A somewhat slender logic: Chanel Miller's Know My Name: A Memoir is one of the most interesting books we've read in the past dozen years.
In fairness, that can't be scored as a compliment. As the random reader may know, we're drawn to the incoherent or illogical text which draws back the curtain on the comical ways our self-impressed species actually attempts to communicate and reason.
Tops among this species are the publishing world's many "Einstein made easy" books. That includes Einstein's own "Einstein made easy" book, which was published in 1916 and is still in print today.
Even when written by Einstein himself, these books never make Einstein easy. In truth, they rarely make his seminal work comprehensible at all.
That said, so what? Reliable critics will insist that these books make Einstein so amazingly easy that even a goldfish, hamster, rabbit or finch will be able to understand his revolutionary work.
Critics advance a silly claim; we readers enjoy the illusion. Every ten years or so, PBS gets in the game.
Einstein-made-easy books have never made Einstein easy, but upper-end figures reliably agree to pretend that they do. According to major anthropologists, a great deal of human "reasoning" follows this general template.
(For us, Professor Goldstein's "Godel made easy" book was a very significant addition to this canon. We never tire of attempts to turn Russell's "set of all sets not members of themselves" into something other than a comical muddle. Goldstein's derisive attitude toward Wittgenstein nicely completed the package.)
We may return to some of these highly instructive upper-end texts next week. For today, we'll only say that Miller's book is such a remarkable example of selective presentation that it strikes us a seminal text for those who seek a fuller understanding of the actual way our human discourse actually works in real life.
Given Miller's youth, and given her status as the victim of a life-altering assault, we don't intend these remarks as a criticism of Miller. In our view, she actually is a "gifted young writer," just as Jennifer Weiner wrote in her review of Know My Name for the New York Times.
Miller is a gifted young writer, but her substantial gifts permit her to craft a remarkably novelized text. High-end reviewers reliably praise every part of the script.
(All too often, the reviewers aren't any older than Miller. The New Yorker assigned this task to Doreen St. Felix; like Miller, she's five years out of college—Brown, class of 2014—and she's highly fluent in the language of upper-end tribal buzztalk. St. Felix noticed none of the endless shortcoming with Miller's remarkably selective text. At upper-end pseudo-progressive sites, such things simply aren't done.)
Miller's well-received text is remarkably selective in a way which ought to be recorded. We may do so next week, even as we recall the instructive, sometimes comical shortcomings of other favorite texts.
For today, it might be best to conclude our review of the logical problem we raised yesterday. That puzzle goes like this:
According to Brock Turner, Miller consented to the sexual conduct for which he was later convicted of criminal assault. Having been blackout drunk at the time, Miller was unable to remember these events.
One party claims there was consent; the other party can't remember anything about the relevant events. At one point in her (well-written) book, Miller articulates the problem this state of affairs created at trial.
The passage begins like this:
MILLER (page 186): Later I would discover that my sister had testified that when she left me briefly that night she thought I'd be fine. The defense was using this to argue that when Brock found me he had every reason to think I was fine too.Uh-oh! At one point, Miller's younger sister had to leave the drunken frat party to help a drunken friend find her way back to her dorm room. (Perhaps skillfully, Miller writes, early in the book, that her sister "left me briefly to take care of a sick friend.")
At any rate, Miller's sister testified that Miller "seemed fine" at this point. This raised the possibility that Turner, like Miller's sister, couldn't tell that Miller was extremely drunk—too drunk, under terms of law, to voice consent.
(Please note: Perhaps skillfully, Miller refers to what Turner may have thought "when he found me." This construction may seem to suggest certain facts not in evidence. Turner said that he and Miller willingly left the party together; Miller said she couldn't remember. Like you, we have no idea.)
You can start to see the shape of the logic at play here. This becomes more clear as the passage continues:
MILLER: Later I would discover that my sister had testified that when she left me briefly that night she thought I'd be fine. The defense was using this to argue that when Brock found me he had every reason to think I was fine too. If they could prove Brock genuinely believed I was coherent enough to consent, they could walk away with the case.Before we continue, a note:
As she does throughout her book, Miller seems to misunderstand a basic point of law here. Presumably, the defense wouldn't have to prove that Turner thought Miller was coherent. Presumably, the defense would simply have to raise that possibility as a matter of "reasonable doubt."
At any rate, the logic here goes like this:
Under perfectly sensible terms of law, a person who is massively drunk can't consent to sex. As such, Person A can't engage in sex with Person B if it's obvious that Person B is too drunk to consent.
This is a perfectly reasonable point of law. It involves a bit of logic which makes perfect sense—until we realize that Stanford had managed to get both young people drunk on the night in question.
On the evening in question, Stanford's amazingly lax behavior hadn't resulted in Miller alone being extremely drunk. Turner was extremely drunk too—and this is where the legal logic may start to wobble a bit.
According to the theory of the case, Miller was too drunk to consent to sexual conduct. (For the record, no intercourse occurred. For that reason, Turner wasn't charged with rape, Miller's persistent use of such language notwithstanding.)
According to sensible legal logic, Miller was too drunk to give consent. But Turner, who was three years younger, was also extremely drunk!
Question: If Miller was too drunk to give consent, why wasn't Turner too drunk to realize that she was too drunk? At times of moral stampede, such questions tend to disappear as tribes construct pleasing, simplified fables.
At any rate, one juror explained the reasoning by which the jury reached its unanimous verdict. According to the leading authority on the case, the reasoning went like this:
A juror calling himself "A Concerned Juror"...wrote a letter to the judge expressing dissatisfaction with the sentencing length. The juror said that "the fact that Turner ran away after two Stanford graduate students noticed him on top of an unmoving woman" was compelling evidence, along with the incoherence of the message that Doe left her boyfriend before meeting Brock. The juror believed this was very strong evidence "that Turner should have reasonably known she was not able to give consent."Here's the background on that:
At midnight that night, Miller left a voice message for her boyfriend in Philadelphia, where it was 3 A.M. By all accounts, the voice message was substantially incoherent. (Miller didn't remember leaving the message.)
The assault occurred one hour later. According to the juror's logic, the incoherence of the voice message meant that Miller must have been visibly incoherent when she interacted with Turner. On that basis, Turner should have known that Miller couldn't consent.
In our view, this makes a passable type of sense until we add that one additional fact. Thanks to the irresponsible behavior of Stanford's august authorities, Turner was extremely drunk that night too. For that reason, the juror's reasoning actually goes like this:
The jury's apparent logicThe jury saw all the testimony; we did not. They reached a unanimous verdict.
Miller was too drunk to consent. But Turner wasn't too drunk to understand this fact.
We aren't here to criticize the jury, or to criticize Miller. That said, we all know that juries can sometimes make shaky decisions, except in cases where their decision comports with our own preferred tales.
We don't like sending people to jail, but we aren't saying the jury was wrong in its verdict. We will criticize two other groups:
If someone had to be frogmarched to jail, we'd start by recommending the (former) president of Stanford, on whose watch this irresponsible drunken brawl occurred.
Through its profoundly irresponsible lack of supervision, the university got two young people extremely drunk, then sent them off into the night.
A mile away, in a Palo Alto bar, it would have been illegal to serve the underage Turner (0.171) any alcohol at all. Serving the 22-year-old Miller until she was blackout drunk would have subjected the bar to potential legal liabilities.
The university got these young people drunk, then sent them off into the night. On its face, the case against Turner strikes us as less clear than the case against the pillars of the community who let these risky brawls occur.
The second group we'd criticize would be the upper-end "liberal" press corps.
As with Einstein, so too here! Miller's book is, in fact, an amazingly selective and self-serving presentation. We don't think we've ever seen a writer who is more relentless, and more talented, when it comes to framing every turn of events her way. If the subject matter wasn't so serious, her endless sculpting of the material would be somewhat comic.
Part of Miller's substantial talent is her remarkable skill at tilting the field of play in search of affirmation. But you will never be told such things by tribal players at orgs like the New York Times.
These blackout drunk/sexual assault cases have been coming thick and fast. At the Times, they chase the 19-year-old freshman down. The college president is permitted to walk, and tribal hearts feel glad.
Miller is amazingly skilled at tilting the playing field to generate affirmation. For the reasons stated, we aren't inclined to criticize her for any such imperfections. We will criticize our upper-end journalists, who insist on seeing no complexity in our tribe's favored tales.
The Stanford case turned on a rather slender logic—with significant, troubling complications disappeared, sanded down, ignored. Truly, we live in The Age of the Novel, with a very strong drift toward fairy tale, even cartoon.
We like our heroes and villains neat. What happens when Stanford gets both parties drunk? All across the tribal realm, our sachems know not to ask!