by Michele Beller
Jessica Stern’s memoir is aptly titled: Denial: A Memoir of Terror. Stern opens by describing a terrifying experience, indeed: at 15, she and her 14-year-old sister were raped, at gunpoint, in her small and historic hometown of Concord, Massachusetts—a town where “rape at gunpoint was unimaginable” in 1973. No rapist was caught—in fact, the sisters’ story was not completely believed—and the case was closed.
Recalling her childhood decades later, Ms. Stern explains that through the remainder of her teenage years, bad grades in writing classes convinced her to switch her childhood dream of becoming a writer to the “more unemotional” discipline of chemistry—it was “comforting that the answers were either right or wrong, unlike in real life.” She ultimately found a successful career as an expert on terrorism, submitting to her “intense curiosity about the terrorists themselves.” She was “fascinated by the secret motives of violent men” and visited terrorist training camps in faraway places like Pakistan to interview them. On one hand her career choice sounds dangerous and crazy; but Stern articulates her need “to understand the motivations of the terrorists” as an attempt to “tame a terror” that otherwise threatened to overwhelm her. What she later discovered was that her career choice was a manifestation of the post-traumatic stress disorder she didn’t even realize she was suffering from until she went to see a therapist.
Reading Stern’s story, decades after her rape and subsequent burial of the memory, I was both repelled and rapt; I couldn’t bear to read on, and I couldn’t put the book down. Stern’s journey became my journey: it dredged up memories of my own mucky story and rattled alarms in the dusty synapses of my brain.
Stern and her sister had just ridden their bicycles home from ballet class and were doing homework at their ex-stepmother’s house, alone, while their father was away on a trip with his new wife (their mother died when Stern was three). She recalls the many emotions that pummeled her following the event: immobilizing fear; shame “to the core”; the thought that she had always been a good girl; the desire to say aloud, “I am not a criminal!” as she shivered under the cold, fluorescent-bright lights of the hospital examination room. She remembers wondering why she didn’t scream, bite, fight back. She remembers a foggy feeling, a nausea. She remembers now that her father did not cut short his trip and did not come home immediately, and she wonders why she had forgotten that fact.
I also wonder why I didn’t fight back; and how my own “good girl” self-image unraveled. Not just unraveled: I felt shameful after. After. After I was raped.
I began acting my shamefulness out, spiraling downward from a happy, eager child into a darkly troubled teen, and carrying this troubled persona into adulthood. A bell of familiarity clanged in my head when I read that Stern’s father defended himself, reminding her how much he “tried to help” her during her “troubled childhood.” The exasperated voice of my mother came back to haunt—“You have a fear of success,” she would say to me when I was at my lowest.
When I was 15, my parents divorced and my father moved out; as the oldest child of a white father and black mother, painfully shy and already struggling with a sense of misfit-ness, the divorce compounded my confusion and displacement. My parents had wed in 1958, a time when it was still illegal for them to marry in 16 states. Illegal to create babies like me. We had also recently moved from the small college town of Oxford, Ohio, to a suburb of Los Angeles, the mostly-white San Fernando Valley, where my dad took a new teaching job at San Fernando Valley State College. Not long after the divorce, my mother’s new boyfriend moved in. It didn’t take long before he made his move: I was 15, like Stern. I was jarred awake one night, from the safety of my cozy girly-bed, by this large man hovering above me. It was dark and I was groggy from sleep. “Your mother and I discussed it,” he said, “and we agreed this would be the best thing for you.” I wasn’t even sure what he meant, but I knew he was the grown-up and I was not supposed to challenge him; I was supposed to obey the grown-up people. But the whole scene seemed surreal, something not right. I was scared. Was I in trouble for something? I had no strength to resist, to fight back, to try to get away. Even now, this is very hard to write. Shameful to remember. Immobilized, I lay stock-still and frozen by fear as he lumbered on top of me, forced my legs open, and forced his way inside me.
Reading Stern’s Denial splashed me into the wide-blue Ocean of Truth, treading or floating I couldn’t say, and slapped me in the face with wave after salty wave of déjà-vu—she was writing about me. I, like Stern, still can’t understand why I went into a “trancelike state” during the rape and continue to enter that state whenever I feel threatened. On the surface at least, some of my deepest shame now comes from the feeling that I’ve made so many mistakes in life, so many poor choices, failed to act smartly in too many situations, and instead defaulted into my familiar fog of underachievement. Unlike Stern, however, I continued to avoid facing my terror. It ruled me: the idea of “taming” it never occurred to me.
Shortly after the rape, when I turned 16 and could drive, I left my mother’s home and began my peripatetic life. I dropped out of high school, having long before abandoned my bookish pleasures (although I had youthfully fancied myself a writer), wasting years wandering through life in an endless rotation of menial jobs, hanging out with under-achiever types, and wondering why I was so miserable. I took the G.E.D. exam and entered college in my twenties; by the end of sophomore year I dropped out again, falling into another cycle of foggy wandering.
Physician-researcher Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery and a pioneer in the field of trauma, argues that “the ordinary response to atrocities” is to simply deny them, “banish them from consciousness.” And denial, Stern asserts, “is immensely seductive”—not only a life-preserver “in the moment of terror” for the victim, it’s “irresistible for bystanders who want to get on with their lives.” But illustrating how dangerous it can be, Stern notes that in her case the denial of her community “resulted in many additional child rapes—at least 44—and the suicide of at least one of the victims.” I was struck by a note she read in her police files, made four months after her rape at gunpoint: “Personal visit. Spoke to Mr. Stern. He states nothing new to add. He feels that both girls seem to have forgotten it.” Community denial.
I remember standing in the kitchen corner leaning against the avocado-colored washer, terribly troubled, telling my mother I needed to talk. I remember her stoic response, her tightlipped behavior. Her non-response. Shazam. It became my dirty secret. My shame. I realize now that she did not know what to do with this information I ambushed her with, that she was probably stunned and hurt herself by what this man did to me. I learned later that he had told her he was going to investigate a noise he had heard in the house, a possible intruder. But her only reaction was non-reaction. Denial. And at that moment, I needed her to protect me; validate me; salve my pain.If the night of the rape was the moment when the door that forever changed my young life was opened, this was the moment when that door closed behind me, with my mother on the other side.
I fell into running from my problems, both literally and figuratively: living on the edge, pushing limits; and traveling to various corners of the world competing in ultramarathons and Ironman-distance triathlons, as if, through actual running, I could escape. I never stayed in one place for long. When I got into a situation I couldn’t handle, I simply left and never came back. And like Stern, it took decades for me to “remember” my rape. Just as she did, I simply wiped it from memory—at least, I thought I did.
Healing—what Stern and others call post-traumatic growth—is also part of Stern’s story, and mine, too. Growth. I like the way that word wraps around me and sprouts new green leaves. Herman argues that “recovery requires remembrance and mourning.” For Stern, then, writing her memoir was a way to remember, to discover the reasons for her post-traumatic stress disorder—a process, she observes, “far more frightening than interviewing terrorists.” Stern notes that the man who raped her kept telling her to “be quiet,” which she has done all her life. But now, she says boldly, she will speak. And speak she does.
Years ago when I was seeing a therapist, I remember reading that same diagnosis—post-traumatic stress disorder—on an insurance form the therapist handed me to submit to my insurance company so that I might get reimbursed. Until I read Stern’s memoir, I believed the diagnosis on that paper had nothing to do with me and was simply a group of words written to help me recover my expenses. I now realize that the therapist really meant it when she wrote it.
As it turns out, literature, by which I mean both the reading of it and the writing of it, is an excellent vehicle for reconstructing one’s life. It moves both reader and writer; it pushes them toward remembrance and mourning, calms the Ocean of Truth and cracks open the stormy skies to sunlight. It provides liberation for the writer, who may be writing as a victim of trauma or a witness to it. “When the truth is finally recognized,” Herman asserts, “survivors can begin their recovery.”
At 49, I left my career in the fitness industry (no more “running”) to write—a quest which not only allowed me to dive back into my beloved books but has also propelled me toward deconstructing my trauma.
Stern writes about becoming “hypervigilant” after being raped; and then refers to her “luck” in falling into work that made good use of that hyper-vigilance. Luck? Writer Alice Sebold notes in the memoir of her rape, titled, simply, Lucky, that the police told her a girl had been “murdered and dismembered” in the same tunnel where she was brutally beaten and raped, and by comparison, she was “lucky.” It seems paradoxical, counterintuitive, that “luck” would have any alliance with rape, or that the two words should even be allowed to occupy the same sentence. After a rape, does a woman feel lucky to be alive? Lucky because it could have been worse? Lucky because there is always someone who got it worse? This idea helps keep her silent; it surely helped me “forget.” I was not disfigured or dismembered; how could I complain?
Indeed, “repression is a seamless garment,” writes Salman Rushdie in his novel Shame; and this is exactly why we as a community should feel compelled to speak: quietly, boldly, or clamorously; individually, through others, or collectively; through our own narratives, or as witnesses to the stories of others. I spent decades of my life actively forgetting before finally feeling ready to bear witness. How many others are there, like me or worse? “I have been quiet all my life,” declares Stern, “but now I will speak.” What a welcome voice hers is; in fact, at one point she reports that a “grandiose thought” came to her: “[T]his is why I have to write my book . . . to speak out for those who cannot speak.”
I, too, have been quiet all my life; but I will hide in silenced shame no more. For me, the act of writing this essay was a monumental effort. It’s a way for me to finally face the truth so I can march forward in my recovery; like Stern, my wish is to use my voice to speak out for others who cannot speak, and to encourage those who can. The experience of trauma is never about luck, and neither is its recovery. Recovery from trauma is about two things: remembering, and telling the truth.
And so, I write.
Michele Beller was operations manager for an international fitness chain before leaving her career in the fitness industry to immerse herself in researching her family’s mixed-race history and writing their fascinating story. She is associate editor for Kapu-Sens: The Literary Journal of the Africana Studies Department at Cal State Northridge, and her work has been published in poeticdiversity, Metamorphoses, Triathlete, and in a forthcoming book on women in the Black Power Movement. The Trouble with Virginia is her first novel. Her blog is https://randomaunt.wordpress.com/.
Homepage photo credit: A selection of good luck charms used by soldiers during the First World War via Wellcome Images