Review: Denial by Jessica Stern

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Jessica Stern was fifteen years old when she was raped. She and her fourteen-year old sister were alone at her step-mother's home in a safe neighborhood where rapes don't happen, doing their homework, when a gun-wielding skinny man with a strong cologne and concord accent walked in and raped them. When they however reported the crime, the police were skeptical.

For the next more than thirty years, Jessica denied her pain. She became an expert on terrorism. However, she found herself incapable of feeling fear. Instead, she realized that she was hyper-vigilant when threatened. Eventually, she decides to learn more about her own unsolved rape and her rapist. What she comes to learn is not entirely to her satisfaction, but she ends up seeing her symptoms in some other people loosely connected to her rapist, and also in her own father. She learns to accept that she has been in denial for so long and that she indeed is still exhibiting symptoms of trauma.

Denial is a very candid look at Jessica's life and her many trials. We learn what drove her to study terrorism, and why she felt compelled to talk to the "bad guys" terrorists and go to dangerous places in Iraq and Afghanistan; why she barely felt any fear in situations that would normally put most people into panic mode. We also see more of her childhood and how more incidents than the rape were responsible in some way for her trauma. Throughout the book, we see the experiences of several other people as well, through Jessica's eyes. We see how her father grew up as a Jewish during the rise of the Nazis, how he learned to bottle up the past and move forward, and how inadvertently Jessica learns the same tactics. We look at Jessica's rapist's life, not just as a violator, but as a human being who similarly went through several disappointments and tragic circumstances. We are also introduced to the rapist's friends and how they insist that the guy is actually very nice and wouldn't rape anyone. And yet, Jessica sees the cloud hanging around their words each time.

Jessica could hardly remember much about the day she was raped. She had forgotten most of the details and continues to forget them even after reading the police reports on the rape, including her own statements. She is understandably angry that much of her life hinged on that one night. Her narration is occasionally venomous, as she contemplates potential scenarios with her rapist. She wants to kill him, and she doesn't mince words confessing that. But in the same vein, she admits her guilt at being plagued by such demonic thoughts.
Would I ever heal? No, I would not. I would become someone else.
Denial was a very powerful read for me. I struggled to connect during the first 50 pages with the narration but soon I warmed up to it and couldn't put the book down. Jessica introduces us to several stark characters - some endearing, some not, whose actions stay with me long after I closed the book. There is the grandfather who has naked showers with her, the research assistant who knows what Jessica is going through, since he has seen it in his own father, another victim of the same rapist who was ashamed of her own body for many years. Then there is Jessica's troubled childhood. Jessica often tries to postpone the inevitable - meeting with a friend of the rapist or with the police lieutenant who has been helping her get information. At these times, she starts worrying about mundane things and keeps repeating her actions. At other times, she gets increasingly rude even though she doesn't mean to.
Some people's lives seem to flow in a narrative; mine had many stops and starts. That's what trauma does. It interrupts the plot. You can't process it because it doesn't fit with what came before or what comes afterward. A friend of mine, a soldier, put it this way. In most of our lives, most of the time, you have a sense of what is to come. There is a steady narrative, a feeling of "lights, camera, action" when big events are imminent. But trauma isn't like that. It just happens, and then life goes on. No one prepares you for it.

Denial is more than a memoir of a woman who was raped more than thirty years ago. It talks about the pervasiveness of humiliation and shame - how one life touched by humiliation can pass it on to another life through any despicable manner. This sets in motion a vicious cycle. I wish Jessica had given her sister's side of affairs as well, considering the tragedy happened to both of them together, and also considering that he sister dealt with it differently. In so many ways, Denial is about her connection with several people having some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder - people she knows or people she contacted to learn more about her rapist; it is a confession of the trivial things that bother her when bigger things hardly cause a dent; it is about the trauma that haunted her all her life; it is also, in Jessica's words, a way "to speak out for those who cannot speak".


Check out this book published by HarperCollins (Ecco) @ Goodreads, BetterWorldBooks, Amazon, B&N.

I received this book for free from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.

9 comments:

Marieke said...

This is really interesting because I just finished another rape memoir, Lucky by Alice Sebold, and post-traumatic stress was definitely an issue for her, even though she got her rapist convicted.

I can't stand the thought that the police wouldn't believe two teenage girls reporting a rape!

bermudaonion said...

Wow, this sounds like a very disturbing story. I cannot imagine living my life like that.

Ash said...

This sounds like a really powerful story and a little different from other rape memoirs I've heard of before. I'm always shocked when I hear how skeptical the police are to women who claim they've been raped, it just shames them and makes them internalize everything they went through.

Helen's Book Blog said...

Wow! I just heard the author of this book interviewed on NPR yesterday, then I saw it listed somewhere else and now on your blog! It sounds so interesting but so difficult to read. Thanks for the review

Medeia Sharif said...

I heard of this book elsewhere, but it's going to go on my wish list. I might find it hard to read, though, because of the intensity.

Lynne said...

Just got this book in the mail the other day and can't wait to read it. I know I'll like it since I looooove my memoirs :) Great review, Aths. You always do such a nice job.

Callista said...

That sounds like a very interesting book!

Also, I gave you an award!

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Sounds heart wrenching yet informative. Great review!

heathertlc said...

This book would be a bit too intense for me, but I've heard some great things about it from other bloggers. Thanks for being a part of the tour.