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Denial: A Memoir of Terror Hardcover – June 22, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In this skillfully wrought, powerful study, a terrorism expert, national security adviser (The Ultimate Terrorists), and lecturer at Harvard, returns to a definitive episode of terror in her own early life and traces its grim, damaging ramifications. Having grown up in Concord, Mass., in 1973, Stern, then 15, and her sister, a year younger, were forcibly raped at gunpoint by an unknown intruder; when the police reopened the case in 2006, Stern was compelled to confront the devastating experience. The police initially tied the case to a local serial rapist, who served 18 years in prison before hanging himself. Stern's painful journey takes her back to the traumatic aftershocks of the rape, when she began to affect a stern, hard veneer not unlike the stiff-upper-lip approach to survival her own German-born Jewish father had assumed after his childhood years living through Nazi persecution. Covering up her deep-seated sense of shame with entrenched silence, Stern had a classic post-traumatic stress disorder—which she was only able to recognize after her own work interviewing terrorists. Stern's work is a strong, clear-eyed, elucidating study of the profound reverberations of trauma. (July)
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*Starred Review* Much of the power of this memoir comes from the central irony that its author, who has traveled the world for 20 years interviewing terrorists, plotting counterterrorism strategies, and advising people with post-traumatic stress disorders, is herself a PTSD sufferer, the effect of a trauma she kept so locked down that, until recently, she wasn’t aware of how it had commandeered her life. Stern, who has a doctorate in public policy from Harvard, lectures at Harvard Law School and is the author of the acclaimed Terror in the Name of God (2003). When she was 15, a home invader raped Jessica and her 14-year-old sister in their Concord, Massachusetts, home. Police doubted their stories, their father took a stiff-upper-lip approach, and Jessica learned to substitute accomplishment for feeling. Finally, her extreme lack of feeling urged her to investigate what happened. Part of this book is her search, with the help of a cop who believes her, for the identify of the man who raped her and what happened to him. While this is satisfying on a cold-case level, far more suspenseful is Stern’s chronicle of what PTSD feels like and her struggle to surmount it. Stern dedicates her book to all the victims of terrorism and assault. Wonderfully compassionate, absorbing reading for anyone. --Connie Fletcher
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What made it feel like a diary of a teenager was the constant exploration of personal interpretation, innuendo, and perception. Dr. Stern provides an inner dialogue of her journey from the moment the detective calls her to the publication of her book. This is not necessarily a bad thing, I simply thought it contained irrelevant information along with some golden nuggets. For instance, while talking with any number of people, the conversation is reported verbatim, which I liked. On the inside, the author is contemplating birds, surfaces, and discusses the way the person uses verb tense. Many of these inner dialogues come to naught.
Additionally, the author suffers from disturbing thoughts and images, which I believe is not uncommon. What bothered me is the innuendo that her grandfather performed sexual acts upon her prior to her rape. Yet this is never explored nor addressed. Did he? Don't know. So was that tidbit relevant? I don't know. The reader seeks closure.
What I liked about the book is that the author weaves the similarities of terror and the different ways of integrating the terror-inducing experiences through stories of her father's history during the Holocaust, soldiers who have suffered from PTSD, and people who have been traumatized by sexual acts.
I very much enjoyed Dr. Stern's epilogue, where she uses her professional experience and knowledge to tie the above mentioned groups together. Dr. Stern is intelligent, articulate, and experienced. Her experiences were simply horrific. Writing a memoir, I believe, was very therapeutic for her. I also do not doubt that many people will find her journey interesting and helpful.
For me, it was a solid 3 star experience.
What unfolds in this narrative is an intriguing and admittedly harrowing account of the latter part of Dr. Stern's childhood, beginning with the rape of herself and her sister by a stranger in the early 1970s when they were in their early teens. On account of this incident, the memoir focuses on many "whys": Why did this rapist terrorize young women and girls and why did he ritualize the act; why did her father not return immediately from Europe upon hearing of the event; why did the police not connect the details of the rape to ultimately 40 others with the same MO; and why despite decades in a professional career did the incident appear to be affecting Stern's ability to lead an emotionally satisfying life? With the help of therapy, interviews with her father and those connected to the rapist, and a veteran of the Iraq war, Stern begins to accept that many of her symptoms and motivations derive from the rape and the denial by herself and those around her of the impact of these colluding factors. Through her analysis, Stern begins to realize the importance of shame and humiliation in the production of not only those who terrorize, but also potentially those complicitous in being terrorized. In this regard, written as a memoir, "Denial" represents a powerful self-revelation of the impact of traumatic events, and their acceptance or non-acceptance by caregivers and loved ones, on emotional functioning later in life.
And yet I was dismayed with certain aspects of the work. Granted a memoir is not a scientific treatise and one cannot expect it to be organized as such. Still, Dr. Stern does use references at certain points in the book, but omits references or even the crediting of others for insights not uniquely her own. For example, she boldly states a hypothesis of hers that humiliation is the well-spring from which savagery emerges. Even a cursory review of this topic indicates the quite common number of authors and literary works that would agree with this hypothesis and have formulated it previously. In particular, Drs. Arno Gruen and Alice Miller have written extensively on the links between humiliation/shame as the force behind the Nazis in Germany and this root message similarly comes through in the recent Cannes-awarded film, Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon). A nonacademic writer producing a memoir that included such a revelation might be excused of such omissions, but not one with the credentials and resources of the author. Secondly, Dr. Stern repeatedly denigrates work done in the psychological fields by reducing, wholesale, their findings to 'psychobabble'. Indeed, she outright states that her motivation for interviewing a soldier with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was due to her mistrust of the diagnosis of her own symptoms from a therapist. In this regard, I found her arrogance to be quite similar to that of her father's, who repeatedly reminded his daughters not to be "candy-assed" and further to feel superior to those around them. Those such as Dr. Frank Putnam who have worked much with PTSD symptoms in rape victims hopefully will overlook the omission of their work.
Finally, and most intriguingly, Dr. Stern focuses the bulk of her memoir on her rape, her rapist and the investigation surrounding it, and her father's reaction (or lack thereof) to the incident. This is noteworthy for the fact that it is presented against a backdrop of hints by the author that she was sexually abused possibly by the time she was 3 years old, and clearly emotionally maltreated for much of her youth. What I found myself sensing was that I was reading a case of "layers of denial". In this case, the denial that Dr. Stern is confronting head on is that erected by her father, the police, and others who invalidated the impact of her rape. Focus on this this denial, however, allows a second denial to remain intact; one that potentially occurred over many years, with no police...indeed no one.... to whom this could be revealed and which was perpetrated by a loved one(s). Such contrasting sources and durations of childhood abuse, and their relative impacts, are discussed thoroughly by the likes of Dr. Jennifer Freyd with her Betrayal Trauma hypothesis, but there are others as well.
In the end, "Denial" is nevertheless a bold work and the author can be commended on choosing this approach to her memoir. I certainly hope that it has provided some measure of resolution and healing in Dr. Stern. In a culture where denial drives our daily lives, it is one more story revealing the prison in which such dark secrets lock away those maltreated during their childhoods. We can only hope such revelations eventually lead to larger cultural changes for the better....indeed the future.... of humanity and the planet.