Jessica Stern

DENIAL: A Memoir of Terror

Denial: A Memoir of TerrorAbout the Book

One of the world’s foremost experts on terrorism and post-traumatic stress disorder investigates her own unsolved adolescent sexual assault at the hands of a serial rapist, and, in so doing, examines the horrors of trauma and denial.

“I have been quiet, and I have listened all my life. But now, I will finally speak.”

Alone in an unlocked house in a safe neighborhood in the suburban town of Concord, MA, two obedient, good girls, Jessica Stern, 15, and her sister, 14, were raped on the night of October 1, 1973. When they reported the crime, the police were skeptical. Their father, away on business, did not return for three more days.

Following the example of her family, Stern—who lost her mother at the age of three—denied her pain and kept striving to achieve. But while her career took off, her success hinged on her symptoms. After her ordeal, she could not feel fear in normally frightening situations. Stern thought she’d disassociated from the trauma altogether, until a request took her back to that night more than 30 years earlier.

The world-class social scientist and expert on terrorism and post-traumatic stress disorder began her own investigation, with the help of a devoted police lieutenant, to find the truth about her rapist, the town of Concord, her own family, and her own mind. The result is DENIAL, a candid and deeply intimate look at a life, a trauma, and its aftermath.

Read an Excerpt.

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The investigation

Lt. Paul Macone was in high school when the crime occurred. Thirty-five years later, the terrorism expert, Jessica Stern, found herself wanting to know what had happened that night. She went back to the police in her hometown and asked them for the complete file. Lt. Macone went to find the file and was astounded to discover that there had been a series of remarkably similar rapes, throughout the Boston area. “It was the same kind of gun,” Macone said. “The perp sounded remarkably similar. Unless I was missing something, this was clearly the same guy.”

Read more on The American Police Beat

Read a Q&A with Jessica about DENIAL.

“I have been studying the effects of trauma on mind, brain and human development for the past 30 years and written hundreds of articles about it. As a result of hearing so many trauma stories and seeing so many damaged human beings I like to spend my spare time getting away from it all. I read Jessica Stern’s book after she gave me a copy and after a literary friend told me that it was the most profound account of the subjective experience of trauma, and I could not put it down. The courage with which Jessica unravels her own story and allows herself to know what she knows and feel what she feels is a remarkable human journey from confusion and doubt to clarity and perspective. Stern gives an incisive account of the shape of the imprint of trauma on body and soul, and shows us how honest confrontation with what we already know, but try to forget, is essential in order be liberated from the past.

The way Stern writes about how trauma has affected her relationships with her loved ones, and how an honest and compassionate confrontation led to true and deep human connections made me weep.

Thank you for writing such a beautiful book!!” — Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk, leading expert on trauma and its aftermath

“A disturbing, captivating memoir… Most moving is the author’s contemplation of denial itself, and its effect of re-victimizing the victim…She successfully unearths difficult emotional terrain without sinking into utter subjectivity and maintains an orderly progression without becoming clinical.”
Kirkus Reviews

“In this skillfully wrought, powerful study, a terrorism expert, national security adviser, and lecturer at Harvard, returns to a definitive episode of terror in her own early life and traces its grim, damaging ramifications… Stern’s work is a strong, clear-eyed, elucidating study of the profound reverberations of trauma.”
— Starred review from Publishers Weekly

“Stunningly brave book.”
Ben Dickinson, ELLE magazine

“Jessica Stern has always had the gift of disappearing into the lives and minds of terrorists. In this book, she faces the greater challenge of her own. The layers of abuse she has encountered, her tender matter-of-factness, her refusal of self-pity in favor of insatiable curiosity— these are some of her gifts born of trauma. This book will allow people into parts of themselves they did not have access to, or even knew they had. Parts full of rage, of terror, of pride in their own detachment. It will allow their hearts to begin to break. For anyone who has lived at proximity to violence, it is one of the most necessary accounts of our time.”
— Eliza Griswold, award-winning poet reporter and author of WIDEAWAKE FIELD

“Wonderfully compassionate, absorbing reading for anyone.”
— Starred review from Booklist

“DENIAL: A MEMOIR OF TERROR is one of the most important books I have read in a decade.  It’s a stunning blend of personal memoir of surviving a horrific sex crime—and having the courage to reinvestigate it as an adult—and cogent meditation on the links between sexual sadism, humiliation and political terrorism.  Jessica Stern, one of the world’s foremost experts on terror, manages to explain, through shining a blazing light on her own pain, one of the most profound hidden whys of contemporary savagery and how it plays out geopolitically.

This is a groundbreaking book, in terms of how it shows that personal experience—especially the “shameful” personal experience of having been victim of a sex crime—can be used to illuminate the most urgent questions of our time.   I had been pondering the sexualized nature of much of the torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and this book gave me the aha! moment to reveal the true nature of a certain shape that human evil takes.

Brave, life changing and gripping as a thriller, this should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand terrorism and anyone who has survived a trauma of any kind—indeed, this should be read by anyone seeking to understand the nature of evil. A tour de force.”
— Naomi Wolf, author of THE BEAUTY MYTH

“What Jessica has accomplished is nothing short of remarkable.  Her amazing memoir totally validated the linkage between PTSD and Rape Trauma Syndrome and, with her personal emphasis on “terror,” provided a much-needed answer to any questions of commonality.”
— Anne Seymour, National Victim/Survivor Advocate

“There’s nothing predictable in this book, which makes it an absorbing read. The underlining message of Jessica’s story is how seductive denial can be. I picked the book up one evening and read the entire thing. I didn’t mind staying up past my normal bedtime to. It was worth it. I recommend this book as an easy and exciting read on a complex subject.”
— Dave Stancliff, columnist, blogger and Vietnam Vet who is service-connected for PTSD (read the full review at

“Extraordinary.  I am speechless.  This book is truly important.  It will change and help heal lives.”
— Susan Willett Bird, Founder & CEO of Wf360 – The Creators of Brandversation™

“Jessica Stern’s harrowing memoir of a girl who trauma has taught to distrust herself and who learns to live with the idea of her helplessness–a girl who once turned away from what she could not understand or accept – examines the violence at the heart of things, with an appeal to compassion and forgiveness, rather than a condemnation of the destructive impulses that haunt each of us.”
Susanna Moore, author of IN THE CUT

“Jessica Stern has written a remarkable book, unlike any that I’ve read. This deeply personal and often painful reflection documents the costs of personal, familial, and community silence as well as the liberating effects of truthful testimony.”
Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and author of MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCES

“This is an unflinchingly courageous self-examination of the impact of trauma on an individual’s unfolding life. As a young, small, Jewish woman, Jessica Stern traveled alone to Pakistan to interview Islamic terrorists in their mountain lairs. Becoming an expert on nuclear terorism, she consulted to the National Security Administration. It took her years to begin to question her own motivations. But when she did, she opened a panoply of family secrets that lay behind her risky life and brilliant career. Through her riveting and brilliantly told story, Jessica Stern lays out the impact of trauma on an individual’s ways of experiencing the world, how trauma is transmitted across generations, and how severe trauma can be adaptively transformed. The book will be illuminating for victims and survivors of trauma, those who work or live with them, family members with generational histories of trauma, and for those who care about  how our histories shape our lives.”
— Edward R. Shapiro, M.D. and Medical Director/CEO of Austen Riggs Center

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