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What Happens After Terror: Trauma Underground
Book Review by Rose Oosting, Ph.D.
Denial: A Memoir of Terror
By Jessica Stern
“I have listened and I have been quiet all my life. But now I will speak.”
In Denial, Jessica Stern explores the circumstances and consequences of her own rape at age 15, in 1973. In 1983, at age 25, Stern began a career writing about terrorists. While she was aware of the grip violence had on her imagination (“I am fascinated by the secret motivations of violent men, and I am good at ferreting them out”), she had never before been interested in the source of that fascination.
In 2003, following years of interviewing terrorists of various ilk, she published Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. In this book, Stern interviewed religious extremists from many backgrounds: Christian cultists and anti-abortionists, Jewish messianic militants, and Muslim fanatics, to try to find common themes: what draws people to kill in the name of God, how they justify it, and what keeps them motivated to continue. Unusually, her reaction to her fear of these people was to become more calm, and super-competent: “I found that I was able to silence judgment as I listened, to stop myself from feeling fear or horror.” Though aware that her search to understand this kind of person put her in personal danger, she nevertheless pursued this interest, without much inquiring of herself what led to it.
As time passed, Stern noticed that while she was calm, even numb, in the face of real danger (an armed robbery), stimuli that most people find innocuous (fireworks, crowds, malls, fluorescent lights, turn signals) caused her to react inordinately. As the intensity of her reactions increased, Stern consulted a therapist to attempt to reduce her fear reactions, to feel less. The therapist suggested to her that she might be suffering from PTSD, which Stern dismissed. She saw this as something that soldiers might suffer after combat, not anything she might have.
Stern had always known that at age 15 she was raped at gunpoint by a stranger, along with her 13-year-old sister. But she had brushed this aside, thinking that she had moved on in her life, and that she did not want the fear associated with the experience to dominate her life. She did not want to view herself as a victim who was limited by her rape. She was unable to see the connection between this experience and her professional interest in terror: “Instead of feeling terror, I studied it.”
In her 50’s, Stern began to realize that some of life’s joy was missing from her life, and that this had to do with her rape. In 2006, she decided to find out more about what had happened to her, and requested the police file. To provide the file, the police had to read it first, and in doing so the police realized that her rapist might be a serial rapist, and that he might still be at large. The police at the time had bungled the investigation, and her father had felt that the best thing to do was to “put it behind her,” and so she had never investigated that part of her life. The whole community was in denial—Cambridge, Massachusetts could not be the locale for a serial rapist—and so nothing was done.
In an effort to find the rapist, the police reached out to her for help, and with the help of an investigator and a therapist experienced in trauma work, she began to research what had happened. Denial traces her investigation, and as she learned about her rapist, she also learned something about what makes a person into a serial rapist. Going deeper, she also investigated what had made her father into a man who would prefer she “put it behind her,” as he reluctantly discussed his own life and his experiences as a Jew in pre-war Germany, who had also had to develop an unreal calm to survive.
Stern is a deeply poetic and imaginative writer, and at times her contact with her unconscious thoughts and fantasies is harrowing. But as she comes to terms with the many traumas of her life, she reveals to us the depths of pain and the sources of healing. For those who have suffered traumas, and for the therapists who reach out to help them, this book deeply illuminates both human suffering and healing, and also the human contact necessary for healing to take place.