Don’t look at Jessica Stern as a victim or a survivor

She is the author of Terror in the Name of God – Why Religious Militants Kill, an expert who served on the staff of President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, from 1994 to 1995. In a new book, Denial – A Memoir, she breaks the story of being herself terrorised and traumatised.  (Read more…)

© National Public Radio

’s CV is impressive: former “Superterrorism Fellow” at the Council on Foreign Relations; National Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council, under President Bill Clinton. Considered “the foremost U.S. expert on terrorism”, she is a lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

In 2004, she published a “crucial and provocative” book, Terror in the Name of God – Why Militants Kill, after interviews with extremist Christians, Jews and Muslims, providing what was considered “unprecedented insight to acts of inexplicable horror”.

She has now a new new book, Denial – A Memoir, on her own terror and trauma, revisiting her past in 1973, when she, then 15, and her  14-year-old sister were raped by a gunman who entered their home in the suburbs of Boston.

She gave me this interview on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI to Portugal, in middle of sex abuses scandals that afflicted the Roman Catholic Church.

After your second book on terrorism, you found yourself “wanting to understand what had happened to [me] during and after [my] rape”. I understand the need to reinvestigate your past (a 33-year-old case) and no longer “to hide the shame”, but why writing a book, sharing with strangers  the trauma, family secrets, intimate thoughts?

This is not the book I set out to write. I meant to write yet another book on terrorism.  As an experiment, I wrote a short vignette, describing my rape, intending to use the story to describe what it feels like to be terrorised. I wasn’t sure, at the time, whether I would identify the “I” in that vignette as myself.

When my editor saw the vignette, he suggested that I throw the rest of the book out, and write a book, instead, about my rape and my unusual reaction to it.  I was stunned. I was worried that writing about my own experience of terror would ruin my career.

For six months, I continued writing my book on terrorism.  But, on the days I wasn’t at the library, I gave in to an irresistible curiosity; I went back to the police in my hometown and requested the complete file.

The officer who copied the file for me read it and was astonished by how much information there was in the file, and puzzled that the crime had not been solved. When the rape occurred in 1973, the police were in denial.

They did not believe my sister and me when we told them we did not know the rapist, or that such a brutal crime could have occurred in our safe, suburban town.  It’s not that different from what is happening in the Catholic Church today.  Disbelief and denial are the easier course.


Thirty-five years later, however, the police finally believed me. It did not take very long to realize that this was a serial rapist of children, who might still be at large, even though my rape had occurred so many years before.

The police reopened the case. Once they did that, it was hard for me to resist writing a book about the investigation.

I knew that the “true-crime” aspect of the story would be of interest to other people. But more than that, I felt a need to write about what it feels like to live with the memory of rape and abuse.  I had never really felt the rage and pain that I ought to have felt as a child.

I, too, was in denial.  Instead, I felt shame.  Revisiting the rape thirty-five years after it occurred, I found myself feeling rage – not only at my own rapist, but at all rapists of children, all over the world, including members of the clergy who abuse or rape children.  I wanted to.

Some parts of your book are not very clear. Did your grandfather (who killed your mother) abuse you? Why didn’t you confront him? Could the Nazis have raped your grandmother? Was your rapist a victim of “predatory priests” and became a serial rapist (44 women) because of his own trauma?

© Medical News Today

I could not answer these questions definitively because I was not able to prove “yes” or “no.”  I am not certain what my grandfather did to me.

I know, based on a letter we found nearly fifty years after my mother wrote it, that I displayed at age three what childcare providers would now consider worrying behaviours indicative of possible sexual abuse, behaviours that today – were they observed by someone outside the family – a would likely trigger further investigation.

My grandmother told me that when I was a child, my step-grandmother had told her that my grandfather was sexually abusing me.  But my grandmother imparted this information to me only as “proof” that my step-grandmother was unstable, not as an issue that she should have raised with my grandfather.

At the time she told me this – some thirty years ago – I knew what rape at gunpoint meant, since it happened to me when I was fifteen, and there were police and hospital records available to back up my memory.

But I didn’t understand what childhood sexual abuse meant; or what it might mean for my long-term mental health, if my step-grandmother’s claims were actually true.

I know that I had recurring nightmares about a flaccid penis when I was a small child, and that I had a horror of certain places in the house – but dreams and feelings do not prove anything. I know that my grandfather took me in the shower with him, when I was old enough to feel utterly repulsed by him.

I know that he was a lecherous, vulgar man whose interest in my breasts during my teenage years made me excruciatingly uncomfortable; even as he was also a loving man.

It is paradoxical. The shower incident alone would be considered a form of sexual abuse, but beyond what I’m reporting here, I’m not sure what he did because my memory is too hazy.

I realize this may be frustrating for the reader, but the frustrating uncertainty in the reader’s mind reflects a frustrating (but perhaps protective?) haziness in my own.

This not-knowing precisely what occurred is part of the pain that many victims live with.  [I did not query my father about this because he would not have witnessed what occurred. My sister and I spent a lot of time without him at our grandparents’ house.]

As for whether the Nazis raped my father’s mother, I do not answer that question definitely either, because my grandmother is dead and I cannot ask her.  Even though my father described a scene that sounded like a rape, he insists that his mother had “washer woman knees” and that no one would ever see her as a sexual object.

But rape is used as a weapon of war.  It is used against the very old and the very young, not just against those considered to be sexual objects.  So I don’t find my father’s arguments persuasive, but I cannot prove him wrong.

Finally, there is the question: Was my rapist abused by a priest? Here, too, there is circumstantial evidence, but nothing close to proof.

There are many reasons to suspect that he was – not only because of the abuse that was repeatedly reported to have occurred in his church and in his town, but also because of rituals he appeared to be reenacting during some of his rapes.

He was clearly confused about his sexuality.  He frequented gay bars and he told the US military that he could not serve on account of his homosexuality. But he had sexual relations with women as well, and he raped many young girls.

© South China Morning Post

Everyday, newspapers all over the world are full of reports on  sexual scandals in the Catholic Church. Rabbis have also been accused of molesting Jewish children. And you wrote about sexual abuses of madrassa students in Pakistan and rape of boys in Afghanistan, two Muslim countries. Did your trauma affect the way you look at God, religion and/or human nature? Have you got an answer to your question, “Could sexual traumas be a form of humiliation that contributes to contemporary Islamist terrorism?”

Sadly, sexual abuse of children is a relatively common problem.  It occurs around the globe and across religions, not just in the Catholic Church.  It was also relatively common in secular, boarding schools. It is always a tragedy, whenever it occurs.

Sometimes the victims imagine themselves to be largely unaffected, psychologically; but the impact can sneak up on you, over time.

It was only after investigating my own rape, and allowing myself to feel the terror and rage and sadness that I had long kept under wraps, that I understood the importance of something I had heard about in Pakistan but was afraid to discuss in print – the sexual abuse of children in Pakistani madrassas and the rape of boys in Afghanistan.

It is remarkable that this sexual abuse is frequently discussed in the Pakistani media, but it is unknown in the West.  And Western soldiers are clearly aware that Afghan warlords and commanders are raping boys, but they do not talk about it, and you never read about it in the media.

The members of jihadi terrorist groups that I interviewed for my last book frequently spoke about the humiliation of Islamic civilization, allegedly at the hands of the West, as one of the factors that led them to choose their profession.

I have begun to wonder whether this feeling of humiliation, routinely described by Islamist extremist terrorists, could sometimes have been caused by rape or sexual abuse.  To be clear: I do not believe that sexual abuse or rape is a “root cause” of terrorism.  But I do believe that it might be one risk factor.

It is my fervent hope that publicizing this open secret will result in further study  – whether by physicians, theologians, scholars, or NGO’s.  But it will be very hard, because shame keeps victims quiet, just as occurred for so many years in the Catholic Church.

Eventually, I imagine that the damn will burst, just as it has in the Catholic Church, and victims will finally speak up, and the practice, one hopes, will finally stop.

Here is what I think is most important for the Pope and the Catholic Church to understand.  Denying the pain of others is a symptom of moral laziness.

Denial helps the bystander, who cannot bear to live with the knowledge of the victim’s pain, especially when he feels in any way responsible for it.  But denial is, in many ways, a secondary assault.

The victim, too, cannot bear to believe. He may bury or dissociate from or disown his pain. He may drink or take drugs or become unwittingly promiscuous, compelled to repeat the violation again and again, sometimes in the role of victim, sometimes in the role of perpetrator.

To be treated as an object in a perpetrator’s dream, rather than the subject of your own- these are bad enough. But when observers become complicit in the victim’s desire to forget, they become perpetrators, too.

When authorities disbelieve the victim, when bystanders refute what they cannot bear to know, they rob the victim of normal existence on the earth. Bystander and victim collude in denial or forgetting, and in so doing, repeat the abuse.

© Thomson Reuters Foundation News

You kept on investigating your rapist after you got the news that he was dead. “I need to put him in a coffin, and to do that, I need to understand him”, you said. Did you manage that? Is he haunting you, yet?

I cannot say that he is not haunting me any more.  But he is haunting me a lot less.

You complained that you were unable of feeling fear. Now that you “learned to recognise the sensation of fear”, will you go on interviewing terrorists? Why is it important the “terror feeling”?

It is important to recognise the sensation of fear because fear can keep us safe.  Now, most of the time when it is appropriate to feel fear, I recognise the sensation.  In part as a result of this, and in part because I have a child, I cannot interview terrorists in the field anymore.

Now I only interview former terrorists, or youth who are attracted to the idea of terrorism but are unlikely ever to join terrorist groups.

You recognised as one of the effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) the “difficulty of accepting love or trusting others to care of you”. And you said: “I have learned (I hope) to love”. Are you a different person now? 

I believe that being raped influenced all my relationships, including with my family.  I am sure it influenced my choice of friends and partners, and that it made me over-protective of my child. I am not a different person as a result of having confronted my terrors.  I still cannot stand certain sounds and scents.

The scent of mildew makes me depressed. A clicking sound often makes me feel ready to scream. What is different is that I understand more about these triggers, and can sometimes even anticipate them. I think that my relationships with my family and others are much more honest now.


“I know I will never be cured”, you also said. What advice would you give to other rape victims and to those experiencing PTSD?

One person asked me if I would advise other rape victims to try to find and confront their rapists.  I would not, unless they feel the need, very strongly.  Revisiting a trauma like rape can be quite destabilizing.

My sister and I didn’t receive therapy at the time of our rape because no one understood the long-term impact, at the time.   But I think therapy is probably a good idea. I have a long list of resources at – both for victims or rape and for people suffering from PTSD.  We are adding to the list as we discover more.

In your police file you were described as “stern” – your surname. Do you agree? You don’t like the words “victim” and “survivor”. What’s the best definition?

I think we are all victims and survivors. But I would not want to be defined as either one.  I would prefer to be known as a person who did her best to love her family and as a person, who tried to impart the truth, even, or especially, when it is most difficult.

Jessica Stern is considered “the foremost U.S. expert on terrorism”

Parts of this interview were included in an article originally published in the Portuguese newspaper PÚBLICO, on May 14, 2010

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