Chanel Miller Reminds Us That to Heal, We Must Forage
Her memoir of trauma and recovery makes a case for spending time with your pain, not trying to forget it
At 4, Chanel Miller could not lift a gallon of milk. She needed two trembling little arms to wet her cereal with “that white sloshing boulder.” And spillage was inevitable.
When exactly she began to carry the gallon of milk with ease, “one-handed, on the phone, in a rush,” she doesn’t know, Miller writes in her new memoir, Know My Name. But to get there, she must have had to sit in the mess for a morning or two.
“I believe the same rules apply,” she writes of the narrative the world will remember her by: her time as the Emily Doe of the infamous Stanford rape trial in which Brock Turner, found guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault, would serve only half of his meager six-month sentencing.
“One day I’ll be able to tell this story without it shaking my foundation,” Miller writes. “Each time will not require an entire production, a spilling, a sweating forehead, a mess to clean up, sopping paper towels. It will just be a part of my life, every day lighter to lift.”
We talk often about the rituals and societal expectations following the death of beloved people and animals: the anguish that accompanies physical loss, codified in curated stages of grief. But what of the intangible casualties? When we lose fragments of ourselves in trauma, what is the most appropriate bereavement treatment?
For months after the assault, Miller writes, it was too painful to be here, alive. Her mind preferred dissociation. The goal was to forget.
“It took me a long time to learn healing is not about advancing,” she writes. “It is about returning repeatedly to forage something.”
Foraging is a search in the wild for provisions, its etymology traced to the Anglo-French fuerre and the Old High German fuotar, both of which influenced the Old English term for fodder and later, food. When creatures forage, they make an effort to retrieve, collect and store the sources of energy and nutrients they find. The evolutionary purpose, scientists say, was to create a positive energy budget. Foraging theory states that to survive, we must balance out the energy we expend with the energy we gain.
But most of us are not actively foraging, at least not in the physical sense, not out in the wild. Instead, we forage for food more passively. We might experiment with new eateries and markets every now and then, but we ultimately do our surviving by retrieving prepackaged nutrients off grocery store shelves or assembly-line delis, mindlessly collecting the bounty in metal shopping carts and storing our earnings in kitchen pantries and refrigerators. Those of us in urban societies have evolved to expend little energy in our modern-day foraging, hoping to gain at least enough to get by.
Research shows that the same molecular and neural mechanisms involved in physically foraging for nourishment in the savanna or sea for centuries have evolved to help regulate our attention and retention.
Less persistent, more inattentive and more passive foraging––whether the provision we seek is a tangible meal or more abstract food for thought––has been linked to a decrease in brain dopamine, the “happy hormone” responsible for controlling our mental and emotional reactions.
Low levels of dopamine reduce motivation and enthusiasm and increase the risk of depression, anxiety and other behavioral disorders. In the aftermath of trauma, low levels of dopamine further impair our ability to make sound judgments. If taken as prescribed, stimulants can increase brain dopamine levels until they produce that happy, rewarding and attentive effect.
When Miller says, then, that healing has less to do about moving forward and more to do with foraging, perhaps she understands that healing involves her attention. That it involves a repetitive return to the past to produce a somewhat sensical timeline from fragmentary scenes. Perhaps Miller understands that to heal, she must gain something to make up for the depleted energy stolen by the assailer; she must gain back the energy she lost before and after each court hearing. But to gain, she must remember. And to remember, she’ll have to sit in this mess for a while.
The act of writing, Miller says, taught her “to stay in the hurt, to resist leaving.” It placed her in the driver’s seat, in control of the once uncontrollable past. The more often she returned to the scenes leading up to and the scenes following the moment she was reported unconscious behind a dumpster outside a Stanford fraternity party, the more power she ultimately accumulated in crafting the meticulous details of her truth.
Eventually, Miller writes, she could come and go as she pleased, “until one day I found there was nothing left to gather.” And when there’s nothing else left to gather, then it’s time to pack up and move on.
This idea of returning and foraging to heal––foraging willingly––gripped me as someone with an ambiguously fleeting desire to live, someone whose rumination has proven to be more dangerous than fruitful.
After reading Miller’s memoir, I understand the difference. To ruminate is to sit in the mess with no end in sight, no plan to return to the present and no real desire to find understanding. But successful foraging requires return and reflection. It demands an analysis of the environment and its resources. It forces us to ask ourselves: Is it time we move on from here?
The only way I’ve been able to move forward is by time-traveling backward, turning the machine off for a while and just sitting in messy memories past, sometimes alone and sometimes on the weathered leather loveseat in my therapist’s office, foraging through the brush clouding my brain for some understanding of how exactly I wound up wanting the end. Each time I make the return trip back to my present, my basket feels a little lighter, hinting at the horizon ahead.
Sometimes, after a long afternoon of foraging, Miller regresses, as do I. Healing is no linear feat, after all. There will be forest fires and predators, more competition in the wild. But to survive, we must eat.