Denial: A Memoir of Terror
by Jessica Stern


Ecco (HarperCollins), 2010. ISBN 978-0-061-62665-4.
Reviewed by Natalie Purcell
Posted on 05/13/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Body Language

Denial, Jessica Stern's gripping memoir, is a book about trauma. In it, Stern tells the story of her own rape and shares her emotional journey with stunning honesty. The result is, at once, a personal diary and a work of profound scholarship on the psychology of terrorized and terrorist.

Written by a scholar who is a renowned expert on terrorism, Denial has surprisingly little in common with an academic text. Stern's theory of violence—what causes it, what it accomplishes, how it ripples through the lives of those who would rather deny it—is present but barely articulated. Instead, Stern teaches her readers about violence and trauma by investigating her own unsolved rape and channeling the long-repressed voice of her former self—of a terrified young girl who was raped at gunpoint in her home. That girl, we learn, is less interested in earning our sympathy and more interested in making us feel the full force of her grief and rage: "My lament will terrify even the stars."

Much of Stern's memoir unfolds in a liminal space of wishes and fears, and it flutters between conscious disclosure and unconscious evacuation. Stern records fleeting sentiments that would otherwise disappear in an instant, that would be denied and forgotten if not committed to paper. She does not, for instance, hide her desire to terrorize and slaughter her rapist—a desire that stays embedded in the realm of wild, unrepressed fantasy: "[T]here will be an explosion in his brain. An electric signal will cascade: he will realize that he wronged the universe, and his brain will explode. Also his penis will fall off. I will leave him there, his brain on a plate..."

Stern's seething fury is familiar to the traumatized, but still jarring to see in print. She confesses to fantasies we recognize but regularly stifle, longings we live with and yet live out-of-tune with. In many ways, the out-of-tuneness caused by traumatic violence is both the substance and the style of her book. The poetic dissonance of her prose draws attention to the contradictions of a world where sexual violence keeps happening and people keep living as if nothing were wrong.

Stern's raw unleashing of thought and feeling communicates the book's message forcefully: that violence is begotten of shame and is always a kind of revenge—even when it is misplaced and directed at an "aggressively innocent" girl. By showing how shame and violence generate each another, Stern blurs the lines that divide victim and perpetrator. She reveals how seamlessly the experience of one can slip into the experience of the other, how the hurt and abused child harbors a cavernous shame and anger that threaten to swallow him, or her, whole. When Stern speaks of shame as an "infectious disease"—one that "can be sexually transmitted"—she accepts that the lives of violated and violator are forever intertwined.

By visiting the police file on her rape and venturing into the life and world of her rapist, Stern shows how rape is linked to more mundane anxieties, fears, and traumas in all-too-typical towns, schools, churches, and families. When she dares to stare openly at one episode of violence, she begins to find violence in every corner and under every stone—in the abuses, cruelties, and unacknowledged wounds of families and communities that stand out only for their inconspicuousness, their apparent normalcy. Her book is a confirmation of both the prosaic prevalence of violence and its life-shattering force—a force that Stern is sure would shake the earth and stir the universe if it weren't buried by denial.

The book often feels uncensored and unedited—inflected with halting stops and starts, awkward repetitions, relentless circling over the same aching revelations: "The man I had sex with—if we can call rape sex— Let me start again. The man who penetrated me..." This lends Denial an immediacy and urgency that make it hard to set down. Denial's urgency is a product of Stern's uncompromising will to be honest—her stubborn, hostile refusal of denial in any form. She demands that the truth be heard: "I consider walking out of my cabin and into the woods and screaming as loud as I can. This time I will not be muffled: I will lacerate the ear of God. I will wail wildly: How could you let this happen? I will scream so loud that the molecular structure of the air will change."

Stern's desire to move the universe with her revelations—to "roar argon into chlorine, xenon into fluorine, all the noble gases into reactive ones"—underlies her every word and defines her style as an author. The grandiosity of her ambition, her will to move worlds, is at once a tribute to her honesty and a testament to her human vulnerability. Stern's readers will clench their fists and lift them alongside her, but they will also confront the smallness of her protest in a universe that hardly registers the pain of one young girl. The omnipotent child that rages in Stern's unconscious mind is not at all omnipotent in the real world. Thus, for all Stern's honesty, her memoir doesn't fully transcend denial. She doesn't come face to face with the futility of anger and revenge, the impossibility of shaking the earth, the fact that the violence she endured is, in fact, ordinary. The earth keeps spinning and the stars stay in their sky.

But perhaps that, too, is Stern's point. The emptiness of the furious protest, the hollowness of vengeance—these are among the reasons why Stern is not a terrorist herself. She knows the futility of revenge. If shame is a sexually-transmitted disease, infecting others doesn't cure the infected. And screaming at the stars doesn't bring them down from their sky—even when it really should.

Read an excerpt from this book.


From the author's website: 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. Visit her website.

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