When I read Jessica Stern's Terror in the Name of God in 2003, I wondered how she could walk fearlessly into terrorist strongholds to interview warlords, a practice that got her colleague Daniel Pearl beheaded. She answers that question in her latest book, Denial, as she explores fragments of her childhood that she had been hiding from herself and others.
Stern and her younger sister were barely toddlers when their mother, fighting cancer, died from radiation experiments by their grandfather, a physician who had lost his hospital privileges. He had already begun sexually grooming Jessica, taking her into the shower, causing recurrent nightmares of a "sickeningly soft white slug" that spoke nauseating things to her.
In 1973, the sisters were young teens, their father in Europe with his third wife, when a stranger with a gun broke into the home where they were staying, forced them to put on little girl's clothes, and raped them. Police in the tranquil town of Concord, Massachusetts, refused to believe the girls did not know their assailant. The same pedophile had raped girls since 1971 with at least 44 victims around Concord, Cambridge, Natick, and Martha's Vineyard. Police never warned those communities of the danger and closed the Sterns' file when their father claimed his daughters had gotten over the ordeal.
Thirty-three years later, with Jessica Stern's renewed interest, a Concord police lieutenant doggedly searched files from several towns and identified the serial rapist, who already had gone to prison, come home, and hung himself.
Stern interviews her rapist's old friends and discovers a history of denial in his hometown, which had been afflicted by a succession of pedophile priests. Denial also dominated Stern's father, whose Jewish family suffered appalling brutality in the Holocaust.
This startlingly honest memoir reveals the ways that ordinary people go numb in the face of unbearable truth and shows the damage this denial does to children whose outcries are not believed.
Readers who want linear narration may struggle with her extraordinary writing as Stern draws us into the foggy, repetitive texture of her own dissociating mind. She demonstrates the "irresistible" power of denial, not only for victims, but also "for bystanders who want to get on with their lives."
Dissociation still overwhelms this expert with intolerable sleepiness or sudden hypervigilance. Her research assistant gently points out similarities between her and his father, who brought his PTSD symptoms home from Vietnam.
Stern describes the way Pakistani clergy and terrorists rape schoolboys on Thursday nights (then seek religious absolution on Fridays) to humiliate them into becoming fearless jihadists. Local Pakistanis and U.S. intelligence know about this systemic rape in the madrasahs, she says, but they remain silent about it. Stern's website includes her interview on this subject.
In her own family, both Stern and her aging father find redemption through sharing their most unspeakable memories. She dedicates the book to him.
Anne Grant writes online and elsewhere about children traumatized by domestic violence, sexual assault and legal abuse in family courts.