Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Denial, by Jessica Stern

Jessica Stern holds a doctorate in public policy from Harvard and lectures on terrorism. During the Clinton administration she was a member of the National Security Council. She worked behind the scenes when Daniel Pearl was kidnapped. Undoubtedly she comes across as competent and fearless, with nothing in her appearance or demeanor clueing anyone in to the fact that, as a teenager, she experienced a horrific and terror-filled event: she was raped at gunpoint.

And there's a back story to the rape: Shortly after Stern's mother died -- this happened when Stern was just a toddler -- her father remarried a much younger woman. Stern's new stepmother was immature and ill equipped to take on the role of mother. The marriage lasted a few years and then Stern's father divorced, and remarried again. The night of the rape, Stern and her sister were at the empty apartment of their first stepmother, while their father was out of the country with his new wife. He was told about the rape but didn't change his plans to return home early.

Stern begins her memoir by describing herself a few years back, as an accomplished adult who runs away from all things emotional. She sees a therapist, complaining that she wants to feel even less. She describes feeling a detachment, as if she was floating above her body. A hypersensitivity, even aversion, to fluorescent lights, loud noises and certain scents. An intolerance for specific, seemingly mundane, situations. Her relationship to fear as a tortured dance -- she is bizarrely fearless whenever there is a real reason to be afraid, yet experiences an undercurrent of panic in her everyday life.

Then, out of the blue, the police contact her about her rape case, now decades old, and she decides to investigate her rape herself. In "Denial," she details her investigation, describing what she learned about herself by learning about her attacker, now deceased, from his family and friends.

Stern then tells how she attempted to understand and come to terms with her father, his denial of what she went through, and the fraught relationship they have had. She asks him about his life in Europe during the Holocaust, and his descriptions of what he endured shined light on aspects of his personality and why he did things that were hurtful to her.

In her work with her therapist, Stern discovers she is suffering from PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that, until then, she had associated only with war veterans and victims of the very terrorists she studied . Stern is now a staunch advocate of PTSD awareness. For her, she reports, there is no cure, but she continues to learn how to manage her symptoms.

Many of the unusual states-of-being that Stern describes are familiar to me. Like Stern, I have endured both sexual abuse, as well as the pain of struggling with the denial of family members who were unable to accept the truth. As a result, I've never been able to see the narrative of my life in one piece. Instead of one, unbroken story, my life has felt like a mishmash of events, all separate fragments, like memory snapshots that hide out just under my conscious thought. To be able to put a name to these experiences is a comfort.

I'm grateful for "Denial," and am certain that Stern's courageous and honest story will help others, too.

1 comment:

  1. Your review of this book is so well written, I cannot wait to read all your other posts. I might have a hard time deciding what to read first! I am going to recommend your blog to everyone I know.
    Reisa Miller