Jessica Stern

Q & A

As a follow-up to this video, Jessica answered more questions about DENIAL: A Memoir of Terror, reaction from friends, advice for someone who has gone through a traumatic experience, and more.

You said that you feared that writing a book about your own rape might destroy your career. Why?

I usually write about events in the political world.  I am a witness.  I do my best to report what I observe, objectively; and I often rely, at least in part, on other scholars’ previous work.  People might disagree with my conclusions, but at least they can follow the trail of evidence and the logic of what I say.  But here I am writing about what goes on in my own head.  I am the sole expert.  I cannot hide behind footnotes referring the reader to other scholars’ work.  Nor can I share observations or test my conclusions against those of other experts.   I play both roles: observer and observed.  I have only myself to blame if I get it wrong or if I don’t push deep enough, past the layers of shame, toward a truth. 

I was worried that writing about myself – not as an expert but as a victim – would make it harder for people to see me as an objective authority on terrorism.  I find that when an “expert” reveals his biases and experiences to make clear to the reader that he knows the limits of his own objectivity, I trust him more, not less; but I’m not sure that all readers feel that way. 

None of us is truly objective, of course.  All “experts” are influenced by their life experiences;  but most of us try to stay behind the curtain of objectivity, or at least attempted objectivity, most of the time. I have pulled that curtain away, at least in this book, exposing how my experiences drew me to the work I did, and also made it possible for me to do it.  I’ll want to pull that curtain back, in part to hide behind the mantle of “expertise.”   Will it be possible?

What has been the reaction from your family, friends, and colleagues who have read DENIAL?

The biggest surprise has been the way the book has seemed to unleash something in readers, made them want to rip away some aspect of their own denial. A colleague confessed to me that he realized, looking back on his experience in Viet Nam, that he had developed a habit of killing, that he had killed people he didn’t need to kill.  Not all of those killings could be described as necessary to defend the nation.  Now that he has admitted these terrible truths to himself, I hope he can find a way to put his experience into a context that includes his own youth and confusion and terror, but not denial.  It may sound glib, but it is nonetheless true: Every soldier is a victim, even the ones that pull the trigger.

One of my fellow victims, raped by the same man, decided to tell her children what had happened to her.  She knew that their perception that she was excessively fearful in regard to their safety was in fact correct; that this terrible secret – her rape at gunpoint – had made her overprotective of them.  When she told her kids about the crime, she felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from her heart, she told me.  Another reader, who was reviewing the book, had spent years traveling in and out of war zones.   She wanted to talk to me about the strange altered states she was experiencing, and also the puzzling behaviors she noticed in her fiance, who is a soldier recently returned from Afghanistan.  After reading the book, it occurred to her that she might be experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Somehow, witnessing – at least on the page — my effort to tear away a few layers of my own dissociation and denial, seems to be making it possible for others to do the same.  If my book helps people in this way, I am grateful.   

What advice do you have for someone who has gone through a traumatic experience?

This question is too broad.  Everyone is different, and I cannot provide a recipe. Trauma that occurs early in childhood may have different effects from trauma that occurs in adulthood.  It took me thirty-five years to be able to face what actually occurred when I was raped at gunpoint, and what happened in my family, both before and after the rape, to make me react the way I did.   I hope that reading about this experience will give other readers’ courage, but I do not mean to suggest that tracking down and investigating your own perpetrator is a way to heal trauma.  For many victims of violent assault, it could be psychologically dangerous.

It is important to realize that to be alive is to experience trauma.  Not all trauma leads to shock or acute stress response.  And even fewer victims of traumatic events develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which is an anxiety disorder involving persistent and intrusive memories of the ordeal, feelings of numbness or hypervigilance, and other symptoms.  (See  How a person fares appears to depend on many factors — including the extremity of the assault to the psyche, the response of bystanders and caretakers, and the victim’s history and biology.  

There is a long list of additional resources on my website.   But I cannot endorse any particular treatment, because what helps one person cope with the aftereffects of trauma could harm another.

Now that you’ve confronted your past, have your feelings about interrogating terrorists and putting yourself in dangerous situations changed?

Yes, very much so.  I have no desire to be in dangerous situations now.  I feel as if I exposed myself to too much – like an overdose of a drug.  The idea of deliberately exposing myself to danger repels me now.  

DENIAL is a multi-faceted book and touches upon many thought-provoking topics.  What is the one thing you want readers to take away from your memoir?

In the moment that a person’s life is threatened, denial and dissociation are life-preserving.  This not-feeling and not-knowing holds the psyche together in the face of mind-breaking terror.  But problems arise when denial persists.  Over time, denial degrades relationships. It is immensely seductive, both for victims and bystanders.   But over the long term, it is also dangerous.

To be raped or abused or threatened with violent death; to be treated as an object in a perpetrator’s dream, rather than the subject of your own—these are bad enough. But when observers become complicit in the victim’s desire to forget, they become perpetrators, too. When authorities disbelieve the victim, bystander and victim collude in denial or forgetting, and in so doing, repeat the abuse.

I hope that my book will make people aware of the seductive appeal, but also the societal costs, of denial – whether it relates to victims of clergy sexual abuse, sexual assault, or the after-effects of war.

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