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PTSD Survivors Speak: Denial — A Memoir of Terror

Posted Jun 30 2010 12:00am

In her tough memoir, DENIAL , terrorism expert Jessica Stern asks the question, “What is the difference between a victim and a survivor?” She talks about how “a person can get stuck, frozen forever”, and decides that “this is the worst impact of severe trauma: the victim loses faith in the evidence of her own senses.” This is not a book that shies away from the tough issues.

Stern looks at her own survival, plus her career as a terrorism expert, and pieces together not only the story of her trauma, but how it impacted the life she built afterward. The book is a testimony to the progress we can make when we are brave enough to take the chance of reconstructing our stories, looking for clues, researching our own predicaments, and putting it all together into one enormous picture that, even if it all doesn’t make perfect sense, does help us gain enough clarity to take back control of our lives.

Stern writes that she undertook this journey because a man (who later became her husband) inspired her to learn to love. What she does in the book is show that regardless of whom inspires us (because, really, couldn’t we inspire ourselves?), we have the deep courage and strength to do what once seemed impossible go back through the past and come out not only whole, but more powerful than we were before. Today, Stern tells us in her own words (in a post specifically written for Making the Shift)  about her book, her past, and her PTSD healing journey.

DENIAL – A Memoir of Terror, by Jessica Stern   denial

On October 1, 1973, my sister and I were sitting alone in our stepmother’s house, doing our homework, when a man walked in with a gun.  For the next hour, he forced us to comply with a series of demands.  Then he raped us.  I was fifteen at the time, and my sister was a year younger.  When we reported the crime to the police, they didn’t believe that the rapist was a stranger.  The police were in denial: They could not believe that such a brutal crime could have occurred in our safe, suburban town.  
My sister and I went on to live relatively happy and productive lives.  But thirty-five years later, I found myself wanting to understand what had happened that night.  I requested the complete file of our rape.  When the police read the file in order to redact it, they realized that a child rapist might still be at large.  They decided to reopen the case. Ultimately, we discovered that the perpetrator was a serial rapist, who raped or attempted to rape, 44 girls in the Boston area, all between the ages of 9 and 19. 

I wrote a book about the path that the police and I took to solve the crime.  The book is about post-traumatic stress disorder, and how it changes you.  But not all the ways that PTSD changes you are necessarily bad.  I believe that my own PTSD made it possible for me to do the work I do interviewing terrorists. Traumatic events can ignite in us a desire to help others facing trauma.  And trauma can even make us more sensitive to life’s joys.  In my case, the scent of apple blossoms, or heirloom roses, or freshly roasted coffee, give me so much pleasure that I can barely contain myself.  

Exposure to human cruelty has made me appreciate kindness even more.   I am especially moved by the kind of generosity that is secret, when the giver does not expect reciprocation and does not wish to be publicly acknowledged.   But at the same time, until I was treated, it was hard to sit still, and hard to love.  I was very fortunate that I found a psychoanalyst trained to recognize and help heal the symptoms of trauma.  I learned to meditate.  I learned how to help others with Reiki.  I believe any practice that helps you recognize what is here now, versus what was there then, can help feel less plagued by traumatic events, and help us live more fully.  

It is my hope that Denial will help other victims -raped or traumatized or terrorized-many of whom outsiders may not recognize under their soldiers’ uniforms or courageous façades, but who may recognize themselves in the pages of my book. I hope that the book provides comfort and hope.  

Jessica Stern is one of the foremost experts on terrorism. She serves on the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law. In 2009, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her work on trauma and violence.

The ideas contained in this post solely represent the perspective of the author. To contribute to ‘Survivors Speak’ contact Michele .

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