be able to just show up one day and say, “I've had a messy life. I've made many mistakes. But all of that can be true AND I don't deserve to be hurt by this stranger.”
Chanel makes this Sandy switch over and over again, flying back and forth between her personalities, her cities. It is the worst time machine of all time. It has sucked in her parents… her sister… her boyfriend. As Chanel, she operates out in the real world like she always has but is forced to keep a huge secret from people who care about her. The more people who know, the more at risk Emily becomes. As Emily, she has to stay in a perpetual loop of the worst night of her life. To show anything else would risk Chanel.
Chanel: I was quote unquote protected, but I was still extremely exposed. And... you know, the fact that I never had control over who could see pictures of my body. The fact that the courtroom was open to the public, you know, while I would testify, law students would come in and, like, observe and then if they were hungry, they would leave. And meanwhile, I'm just bawling. You know, I had... I still... my name was private, but literally everything else in my life felt like it was on display. And the little six letters of my first name were the only things that I had to keep to myself. So I held onto them very tightly.
In June, the sentencing is handed down. Emily is sealed up in documents and boxes. She’s referenced in news articles the same way she’s always been referenced — not as the multi-faceted human whose entire life has been upended for over a year, but as the anonymous nobody that this happened to.
And Chanel is still out there, still moving through the world with just a handful of people knowing her dual identities.
Chanel: It's odd how, like, misery can make you fearless, like even standup comedy. I remember thinking, if you've testified, you can get on a stage. And the worst thing that happens is that you bomb and who cares? Genuinely. You know, like in court, there were really high stakes and it was very scary if you messed up or if we didn't get the verdict we wanted. I don't know what that alternate reality would have looked like. And so... you know, I think I've also... I never feel stupid, like, I... if I don't know something, like when I began the court process, I didn't know so much of the language that went on inside the courtroom, and I thought that meant that I was stupid, when really it meant of course I didn't know these things, I didn't study them. But I will learn them with time. If I was able to adapt to that environment, I can adapt to ones out here. I can learn how to use Photoshop. So I just think, I just think I've… I've learned to be so gentle with myself. I've learned to be really patient. I don't set deadlines for when I'm allowed to feel things and when I'm supposed to stop feeling them. I have many times of weakness now. I am much more in tune with how I'm feeling.
That happens with therapy. It happens with yoga. It happens with paying the same kind of attention to herself and her needs that Emily didn’t get. That Chanel didn’t and couldn’t give her… but can try to give to herself.
Chanel: It's sort of odd to find out that you can live without fully inhabiting your body. You know, you look at people, you're like, yeah, you're inside your body, duh. You're walking around. But it's possible to... to move like everyone else and get on the bus and go to sleep, but still not feel like you have fully moved into your body, you're not settled in it, you're not fully conducting it. And I think... I've had to slowly come back into myself like muscle by muscle and doing yoga... I could feel myself getting stronger. When I breathed, I could feel oxygen moving into, like, different little channels and felt myself expanding. And I felt like I was... I was like filling myself back up to my perimeters again, whereas before I was like a little curled up thing within a 5 foot 8 body. Now, when I sit and when I speak, I'm fully there. You know, I'm like very aware of each part of me. You know, before I had disconnected all the signals because I didn't want to see the abrasions on my skin. I didn't want to feel anything that was happening. Now I am always listening to what's going on with me, even during interviews, like if something is coming up in my gut, I can feel my, ya know, throat closing. I can recognize when I'm wrestling something down inside of me, when I need to take a breath, when I need to stretch. Um, so that being present and sort of, you know, having myself open to all the signals from my head to my toes is what's different.
Remember earlier, when Chanel talked about the suicides at her high school...and the shooting at her college? How they were adjacent to her, but didn’t feel like hers? The assault is hers...
Chanel: And... when I was assaulted, I... I felt like, oh, I can… I'm just going to tuck this away too. And when I went to therapy, you know, we obviously began talking about formative memories. And my therapist was like, “So... you've lived through multiple suicides, mass murder and rape.” And I was like, well, when you put it like that, it sounds like a really terrible storyline.
That is a terrible storyline. And it’s not the final part of the story. In June 2016, Chanel decides to share her victim impact statement anonymously on Buzzfeed. The words of Emily Doe — and the effect that night had on her — go viral. Bonkers viral, like 18 million reads on Buzzfeed.
But it’s anonymous, so even people who know Chanel personally — who have hugged her or moved their yoga mat over to make room for her or have sent her birthday cards — are reading this without knowing that Emily Doe is Chanel.
Chanel is still reading comments from strangers — other victims and survivors — sending Emily not their judgment, but their comfort. Their thanks. That time machine is still running. Emily and Chanel are still two different people. With every person that Chanel tells the truth to, with every person she trusts with her story, she is bringing those two versions of herself closer together. And this is a hard thing to do. Because what Chanel is doing isn’t just integrating her own identities. She’s affecting the version of Chanel that other people know and love. She’s forcing people to reconcile that the person they know is also this other person that they’ve read about.
Chanel: I think I'm seen as someone with a sunny personality, who's generally in a good mood. And they don't understand how something this dark and hostile could have been my world for so long. And I... I actually think it was really important for people to have to be forced to reconfigure my identity and to question… you know, just to realize you never know what someone is going through. And in a twisted way, I sometimes feel lucky that I was forced to go to therapy and forced to confront everything, because honestly, if it hadn't been in the news, if it hadn't become a case, I would’ve chosen to keep it to myself for decades maybe. And I understand why people do. So I hope people understand how capable we are of concealing these things and how vital it is for the world to be more trauma-informed and create spaces where we feel comfortable enough to disclose what's happened and trust that people will still be able to see us as full humans.
There are lots of ways to approach this story — this part of the story, as in, the part that fits into a podcast. And it is very easy to stick a happy ending on it. To tell you about how Chanel released a memoir that has burned the bestseller charts. That she’s met Oprah and toured the world and accepted awards on big stages. That is all true.
Chanel: But it's not like I'm emerging and ready to hit the scene and inspire the masses. You know, I still have heightened levels of anxiety around all of this. I can still return to old mindsets that are really harmful. But the difference is that I can recognize when it's happening now. And then I'm not hard on myself when it does happen. So… yeah, there's just no destination. Like, there's no final repair. You just continue to seek out the things you enjoy doing. You have a heightened sense of appreciation for ordinary life. You know, the fact that my whole family doesn't have to revolve around this case anymore is a blessing. That we can have boring conversations or boring arguments is incredible and is not lost on me anymore. I do have days where I'm... I'm not optimistic and I think, is it a lie to be? Am I misguiding people? You know, or I feel like I'm failing them if I can't keep myself healthy or if I can't show them that, like, you get to own your life in the end. But then I also think I'm, I'm still a human who has human limitations and I've, I've also started to treat my mind like my tummy, like what I feed it. I think about what I'm feeding it. I think about even if you love eating good things, you can only eat so much. So even if I love hearing supportive messages, there's only so much I can take in at one time. I need to figure out when to step away from the world and process by myself, rather than always being in the world and being on the receiving end of other people's projections, you know what I mean?
When we talk about justice for survivors, we don’t hear enough about the cost of their experience. The years Chanel spent living this double life. The cost of therapy. Of processing your trauma. The cost of life force and time, which you never, ever get back.
We see the after — the Oprah, the bestseller list — but we don’t see that ongoing during. And Chanel is still in the “during” in a lot of ways.
Her identity is obviously out there now. She wrote that book. Her name is on it. The name of the book is “Know My Name.” And from this point on, there will never be another story about Emily Doe. There will only be Chanel Miller. But that doesn’t mean that Emily is gone. Not really. There are aspects of Emily — that good victim — that still show up.
Emily is still a part of Chanel. The way that playing grass in the school play is still a part of her. The way that all of us are the culmination of all of our life experiences: the horrifying and the humbling and the happy. I overuse alliteration.
Emily doesn’t exist out in the world, but she still exists somewhere, tucked inside of Chanel along all of the other versions of Chanel that have ever existed. Somewhere near the Chanel who asked a boy to a dance with a toilet paper roll, the Chanel who played grass… the Chanel who now will ask for a carafe of half and half at the coffee shop if she needs it. The Chanel who is an outspoken advocate for victims and survivors of sexual assault is also still shaking the impacts of being Emily.
Chanel: I mean I still have that court filter where everything I do or wear or go, I think about all the questions you could ask about it and all the different ways it could be portrayed. And it doesn't matter what I'm actually doing, but I think about all the ways it could be misconstrued or twisted in a way where I could be made to look bad. And that's really dangerous because all of that is out of my control. And it's scary because in court you expect it to be civil and to be focused on the truth when really it was so much about manipulation and word games. It was really scary to see how absurd it could become. How really anything could be said. That was scary, that there are no rules and that the truth can be drowned out. So... yeah, when I... when I do things now, I can hear all of the questions that would be asked. And I have to choose to dismiss them. So I still experience them. It's hard to completely eliminate that mindset of having this invisible jury in my mind judging everything. But I can also choose to not give it power and to continue to do whatever I wanted to do.
Nora: What kind of questions are you imagining?
Chanel: I mean, even just like if I'm wearing something like, “Well, if something happens to my body, are these the clothes I want to be found in?” I mean, that's a very dark example. But it's true, when I select clothing. And... if I want to go on like a long drive by myself, if something happens, I'll say like, “Well, what were you doing? Where were you going? What books did you have in the car? What does her notebook say?” You know, the fact that it's not enough to just like want to do things because you enjoy them or because you feel like it. Like in court every action demanded a reason. And I also had to... I had to disclose everything in the hours surrounding the assault, right? So every conversation I had, every person I interacted with, every photo I took were all submitted. And so I think about that now. You know, like if they were to take these photos — I mean, I took a lot of silly photos that night, not even bad, but just with my eyes crossed, looking extra ridiculous. And I remember feeling deeply ashamed and regretting that I had been silly because I looked partially insane. Even though everyone has a right to look ridiculous in their photos, it's, it's crazy how very simple life things became what could make or break this case.
When Chanel was growing up, she said there was this sense from her parents that they were waiting on Chanel and her sister to tell THEM who they were going to grow up to be. Chanel would fight for that definition on a scale unimaginable to any child, or parent.
Nora: Who is Chanel now?
Chanel: Great question. Hmmm. 2020. I'm about to get a haircut. That's gonna be big.
Nora: Are you getting bangs? I'll intervene if so, okay?
Chanel: Not that big. love that I know that I can fight now. I did not identify as someone who could fight before. I love that I'm not ashamed of what I stand for. I love how clearly I see things. You know, when I was assaulted, I... I actually drew this little comic in my notebook of me sitting half naked with one tit out, looking up at all these people on these huge horses who are saying things like, “What kind of Smirnoff did you have? Why were you wearing a dress in January?” And the little caption was like, “Get off your high horses and help me.” And I think in these cases so often we turn directly to questions. Victims don't say what happened because they wonder if they will even be helped when they have disclosed what happened. Assault is often not even treated as an injury, and your credibility and your protection have to be earned rather than just being inherent.
So knowing all of that, I am here to be someone who cares immediately and to teach people that we need to care and say, I'm going to help you. Someone shouldn't have to prove their worth in order to be loved and cared for and protected. And, I know that now. I know it for myself. I know it for anyone who is going through anything. Because I know that things don't just float away, that they continue to inform us in the present, but we get to choose how it informs us. And I continue to, to choose and feel good about my choices and who I am now.
Nora: Who is Emily to you now?
Chanel: Emily, I feel an immense amount of softness when I talk about the verdict being read in court when the jury was saying, yes, he's guilty. Yes, yes, yes. I felt so much sadness because I felt like I had abandoned Emily. I had sort of cast her off early. I'd become all the voices that chastised her and questioned her. And I thought, I will never do that again. I am not ashamed of her anymore.
Geoffrey Lamar Wilson