Jessica Stern's "Denial: A Memoir of Terror," reviewed by Marie Arana

By Marie Arana
Sunday, August 15, 2010


A Memoir of Terror

By Jessica Stern

Ecco. 300 pp. $24.99

If a victim of childhood rape grows up to fear the dark, avoid sex, cower in the streets and shrink from human relationships, it shouldn't surprise us. Sadly, the arc is common enough. Psychiatrists have parsed the ravaging effects of post-traumatic stress in thousands of clinical studies.

But if a victim of that monstrous act grows up to be preternaturally calm, surpassingly courageous -- with antennae so acute that she is sought after to elicit sensitive information from ruthless terrorists -- that is a remarkable outcome. Psychiatrists have parsed this, too, and they call it post-traumatic growth. Jessica Stern, raped at gunpoint at age 15, is the child who went on, as those same psychiatrists put it, "to achieve extraordinary wisdom." For all the damage her rapist inflicted -- for all the denial she says she experienced -- she has harnessed her fears to emerge a singularly brave and accomplished human being.

Stern, a specialist on terrorism, now teaches at the Kennedy School at Harvard University and served as a director of foreign affairs on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council. She has written two highly respected books on the nature of terrorist organizations, "The Ultimate Terrorists" and "Terror in the Name of God," and she is a lucid commentator on pressing contemporary subjects, from homeland security to nuclear war.

Although Stern has spent a career trying to understand cultures beyond these shores, in her new memoir, "Denial," she turns her formidable powers of investigation on a terrifying October night in 1973 in Concord, Mass., her home town. It was there, in the interlude of a sickening few minutes -- between, as she gnomically scribbled it for the police, "man walked in" and "I told him not to, please" -- that her ordinary girlish preoccupations were suddenly overcome by mortal fear.

It's not entirely clear why, in the prime of Stern's impressive career, she felt obligated to tell this story. But, as she recounts, after finishing her second book on terrorism, she found herself ineluctably drawn to the memory of her harrowing childhood. She knew perfectly well that, with the passage of time, she had taught herself to feel less pain, but she was dismayed to realize that she was also experiencing less joy. Moreover, she understood that there had to be "a reason why I was drawn to spying on violent men . . . a reason why I was so good at it."

The violent man who would so deeply mar her life appeared out of the October dark, standing in a doorway of her stepmother's house. Her stepmother had gone out for the evening, leaving Stern and her younger sister to do their homework. Her father, long since divorced from her stepmother, was traveling on business abroad. Somehow, the rapist must have known the children were alone. First, he cut the telephone wires. Then he came inside and calmly instructed them to go upstairs, where he forced them to put on the clothes of a much younger child, and then proceeded to rape both girls methodically, holding a loaded weapon to their heads. Only when he was done did he tell them that it was a cap gun.

The act was brutal and brief, the memory of it tamped down, taboo. Only when Stern decided to investigate it a few years ago did facts begin to emerge like so many layers of hard, ancient sediment. Her rapist, she learned while working on an investigation with the Massachusetts police, was a homeless man whom she calls Brian Beat, an erstwhile plumber, drug addict, sexual profligate, whom women remembered as "gorgeous." Those who claimed to know him best persisted in thinking he was innocent. And, although he had served time in prison for assaulting one child, the psychiatrist for the Department of Corrections deemed him not "sexually dangerous," freeing him to rape at least 44 more -- 20 of them in an eight-block area near Harvard. He imagined himself a poet, planting a creepy note for Stern after the crime: "Trauma of the past must be understood as/Not being here now or it becomes trauma/of the present." His own trauma of the past, Stern's evidence suggests, was that he had been sexually abused by a priest in elementary school.

By the time Stern tracked down his identity, however, Beat was dead by his own hand. She picked through his life and leavings anyway, fascinated by how violent a town -- his home, Milbridge, Mass. -- could be. The evidence was there for anyone who cared to look: myriad warnings that Beat would go on to infect others with his humiliation. "Shame, I realize now," Stern writes in her characteristically hard-fisted prose, "is an infectious disease. Shame can be sexually transmitted."

Perhaps most affecting in Stern's powerfully constructed memoir is the way in which she moves from stony analysis to white-hot anger. This is no uncomplicated story of a random, sadistic act inflicted on an otherwise happy family. There is plenty of guilt to go around. We learn that Stern's father, a Holocaust survivor, was on a business trip when his daughters' rapes occurred but decided that the crimes didn't warrant his rushing home to their side. When he did arrive, he did nothing to spur a thorough investigation. In fact, he told the police that his daughters seemed to have forgotten all about it, leading police to conclude that the girls had something to hide. We learn of Stern's mother, who died of lymphoma when Stern was 3, a victim of excessive radiation administered by her own father, a doctor. We learn that that doctor, Stern's outrageously promiscuous grandfather, had a habit of taking nude showers with her when she was a little girl. We are shown how Stern's subterranean fears can bubble up today in unexpected ways: in a recurring dream of a "sickeningly soft white slug," for instance, which she associates with her naked grandfather; or in the kitchen, when her boyfriend's oil-smeared fingers suddenly resemble "meaty" penises.

According to Stern, the curse of rape -- which she strips to its root -- is that it teaches you to feel less and less of the world around you. She has trained herself to be a sharp-eyed observer, capable of registering the subtlest gestures, the slightest shifts in emotion, but when it comes to confronting her own demons, she found herself saying, "I will feel about this later." Being "stern and hard" is so natural to her by now that a more human reaction -- writing this incandescently honest book, for instance -- "takes an act of will." Little wonder she is drawn to study the numb, affectless personae of terrorists. And little wonder she struggles to understand why on Earth one human being would conspire to annihilate another.

Marie Arana is a writer at large for The Washington Post. Her latest novel, "Lima Nights," was just published in paperback.

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