posted by Amy on Oct 7
In Denial; A Memoir of Terror, Jessica Stern, a Harvard professor, Guggenheim Fellow, and expert on terrorists and terrorism, tells the story of her own childhood trauma. When she was fifteen and her sister was fourteen they were raped at gunpoint in their former stepmother’s house. The police did not believe the girls when they said they did not know the perpetrator, and dropped the case four months later when Stern’s father told police that she and her sister seemed to have forgotten all about it.
The rape case was reopened after more than thirty years, and Stern researched the crime, the perpetrator, and the effects of the crime. In the process she found out how much she has in common with other people with post-traumatic stress disorder, including war veterans.
Without self-pity or rancor, and with a dogged commitment to learning and telling the truth, Stern digs through layer upon layer of denial, and of suspected or confirmed trauma in the lives of people connected with the book. Her research assistant has such a story. Predictably, so does her deceased assailant. So do many others, including the author herself.
Although the rape and its aftermath were defining events in her life, she learns more about what led up to that afternoon when she and her sister were left alone in an unlocked house, and she insightfully explores how all her childhood traumas shaped her. She finally asks her father questions that had previously been taboo in their family: about her mother, who died when she was three years old, about his decision to finish out the business trip he was on when the rapes occurred instead of coming right home, and about his own experiences as a young Jewish man in Nazi Germany. She talks to people who knew her rapist, including a woman who was also raped. She learns that at least forty-two children and teenagers between the ages of 9 and 19 may have been raped by the same man. She says, “This is the alchemy of denial: terror, rage and pain are replaced with free-floating shame.” (145)
Stern has distinguished herself as an expert in chemical and biological weapons and in terrorism. She studied violent men, and fearlessly traveled to meet them and interview them. In poetic, rich language Stern doesn’t just tell us what she finds out about the reopened rape case, but also tells how the work affects her: she gets lost when she tries to go to nearby locations to interview people, she can’t bring herself to read the case file that the police detective gives her, she suddenly immerses herself in household tasks when she is supposed to be going out to collect more clues.
Stern is unusually strong, brave, competent, intelligent and accomplished, but she is also, at times, vacant, bumbling, and vague. She dissociates. She’s faking it. On her way to an interview with someone who can help her piece together the story, she says, “A cage floats down from the heavens, encasing my body in glass. Chet does not see the cage. He thinks I am with him in the car, but in fact I am alone in a parallel world. I look and sound relatively normal, but really I’m only half here, half alive.” (95)