Jessica Stern, a Harvard lecturer and fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, is known as an expert on terrorism. She has written three books on the topic, serves on the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law, is a Fulbright Scholar and won a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship for her work on trauma and violence.
But she is also the author of a powerful memoir about her own experience with terror, when she and her sister were raped at gunpoint as teenagers, a crime that went unsolved and was largely dismissed by police and her family. That book, “Denial: A Memoir of Terror,” was named one of the Washington Post’s best non-fiction books of 2010. (Author Alex Kotlowitz also cited “Denial” on Storyboard last fall as “what memoir ought to be about.”)
Before a recent discussion with the current class of Nieman fellows, Stern sat down with Storyboard to talk about the process of reporting and writing a memoir and how it has affected her life and work. An edited conversation follows:
The book is really, really intense. I remember at one point you talk about wanting to smash a doctor’s skull. Why did you feel it was important to document those emotions? Did you ever consider excising those sections? Why or why not?
I strongly considered excising them. In fact, I read out loud that particular section that you’re referring to, to my sister, and she said, “You have to cut that out.” I decided not to cut it out because I was writing a memoir of a disorder and of feelings that I know that other people have but that we don’t talk about. I wanted the book to be healing for people who have had similar experiences.
In order to write that book, I had to be in a kind of trance to find feelings that I’m normally too embarrassed to feel, or to, certainly to articulate. But not even just articulate. To actually notice that I’m feeling, because they’re impolite feelings, they’re ugly, they’re violent. I think some of those feelings are the sequelae of violence. I decided it was important to put them out there.
You brought up your sister’s reaction, and it seems that many times when people write memoirs, there’s a price to pay in terms of how members of the family react. How present, if at all, was that in your mind when you were doing the writing?
It was present in my mind all the time. Maybe not in the moment of writing, but it was certainly very much on my mind for years while I was…I overshared with my sister.
My sister was also a victim, and every time I learned something new, I felt I had to tell her. It was very traumatizing for me to learn that the next girl who was raped killed herself, for example.
Since the book came out, I learned that it was a real gun. I’ve heard from many other victims of the same guy. Of course, I want to tell my sister, but just as it’s traumatizing for me, it’s very traumatizing for her. I was writing a book and I was in therapy and I had all kinds of support. It wasn’t really fair.
Then my dad went back and forth between feeling really excited that I was writing about his science, his accomplishments as a scientist, and as a mountain climber and feeling really, really angry. Mainly about the reviews. Many people, I’ve discovered, review books without reading them. That book is not a book that should be reviewed if the person doesn’t read the whole thing.
There have been all these stories and some poor reporting about rape and sexual crimes.Where does your story fit in and what do you see as some of the challenges in doing this kind of reporting that perhaps journalists could learn how to do better?
I think the denial of the victim is the most difficult kind of denial.
When you say that, what do you mean denial of the victim?
The victim does not want to believe what happened. I think we all are not…Maybe not we all, but many people, when something bad happens, we prefer to deny that it happened. Just go on and hope for the best. With something as extreme as rape at gunpoint, that is very dangerous.
I was living with the bad parts of what I did to myself, through my own denial. It wasn’t just the denial of the community and the police, which is very common, to blame the victim. My father. But the worst denial was my own.
Do you have ideas about what’s really needed to do a good job of reporting on those kinds of crimes and telling those stories?
I think that it’s often very hard to remember what happened. I would not have been able to write that book. No way could I write that book if I didn’t have hundreds of pages of documents. Police documents, documents from the time the rapist was in the hospital. I was able to get those. A prison hospital. I just wouldn’t remember. It’s very hard to be accurate about sexual assault for, I imagine for either party.
Do you think that you would do anything differently if you were writing that book today?
I don’t think I could do it. I was ready to do it in that moment. Right now, I wouldn’t want to upset myself that much. It was really unhinging. I wanted to capture that craziness. I had to do it slowly. I wanted to get it down on the page and then take a break. I don’t want to do that anymore. I wouldn’t want to do it again.
Having really gone so deeply in, explored, and relived that situation, does that now in turn inform your work on terrorism and talking to terrorists?
It’s very difficult, the work I do talking to perpetrators. It’s very difficult spiritually, because I am trying to connect with the human being that they are. Because they’re not just a perpetrator. Yet, I know they are a perpetrator and they know I know. It’s manipulative.
I’m also going to tell a story about the human being they are, but at the same time I’m not going to become their best friend, and I’m not going to deny what the court says about their actions. Terrorists I’ve talked to have said, “We’re not terrorists. You need to write that we’re not terrorists.” I say, “No, I’m not going to do that. By my definition, you’re a terrorist.”
But there are moments when we have that conversation, and there are moments when I’m trying to connect with them. I think I’m also more aware of the aggression of reporting. That the reporter, there is a certain amount of almost stealing someone’s character, and hopefully for a good purpose. But I’m aware of my role. I’m much more aware of that. Do you know what I mean? I’m not sure I’m saying it right.
Is there anything in a discussion of your memoir that you want to emphasize or include?
I wanted to tell a story that would help other victims. Therefore, I wanted to go to the edge, essentially, of insanity. The edge of insanity that I must have been at when I was age 15, but I could do much more safely at a different point in my life. So that people could see that even if you get to that edge of insanity, there is a way to get back. There’s a way to become whole.