With a slight hint of novelization: At one point in her review of Chanel Miller's impressively-written new book, Jennifer Weiner cites the part of the book we thought was most instructive.
Perhaps we should say it's the part of the book with which we found the fewest significant flaws. We refer to the part of the book which Weiner cites in the second highlighted passage:
WEINER (10/13/19): “Know My Name” is one woman’s story. But it’s also every woman’s story—the story of a world whose institutions are built to protect men; a world where sexual objectification is ubiquitous and the threat of sexual violence is constant. Before Turner assaulted her, Miller had already survived one act of deadly misogyny near her college, the University of California at Santa Barbara, when Elliot Rodger, a privileged young man enraged that he’d never had a girlfriend, went on a spree and killed six people.In this part of her review, Weiner refers to Miller's Chapter 4, in which Miller spends the summer of 2015 taking classes at the Rhode Island Institute of Design in humidity-soaked East Providence.
After the assault, Miller enrolls in art school in Rhode Island. But the East Coast proves no safer. Walking back from class, “I passed three men sitting on a car who fastened their eyes on my legs, clicked their tongues and smacked their lips, performing the sounds and hand gestures one might use if attempting to summon a cat. … I trained myself to tuck my head down, avoiding eye contact, feigning invisibility.”
After describing some of her experiences in Providence, Miller also describes one part of her previous undergraduate experience. Specifically, she discusses the mass murder conducted by Elliott Rodgers, a mass murder which occurred in May 2014, late in her senior year at UCSB.
Despite the purplish tint to Weiner's prose, Miller "survived" this murderous act by this "privileged young man" only in the technical sense. She says some police cars passed her on the street as they sped to the scene of Rodgers' crime, and that she and her friends then received a mass email in which the university told all students that they should stay indoors.
Weiner's prose may be somewhat purple as she describes Miller's relationship to that heinous event. Beyond that, there may be a slightly tabloid feel to Weiner's account of Miller's East Coast summer.
As Weiner notes, Elliott Rodgers murdered six people near the end of Miller's years in Santa Barbara. In the most obvious sense, "the East Coast" did, in fact, "prove a great deal safer" than that when Miller took classes there.
Miller describes no privileged person committing mass murder during her Providence summer. Indeed, she describes not acts of physical violence at all.
That said, Miller does describe a series of incidents in which she was approached by men, in undesired ways, while walking the streets of Providence. Weiner quotes from Miller's description of one such incident in the passage posted above. The very first of these numerous incidents is described by Miller in this passage:
MILLER (pages 79-80): I walked an average of six miles a day, taking myself to parks, movie theaters, bookstores, intent on discovering my new land. No matter where I went, the same thing kept happening. At first it was an older man, who nodded and said, Good morning, beautiful, and I turned to see who he was addressing until I realized it was me. Confused, I said Good morning, before even deciding if I should've said anything at all. Be kind to the elderly. A bald man said, Hey, pretty girl, you sure are pretty. His smile spread slowly as if his face was unzipping, and I said, Thank you.For Miller, this frequent experience starts with that comment by that elderly man, followed by a comment by someone who's bald. Soon, though, her uninvited interlocutors are younger, and strike her as more menacing.
These remarks peppered my walks, as common as birds in the trees...
"I began avoiding certain streets," Miller writes on page 80. "If I was spoken to going one way, I'd come back a different way, and found myself winding around many blocks."
"I started using my phone to discreetly record videos as I passed clusters of men," she writes on page 81.
"Walking down the street was like being tossed bombs," she writes two pages later. "I fiddled with the wires, frantically defusing each one."
"One day, I tried wearing headphones and reading a book as I walked, hoping to appear immersed, busy busy busy," Miller writes on that same page. "I made it one mile." As her Providence summer proceeds, she feels more threatened, and becomes more angry at the constant intrusions on her personal space.
Miller begins shouting insults at her unwanted admirers. At one point, she and two woman friends even chase a van down the street, yelling at "three heavyset guys" who had asked them where they were going.
By the end of the summer, Miller is sleeping only one or two hours per night. She almost misses the final critique for her print-making class because, in her exhaustion, she has fallen back asleep after waking from a fitful sleep that morning.
Personally, we thought this was the most instructive part of Miller's book. In our view, this is the part of Miller's book which most strongly justifies the highlighted judgment by Weiner:
WEINER: “Know My Name” is a beautifully written, powerful, important story. It marks the debut of a gifted young writer. It deserves a wide audience—but it especially deserves to be read by the next generation of young men, the could-be Brocks and Elliots, who have grown up seeing women’s bodies as property to plunder, who believe that sex is their right.Question: Are most members of that "next generation of young men" actually "could-be Brocks and Elliots," except in the most attenuated technical sense?
Weiner can't seem to stop herself from tossing off such remarks. There isn't even any reason to say that most members of that next generation will end up harassing young women on the street, in the way Miller describes in her Providence chapter.
That said, it seems to us that young men have a lot to gain from reading about the experiences of young women like Miller.
Miller's chapter on her East Coast summer recalls the videotape which drew attention in 2014—a videotape which showed the catcalls a young woman experiences walking around New York City.
Miller account of her Providence term struck us as highly instructive. That said, there are potential problems with Miller's presentation, even here.
Because Know My Name is a personal memoir, we of course have no way of vouching for the accuracy of Miller's accounts of these repetitive events.
Beyond that, we couldn't avoid noting a certain "novelized" feel to the events described in this chapter. Had Miller never been subjected to this type of behavior on the streets of Palo Alto and Santa Barbara?
No such prior events are described. The streets of Providence almost seem to be presented as the scene of an unwanted, unholy baptism. We couldn't help wondering about the selective feel of the presentation, even as we wished that it would trigger a wider attempt to describe and document, and publicize, young women's unwanted experiences in this general area.
In her account of her East Coast summer, Miller briefly moves away from the largest problem with the writing in her skillfully-written book. That problem involves the way her story-telling reflects the values and practices of this, The Age of the Novel, in which our liberal tribe toys with basic facts and elementary logic to fashion perfect morality tales with perfect heroes and villains.
The sexual assault which Miller experienced quickly became such a novelized tale within the upper-end press. This was true long before Miller discussed these events at all, long before her name was even known.
In the course of this novelization, some basic facts quickly disappeared. Elementary matters of logic slid beneath the waves as well, as we in the liberal world took to fashioning our latest perfect tale.
In reading the first upper-end reviews of Miller's book, we were struck by a pair of numbers which didn't bark—by two significant numbers which seemed to have disappeared.
When we read those first reviews, we were struck by the absence of these numbers in thousand-word newspaper essays. We were even more struck when we read Miller's book—a book of some 320 pages in which these numbers don't appear.
As these numbers disappeared, so did some basic questions about this high-profile assault. In our view, the most obvious villain in this whole event was thereby granted a reprieve. A certain type of "moral panic" seems involved in this repetitive tribal conduct.
This type of behavior is on wide display in this gifted young writer's book. Would that older, more experienced writers were willing and able to say so!
Tomorrow: Two numbers, plus a villain