Friday, October 30, 2020

Know My Name, a memoir by Chanel Miller

This riveting account is written by the young woman who was raped by a champion swimmer at Stanford in January, 2015. She leads us step by step through her own awakening to what happened to her, how deeply into her psyche the violation sank, how even now nightmares return, how both the legal system and Stanford University chewed her up and spat her out, making it her task to right herself, to become a recentered and functioning person again.

During the trial of her assailant, she was the one under the microscope. She was isolated, blamed, her actions questioned minutely, every bite and sip taken into account, while his behavior was glossed with “young people, frat party, could be an Olympic swimmer” as though the assault was to be expected and by filing charges she is ruining his life. “One of the greatest dangers of victimhood is the singling out; all of your attributes and anecdotes assigned blame. In court they’ll try to make you believe you are unlike the others, you are different, an exception. You are dirtier, more stupid, more promiscuous. But it’s a trick. The assault is never personal, the blaming is.” 

Every effort to put herself back together is pushing against a tide of anguish, self-loathing, a sense of worthlessness. “My mind is one step behind where it used to be. I call it the lag. Before I was living in real time. Now I evaluate the moment before I can move into it. I am always asking permission, anticipating having to present myself to an invisible jury, answering questions before a defense. When I reach for a piece of clothing, the first thing I think is, “What will they think if I wear this?” When I go anywhere I think, “Will I be able to explain why I am going?” If I post a photo I think, “If this were submitted as evidence, would I look too silly, my shoulders too bare?” The time I spend questioning what I’m doing, turning things over and talking myself back to normalcy, has become the toll.”

Chanel Miller, like her mother, has a future as a writer – her ability to make real for the reader her treacherous path, is phenomenal. And yes, she gives us the whole person she was before this assault, and the person she reconstructs from the shattering. Stanford University built a small garden area where she had been assaulted behind a dumpster, but would not use the quote she chose for a commemorative plaque. “Keep things positive,” they insisted, as though sexual assault has some soothing context. Then she suggests a more appropriate memorial to victims of sexual assault: “a piece called Construction; each victim is given a nail for every day she has lived with what happened to her. There’s a haphazard pile of wood in the center of campus. Victims can come as they please, hammering nails into the wood. All day people hear the banging, all the drilling and incessant interruption. This is a lot of what surviving is like, trying to carry on and get work done, while your past pounds into you, distracts you, makes it impossible. At the end there’d be an immense wooden structure, randomly nailed together, large, useless, pointy, and dangerous in the middle of everything, people forced to walk around it interrupting the pretty view of the trees. This is also what assault feels like, what to do with this, where to put it, what is it.”

If you have ever wondered why sexual assault victims take years, even decades, to come forward, this book makes all too clear the cost of speaking up in a system stacked in favor of patriarchy: “boys will be boys, what did she expect, if you dress like that you’re waving a red flag in front of a bull, etc etc.” And yet, she is not vengeful: she wants him to admit assaulting her, admit it was wrong, and apologize. She recognizes the futility of hatred and contempt: “Do not become the ones who hurt you. Stay tender with your power. Never fight to injure, fight to uplift. Fight because you know that in this life, you deserve safety, joy, and freedom.”

Friday, October 16, 2020

Weather, by Jenny Offill

This slim novel, told in fragments, covers a lot of emotional and cultural territory. Our narrator, Lizzie, is a librarian at a university – not one of the credentialed people, just a flunky. She has a husband with a PhD in classics who writes code for educational video games from the couch, a six-year-old son, and a mentally ill brother who struggles, as she does, with addiction. And to supplement her meager income, she moonlights as assistant to a woman who tours lecturing about climate change. 

Sound grim? It actually has many laugh-out-loud moments. And Offill’s wry observations are both deadpan and deadly accurate – we can only nod in admiration as she pulls it off: “I remind myself (as I often do) never to become so addicted to drugs or alcohol that I’m not allowed to use them.” – that is, to avoid her brother’s fate. Unlike the relief Lizzie can feel getting toasted in a bar, he is immediately headed down the rabbit-hole with any drug. 

She talks about “the hum in the air” about climate change: “It was the same after 9/11, there was that hum in the air. Everyone walking around talking about the same thing. In stores, in restaurants, on the subway. My friend met me at a diner for coffee. His family fled Iran one week before the Shah fell. He didn’t want to talk about the hum. I pressed him though. Your people have finally fallen into history, he said. The rest of us are already here.” 

She has an emotionally-charged affair with a man she encounters on the bus. They spend a lot of time together, but she is married and he is a journalist, a foreign correspondent, taking some mental R&R before his next assignment. So no sex, but their interactions are the deepest intimacy in the book. 

With all the gaps in its narrative, I fell through sometimes. I’m not sure what precisely is grieving her at the end. But the reading to get there is fine – well-placed words, apt observations, a kind person trying to stay afloat in a hurricane. “And then it is another day and another and another, but I will not go on about this because no doubt you too have experienced time.” 

You really should read this.