Jessica Stern attributes her professional fascination with violent perpetrators and her ability to remain calm in dangerous situations to the traumatic experience of being raped at age 15 at her Concord, Mass. home. These qualities are the silver lining borne of a horrendous attack, and they have served her well as a former member of President Clinton’s National Security Council, an expert on terrorists and terrorism, and an author.
Stern’s most recent work — “Denial: A Memoir of Terror” — is an autobiographical account of her 1973 rape at gunpoint by a serial rapist who was never caught. She is also the author of “Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill,” which features interviews with Christian, Muslim, Jewish and American fringe group extremists. Stein traveled to Pakistan alone, engaging aspiring mujahedin in dialogue in remote madrassas; she interviewed Jewish radicals in West Bank settlements; and she even included conversations with Texan antiabortion militants and followers of Timothy McVeigh.
Stern, now 55 and living in Cambridge, will be a panelist at Boston Bookfest alongside Valerie Plame Wilson, Wes Craven and Mary Louise Kelly. Their topic is “Writing Terror: An Exploration of Fear.”
“I am fascinated by the secret motivations of violent men, and I’m good at ferreting them out,” she wrote in “Denial.” The 2010 work also describes her close relationship with her father and her identity struggles in the wake of trauma that caused undiagnosed and unacknowledged post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Being the child of a refugee and Holocaust survivor, she believes, exacerbated her painful path to self-identity.
Stern responded to questions by phone:
SS: What was your goal in telling your story?
JS: I had no clue that I had PTSD. I thought it was something soldiers got. I had no idea that the symptoms I had of hyper- and hypo-vigilance were symptoms, and not just who I was. When I mentioned this to my father and sister, both said, “Oh, we have that, too.” It allowed them to talk about this and that has helped all three of us and made us closer. My sister had a harder time with my writing this book (she was also raped during the same incident) but it brought us closer in a more authentic way. My father and I had never spoken about the rape or about why he hadn’t cut short his trip to Europe and come home when it happened. Writing the book allowed us to have those conversations. There is less distance between us.
I have received letters from women who were raped by the same guy I was. Some have written, “You saved my life.” (The paperback edition has a section in the back with reprinted letters from readers).
SS: What does your faith mean to you?
JS: I feel completely Jewish, but I wasn’t really raised Jewish. We didn’t celebrate any of the holidays, not even Passover.
I think being the child of a refugee completely determined my choice of career. It feels to me like a very Jewish choice to study violence. I am finally meeting children of refugees, and I feel like I have a lot in common with them. There is a kind of determination, which I associate with Judaism, but it may be the result of being raised by a Holocaust survivor. There is an emphasis on education and on philanthropy. I hope that, in a way, I am giving back and helping others by writing this book.
SS: Did you ever have second thoughts about writing “Denial”?
JS: Not once I committed to it, but it took a long time to get to that stage. My editor is the one who told me, “You should be writing about your rape.” I resisted at first, but I couldn’t resist doing the investigation with the police. I was afraid that my colleagues wouldn’t take me seriously if I wrote this book.
SS: What are you working on now?
JS: I am working on two books; one about other victims of the same rapist, and one about the war criminals from the Yugoslav tribunal. I’m also developing a concept I call “post-traumatic growth.”