From survivor to activist, Chanel Miller is taking toxic sports culture to task

Seven months ago, Chanel Miller was "Emily Doe" -- a faceless woman who was sexually assaulted by a Stanford swimmer in 2015. Since publishing her book, "Know My Name," in 2019, she has emerged as an activist propelling the #MeToo movement forward. Danielle St. Laurent for ESPN; hair and makeup throughout by Elizabeth Yoon for IGK and Kosas

CHANEL MILLER AND I walk into Unnameable Books in Brooklyn on a frigid February afternoon, just five days after her move to New York City. We've been ceaselessly chatting since we met a few hours earlier, like two long-lost childhood Asian friends tripping over words trying to make up for the distance. It was an instant connection from the moment our eyes met, and she said, hugging me, "Thank you so much for driving from Connecticut to hang out with me." And just like that, my monthslong worries about meeting the person who lit the fire of the #MeToo movement with her victim impact statement and then her international bestseller, "Know My Name," faded away.

She's telling me about a new tutor she found in the city to help her brush up on her Chinese. "I need to send letters to my gong gong [an informal Chinese word for grandfather] now that we have a long-distance relationship and he can't cook for me whenever he wants," she says. I tell her I send my grandmother in India voice notes in Tamil once a week, updating her about my life. "My mum tells me she keeps listening to it over and over again," I say. Miller, 27, holds her heart and smiles.

It's a quiet day in the bookstore, and the browsers don't give her a second look. Outside the context of a book reading or an award ceremony -- or the occasional social media direct messages like, "Hey, did I just see you at yoga?" from overenthusiastic fans -- the newly minted public figure goes unnoticed. "An Asian woman amidst the chaos of New York," Miller says. And that semi-fame works perfectly for her. She can disappear into her cocoon when things get overwhelming.

We spot her book within seconds, tucked among works of contemporary nonfiction. Miller decides to sign a copy of her book inconspicuously. She presents a box of colored pens from her tote. She draws a turtle -- she'd earlier told me she felt like a turtle that day, quietly strong but vulnerable; I told her I felt like a rooster, anxious and loud -- and she writes, "Spend time with the people you love today." She signs her name and quietly slips the book back onto the shelf.

Seven months ago, Miller was a nobody. She was "Emily Doe," the woman who was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner, a Stanford swimmer, five years ago. She was thrown into America's criminal justice system at age 22, without any idea that it was about to swallow her whole and spit her out like it did uncountable others. She had to fight for her humanity, her words, her reputation -- even though she was violated that night near the Kappa Alpha fraternity house at Stanford. For years, she'd had no say in what she did with her time or how she presented herself.

Then, in September 2019, four and a half years after living her life as Emily Doe, she came out. She published "Know My Name," landing on the New York Times Best Seller list and in USA Today's Best-Selling Books roundup. She did an interview with "60 Minutes," her first one after she decided to shed her anonymity.

Since then, she's been on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" and a guest on "Oprah Winfrey's SuperSoul Sunday," each interview she gives more potent than the previous one. She was a 2019 Time 100 Next honoree and won the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award in autobiography. She sat next to Gabrielle Union at this year's Vanity Fair Oscar party, and according to Miller, Union leaned over to her and said, "We are so f---ing proud of you." Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of "The Sympathizer," noted Miller is "a powerful model for women, especially to young Asian American women, and an inspiration to many." And after movie producer Harvey Weinstein was convicted of two felony sex crimes in late February, Miller was featured in The New York Times -- alongside activists like Ashley Judd, Dawn Dunning and Tarana Burke -- as a key figure in the #MeToo movement. She went on a two-month book tour across the U.S. and the United Kingdom, and by sharing her journey, she gave readers and survivors a space to cry, laugh and open up about their trauma.

On Jan. 18, 2015, two men found Miller unconscious behind a dumpster near the fraternity, with Turner, then 19, on top of her. When Turner tried to flee, the two men caught him and held him down as they waited for police. Turner was indicted on five charges of sexual assault on Jan. 28, and on Feb. 2, he pleaded not guilty to all of them. The case went to trial on March 14, 2016. And on this date -- March 30 -- four years ago, Turner was convicted on three charges of felony sexual assault. In June 2016, he was sentenced to six months in prison followed by three years of probation. The leniency of the sentence sparked public outrage. (The judge for the case, Aaron Persky, was a lacrosse player at Stanford in the 1980s. Persky was recalled in 2018 -- the first judge in 80 years to be recalled in the state of California.)

Following the sentencing, BuzzFeed reached out to Miller to publish her victim impact statement untouched. When Turner was released from prison in three months -- an early release for "good behavior" -- four years ago, Miller wrote in her diary over and over again, "I am worth more than three months," her anger spilling into her journal.

In many ways, Miller's continued fight forced the sports community -- including fans, organizations and the athletes themselves -- to confront itself. In particular, it held a mirror up to how society processes an athlete's ills and complications. Miller's activism pushed the public to examine how we value bodies that increase the bottom line over those that don't.

WE ARE SITTING in the dining room of the spacious Airbnb Miller's renting while she's looking for a place in New York City. The apartment looks like it was designed for her. Books line the living room shelves from ceiling to floor. "The mural in the bathroom is crazy. You have to check it out," she says. I peek inside -- it's a green forest-themed tapestry with illustrated monkeys, parrots and other animals perched on trees.

She has moved to New York to be closer to the publishing industry and the bookworms. California will always be home -- where she grew up with her Chinese American writer mother, her retired therapist father, her younger sister and her grandfather -- but it was time for a change. "It's also nice that New York has seasons. It makes you stop and take stock now and then," she says.

She unpacks the oversized bagel she bought when we walked her 12-year-old dog, Mogu (Chinese for mushroom), earlier that afternoon. She opens her mouth wide and smacks her jaws together, showing me the gap between her upper and lower teeth. "See! They don't touch, so whatever I eat, it's everywhere around me," she says. "I am eating in front of you. It means I trust you," she adds, and smiles.

The word "trust" hangs in the room like a warm light. We both know the significance of it in this setting. For a long time, Miller found it hard to open up to the media. In her past, journalists wrote about her assault in the same breath as the number of laps Turner could swim. What he'd lose as a swimmer always came before what he did to her. "The nuance, that's what I craved in all those stories. There was never nuance," she says.

BuzzFeed was the first news outlet to pleasantly surprise her when it asked to publish her 7,200-word victim impact statement. It retained every word. The statement was read 11 million times across the world in four days and has more than 18 million reads in total.

She'd first read the statement in closed court, addressing Brock Turner directly as Emily Doe.

"You don't know me, but you've been inside me, and that's why we're here today," she began.

"I never want to become [Emily Doe] again, and whenever I talk about this, I scoot a little closer," Miller tells me. "I know how to go and come back and not be completely consumed by that feeling, but it is scary. That's why you're never fully healed, because you still possess that feeling, it's just not active all the time. For the first eight months, if you'd bring it up, I would scream at you, 'Don't you dare bring that close to me. I don't want to talk about this or acknowledge it. It has no business in my life. Get that out of my face.'"

The People v. Turner case preceded the broader #MeToo movement by about a year -- in a lot of ways acting as a catalyst for the movement. Miller's letter helped survivors come out and share their stories. Miller, as Doe, watched women like Aly Raisman, Rose McGowan and Christine Blasey Ford hold people in positions of power responsible. She watched them redefine the meaning of the word "victim." She watched from the audience as her name, "Emily Doe," was announced as one of the Glamour Women of the Year award recipients in 2016. When Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced Larry Nassar -- the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State doctor -- to 40 to 175 years in prison in 2018, Miller was moved by the unwavering respect the judge had shown the victims.

"We don't want these stories. But they will outrun us," Miller says. "They won't go away. You have to accept that the story's not going anywhere until you address it. And that it is corroding you from the inside out."

Two years ago, Miller started writing her book in earnest. In her first draft, she didn't talk about her family and close friends. She didn't think anyone deserved to know. She felt this intense duty to protect them (the reason we didn't talk to them for this story). And then, little by little, she realized that the book gave her the ability to integrate the story -- her assault -- into the greater account of her life rather than keeping it as a separate piece.

"I was learning to trust the world again too, right?" she says. Miller wrote in the confines of her bedroom and imagined only one faceless person reading her words. Presenting it to the entire world was a completely different beast.

After the book was published, people sent her notes, shared their stories with her on Instagram, sent her goodies from around the world. She'd mentioned in her statement that her grandma had given her chocolate in court, and a woman in Ireland read that, walked to her local post office and mailed gold-wrapped chocolate bars to Miller in San Francisco. "Doesn't make sense to me, you know what I mean?" she says. In China, where the #MeToo movement was banned, people came up with this rice bowl emoji, which depicted the character "Mi" in Chinese, and a bunny emoji, which depicted "Tu," in hopes of not being censored on social platforms. "We're all feeling something similar, and we're all sending our signals into the world," Miller says as she gestures the Chinese characters with her fingers.

Santa Clara Deputy District Attorney Alaleh Kianerci, who worked hard to protect Miller's anonymity during the Turner case, had initially encouraged her not to come out. But when she watched Miller go through the cathartic process of writing about her trauma, she saw how much the anonymity was weighing on her.

"In some ways, she almost had to work harder to maintain that anonymity and that duality of who she was versus who she wanted to present to the world," Kianerci said. "Once she finally came out and announced her identity, it was extremely liberating."

Emily Doe's victim impact statement acted as a building block for the #MeToo movement. Chanel Miller's book serves as the North Star guiding the movement forward.

MILLER SITS ACROSS from me at the dining table, her hair held up in a half-bun. She'd recently chopped off 10 inches of her hair and donated it to Children with Hair Loss. (The nonprofit organization provides human hair replacements at no cost to children and young adults facing medically related hair loss.) I ask her about Aquilina and what she felt when she watched the 156 women and girls testify against Nassar in Lansing, Michigan, over the course of seven days in 2018. She looks away from me and cups her face with her palms as the memory comes rushing back. The afternoon sun shines in through the kitchen window, framing her face. She wipes away a single tear. "I cry all the time," she says, and the tears fall more freely now. "I catch myself when I cry. I always get hit at different times." For a long time, it was when she talked about the graphic details of the assault. Mogu barks, a protective yelp as she notices her mum's melancholy.

"[Aquilina] set the standard for how we should be treated, respected and listened to," Miller says. "And the way she did it, it was so set in stone, like, 'This is the rule now. Anything less will not be acceptable in my courtroom. And this is the base level moving forward. We will never sink below that line.' I didn't even know you could expect that much for yourself, that you could live that way, that you could ask for more.

"That sense of protection, it's just not something we're given often, especially in those spaces."

The day Turner was sentenced to six months in prison, Aquilina watched from her office in Lansing, speechless. The punishment didn't fit the crime and none of it made sense to her, and she'd been a judge in Michigan for 12 years then. Crime has a ripple effect, sentencing has a ripple effect. It's supposed to protect the victim -- and by extension the community -- and give people the courage to come forward with their story, to know they will be taken care of. And that this won't be repeated in their society.

"When the victims are not listened to ... and when the judge does not give a punishment proportional to the crime, the judge is not responding to the community and the oath they took," Aquilina explains.

"Our gavels are not just for punishment, but they're also for healing, and so what we say to the victim, how we treat the victim, how we impose the sentence affects [everything]."

The year Miller was born -- 1992 -- and the year Turner was convicted on three charges of sexual assault -- 2016 -- had one thing in common. They were both the Year of the Monkey. So Miller believed that even though the beginning of the year was devastating, it was going to get better. She drew little monkeys in her notes and diaries and on every little paper she could find in court to remind herself that it was her year and it was going to end well.

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law on Sept. 30, 2016, that imposes a mandatory minimum sentence for the assault of an unconscious or intoxicated person. That was in direct rebuke of the sentence given to Turner. Two years later, the judge, Persky, was recalled.

"The probation officer weighed the fact that he has surrendered a hard-earned swimming scholarship," she wrote in her victim impact statement. "How fast Brock swims does not lessen the severity of what happened to me, and should not lessen the severity of his punishment. ... The fact that Brock was an athlete at a private university should not be seen as an entitlement to leniency, but as an opportunity to send a message that sexual assault is against the law regardless of social class." And with that, she opened up an important conversation in the sports community.

Turner's athletic abilities became a part of the case. Because of who he was and the privilege he had, the conversation shifted from "what he did to her" to "what he was going to lose" because of her, Kianerci says.

"In some ways, [Chanel] almost had to work harder to maintain that anonymity and that duality of who she was versus who she wanted to present to the world." Alaleh Kianerci

Miller saw, during the trial and afterward, that athletes had an inherent sense of belonging. It's implied that they play a crucial role in a team, in society, in a community and in an institution, whereas a victim appears out of nowhere.

"[The victim is a] nameless individual who doesn't fit anywhere into the upward trajectory of the athlete's story," Miller says.

"[An athlete's] time is measured by how many games or meets they're missing, and there's this urgency to get them back and make up for time wasted," she says. But for her, there was a sense that she was floating. Her time was taken without thought or worry, the focus instead on figuring out how Turner's life would proceed.

That brought us to the topic of athletes and how their legacies are talked about -- and Kobe Bryant. "For athletes, the body is holy. It's the vehicle of their success," Miller says, speaking broadly. "And that kind of respect around inhabiting your body and taking care of your physical self should be extended to anyone they interact with.

"Their bodies don't get to exist on pedestals while ours are discarded or regarded as less than because our bodies don't generate revenue."

Gayle King received death threats after bringing up the 2003 rape allegations against Bryant, a week after he died in a helicopter crash, during a February interview with former WNBA player Lisa Leslie. "How Gayle King was treated was not OK, the death threats," Miller says. "That to me communicates that violence against women is tolerated should she disrespect the reputation of a man. It's scary. So many of us are scared into silence, rightfully so."

Miller was assaulted on Stanford University's grounds by a swimmer on a scholarship. Baylor University came under scrutiny when university officials failed to act against alleged rapes and other assaults mostly by Baylor football players from 2011 to 2016. The Nassar assaults were not an isolated issue at Michigan State. In the 2018-19 academic year alone, more than 4,000 undergraduate women were sexually assaulted there, according to results of an MSU survey published in November 2019. Every new report of sport-related assault is triggering for Miller.

The sports community has largely decided that athletes are elite bodies on a field and not flawed humans who should be held accountable, explains activist Brenda Tracy, who was gang-raped by Oregon State football players in 1998. When athletes get into a little bit of trouble in high school, it's pushed under the rug. "We don't want to ruin his chances to go play D-I sport, right?" Tracy says. That fuels a culture where the end product can become violence as athletes make their way to college and then to professional sports.

"Why are we not giving athletes consequences and boundaries? Why are we not setting expectations for them?" Tracy asks.

She adds, "This is why Chanel's voice is so important -- it's shifting the way we talk about athletes and their actions."

MILLER SPREADS OUT three tarot cards in front of her on her dining room table -- one reading for the past, one for the present and one for the future. I get the guidebook ready. I'd told her earlier that I read tarot cards, and the readings prod me to be more mindful of how I approach the day. She clasps her hands together -- her bright yellow nail polish flickering in the light, making the gesture look more theatrical -- and says, "Oh my god, would you read my tarot?"

She draws a reversed King of Swords for the present, and the reading says, "The King of Swords reversed can appear in a tarot reading when you are brimming with energy and motivation, but cannot effectively channel and release this energy."

"That's exactly what's happening," she says. Miller pays attention to the details in the cards, pointing out the fallen swords and the birds. "There are a thousand things I want to do and can do, but I also have obligations to what I've just done, the book I just made, and then I just need to think of one project I'd like to accomplish and stick with it and go for it," she says.

For a long time, Miller did not have the luxury of being treated as a full -- and evolving -- human being. Her identity was minimized to "victim." So she's created a space for herself to be an illustrator, a comedian, a writer, a speaker. Growing up, she watched her mom write in Chinese -- drawing characters, a combination of lines. She fell in love with line drawings. Organic lines weren't straight or neat. There was life inside of a line. She processed things in images, so she always wrote in visual metaphors. Even with book signings, maybe she couldn't write to each person to say how much it meant that they'd given a home to her book, but she could draw a little animal to say "I'll give you this little thing I've created; these are my offerings," she says while gesturing to give me an imaginary book.

"You can take from me all you want, and I am still going to create ... that's my power," she says.

Even when she's not actively creating, she's creating. And that's how "I Am With You," a five-minute narrated short film, came together. She put together all of the images she drew while writing the book. "When you're assaulted, an identity is given to you. It threatens to swallow up everything you plan to do and be," she narrates as her images shift. The illustrations are simple black and white line drawings, but the message is far more complex.

Apart from art, humor is a big part of how Miller processes life. "In court, with humor, you risk undermining what you're saying and being accused of taking things lightly, but that is not true at all -- a lot of this is darkly funny because it's so absurd," she says. "What's funny is what's absurd. And so much of this, when you step back ... what even is this?"

She stood up onstage in Philadelphia and did a stand-up routine. After spending hours in court being interrogated, stepping before a microphone and controlling the room felt foreign and invigorating to Miller. "My ability to command quiet, to create space for my voice, is a good feeling."

"Their bodies don't get to exist on pedestals while ours are discarded or regarded as less than because our bodies don't generate revenue." Chanel Miller

Her third and future tarot card was the Queen of Swords. "The Queen of Swords knows that you're a truth seeker," the card reveals. "You're open to hearing the thoughts and opinions of others, but ultimately you filter that information to decipher what is true and what is not."

"When interacting with others, you will not tolerate mistruths or excessive fluff," the guidebook concludes.

"I will not tolerate fluff. How crazy. This is who I've become," Miller says.

What does this card mean in terms of her future, I ask her, and she promptly says, "My mind goes to: How can I create art that fuels activism? How do I create images that nourish people or give them entryway into this issue?"

She's been getting offers on a lot of projects, but she wants to make sure her next project is impactful.

It's mid-February, right around the time coronavirus outbreaks are reported in South Korea and Iran, with France reporting a death, the first in Europe. The Trump administration has restricted travel from China, and Americans are starting to feel wary about what COVID-19 means for the U.S.'s future. Miller and I chat about the microaggressions (and some not so micro) Asian Americans are facing post-coronavirus outbreak, with many calling it the "Chinese virus." I tell her about a conversation I had with a white man in Newport, Rhode Island, the previous week. He sat next to my boyfriend and me, and after asking for my name, said, "You don't have coronavirus, do you?" as he giggled uneasily. Miller's eyes go wide, and then she gets a knowing, disappointed look on her face. "A modern excuse for racism or discrimination. It's so sad that there's that layer to it. It's almost like excusable racism," she says. "I have so many anecdotes like that where you're not going to start a fire over any one of them, but collectively, they're putting you in your place. And that place is not in a position of respect or power.

"I am going to be writing about this -- look out for it."

To her, every voice matters. It is clear how she views herself in the broader lens of society: as an activist. And the world is taking notice. "The question is, how many times were people, like Miller, not heard?" Aquilina says. "The beautiful thing about her is she's giving those people voice, recognition and value. She's saying, 'I know I am valuable, and you are too.' She's taking that as a strength and giving others a platform, which is what the #MeToo movement is about."

"You walk the earth one time. What are you doing while you're here? What are you going to stand for?" Miller says.

"When we talk about sexual violence, assault and harassment on all levels, to me, you don't get to decide. You don't have a choice. You are a part of it. We're all a part of it. Your choice is how and if you're going to engage. Silence is a stance."