Q&A: Terrorism Expert Jessica Stern on Her Own Terror and Trauma

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Photo by Joel Benjamin

For decades, Jessica Stern had been one of the nation’s leading experts on terrorism. She served on the staff of President Clinton’s National Security Council and on the Council on Foreign Relations. She wrote a New York Times Notable book about religious terror. Her work fighting nuclear terrorism inspired a character played by Nicole Kidman in the 1997 film The Peacemaker. But for most of that time, Stern kept silent about her own experience of being terrorized and traumatized.

On Oct. 1, 1973, Stern, then 15, and her 14-year-old sister were raped by a gunman who entered their unlocked home in a quiet neighborhood in the suburbs of Boston. (More on Time.com: Study: Playing Tetris to Prevent PTSD Flashbacks)

Until she was about to turn 50, Stern never considered the connections between her childhood trauma, her dangerous job and her ability to remain fearless in the presence of violent men. She didn’t recognize that her unusual choice of career and some of her most important skills had been shaped by her own trauma.

In her new book Denial: A Memoir of Terror, Stern tells her story for the first time. It’s a compelling investigation into her own life, the life of the serial rapist who committed at least 44 similar crimes and the way trauma affects everyone it touches, sometimes in surprisingly positive ways. (More on Time.com: How the Chilean Miners Will Cope: Q&A with a Trauma Expert)

What made you want to write about the circumstances surrounding your rape after all these years?

I went to see a therapist because I felt that my feelings were getting in the way of my work. I was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which I didn’t believe. Everyone knows that PTSD is something veterans get, not victims of rape — or so I thought. Now looking back at what I did professionally and so on, it’s so obvious, it almost feels embarrassing. [But] I didn’t study [experiencing terror], I studied terrorism.

[Also,] I was writing my third book on terrorism. And I had written a vignette describing what feels like to be terrorized. My editor said throw out the other book idea, and write about what happened when you were raped. I thought that would ruin my career, so I didn’t even bother saying no. But I got curious. And then, once I was getting all the files and once the police reopened the case and I realized it was serial rapist, I got drawn in. (More on Time.com: Mind Reading: An Author Takes Back Her Accusation of Incest)

It utterly astonished me the way this case was handled. There was a serial rapist holding young women and teenage girls at gunpoint on or near the Harvard University campus, yet the school didn’t warn people he was on the loose. Even though they knew this guy existed, police suggested that you and your 14-year-old sister were really lying about some presumably consensual incident with some boyfriend.

The fact that they didn’t believe us meant that the next person he raped, she killed herself.

[Before the book came out], Amy Vorenberg, who is called “Lucy” in the book [contacted me] and said, “I want you to use my real name.” [It was too late to change it]. So she wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe. She was 13 years old [when she was raped] and the daughter of the dean of Harvard Law School. There were about 18 or 20 attacks in an eight-block area [near Harvard’s Radcliffe campus].

It’s unbelievable. Part of what makes Amy’s op-ed so powerful is that she was rape No. 12 and Harvard didn’t tell anyone. Even the Dean of Harvard Law didn’t know there was a rapist active in that neighborhood. (More on Time.com: Study: Why Child Abuse Investigations Don’t Help Kids)

But how could they have been so clueless, even in the 1970s?

[I think] they thought they would ruin this child’s life if they did anything that could possibly reveal the identity of the victim. But they were “protecting” the immediate victim at the expense of the entire neighborhood. It was the way people thought back then.

Your dad is a Holocaust survivor and you write about how hurt you were that he didn’t immediately come home from a business trip when he was told what had happened.

If you hear that your kid was raped at gunpoint, it’s one of the worst things that could happen in life. You can’t imagine how you could live through it. For my father, if anything it was worse than it would be for someone who didn’t already have this Nazi Germany experience. Part of what I’m doing in book is looking at the intergenerational transmission of trauma.

His experience made it especially hard for him to be able to be there for you. But some of the other children did get support.

“Lucy” slept with her mother every day, her parents sent her to therapy, they told her whole school, everybody knew. Her parents were really ahead of their time. They didn’t want her to be alone with the knowledge that her life had changed or to have to pretend everything was O.K. They wanted her to have the support. And if you look at the data, the most important thing [for resilience and recovery] is the support systems [people have] after the fact.

So, what is it like interviewing terrorists after having come to terms with your own experience of trauma?

I don’t go do dangerous things any more. There are lots of reasons for that. One is that I have a child. Another is I’ve been treated [for PTSD]. Another is that the world has really changed. After Daniel Pearl [was beheaded], it’s pretty hard to persuade yourself that it’s O.K. for Americans to go talk to bin Laden’s [fighters]. They’re interested in killing Americans, it’s not just rhetoric. Before September 11, I think what I did was kind of meshuggana [crazy]. I think it’s a lot more dangerous today. (More on Time.com: A New Study Shows How We Can Prevent Some Cases of PTSD)

Are there things you’ve learned from coping with trauma that helped you when you were working with terrorists? Is it useful, for instance, to be able to focus intensely on threat and be hypervigilant, or to tune out the world and dissociate — responses people develop when traumatized?

That made it possible for me to do what I did. I think people think of hypervigilance and dissociation, especially dissociation, and see only the downside. There is an upside for certain kinds of work, whether its working in war zone or working for Doctors Without Borders.

It’s really about working in danger. The capacity to remain calm when under threat and to also be able to be quite aware of one’s environment. If you think about what it takes to stay alive for a soldier — they call it PTSD when the soldier retires — but if he didn’t have hypervigilance and dissociation while on the battlefield, he’s a danger to himself and everybody else. Those are exactly the qualities we need them to have. If you are a military commander, you would be upset by soldiers who didn’t have those qualities.

At home, however, being focused on avoiding threat and “tuning out” can cause problems.

Yes, in another environment they can be maladaptive. I realize that being hypervigilant is not a good quality in a mom and not a good quality in any close relationship that isn’t on the battlefield. It’s not attractive in normal human relationships, but is completely adaptive in very dangerous situations.

How does it cause problems in relationships?

I can overreact to things. What I have to look out for is being overprotective of my son. That’s really hard to get right. [And] certain things will trigger me, certain topics of conversation. Sexual violence can come up and I’ll react oddly. I can become judgmental when I’m actually feeling scared.

You’ve talked about posttraumatic growth, not just posttraumatic mental illness.

I think it’s possible to experience posttraumatic growth and decline both at same time. I think I have both. Posttraumatic decline is a term I just made up! It’s possible to have growth as well as to remain plagued by certain symptoms. And growth includes an awareness of the fragility of life.

For those who have been truly terrorized, mortality has more meaning and I think that life therefore can have more meaning. For myself, it’s given me more empathy, in some cases almost too much. I feel other people’s feelings too much and that could be a form of hypervigilance. If an extreme form of empathy is a form of hypervigilance, it’s both good and bad, both growth and decline.

When you interviewed terrorists, did you have to empathize with them?

I think that people often confuse sympathy with empathy. I think there’s a big difference. I think that the reason they talked to me is because I was able to really be with their feelings, without judging them at least for as long as I was in the room with them. It doesn’t mean I condone their actions, but when they tell me about why they do what they do I can just listen.

So what role do you think being traumatized plays in terrorism?

I don’t really know but I’m putting out a hypothesis, which I hope that other people will be able to test because I can’t. One thing I’ve known about but was in denial about myself was the sexual abuse of boys at madrassahs. [It’s so routine in Afghanistan that] Thursday night is considered “man loving” night [because everything is believed to be forgiven when people go to the Mosque on Friday]. I have to ask myself, “Why did it take me so long to recognize that this could be important?”

I’m not saying that this is the cause of terrorism. My main finding in regard to terrorism is based on what terrorists themselves say. They talk about humiliation, mostly in political terms, the humiliation of Islamic civilization. It wasn’t until I wrote this book that I thought, “What if kids who have been abused are more susceptible to the [political] argument about humiliation?”

What was the most frightening experience you had when you were interviewing terrorists?

The most terrifying was when I talked to this guy Fazlur Rahman Khalil. He was the head of Harkat Ul Mujahadeen. The guy convicted of killing Daniel Pearl was a member of an offshoot of this organization. This is why Daniel Pearl’s murder was so incredibly traumatic for me [even though] I never met him.

That was a scary situation and I did bizarrely find myself feeling afraid that he was going to poison me. It was an absurd thought. I was [drinking tea with him]. They’re loaded down with guns, so it’s weird that I would think that. I was in Islamabad. This was before September 11. The only time I was really terrified was when I was drinking that tea — I should have felt [scared the whole time] but I didn’t. In retrospect, I can’t believe I did it [at all]. They had kidnapped foreigners already. They had killed some Western hikers.

What do you think motivated the man who raped you?

I do think that he was abused. I can’t prove it, but I think he was abused by a priest. Did that make him who he was? No. If you look at perpetrators, most are victims — but most victims are not perpetrators. It’s not an excuse but it is a partial explanation.

More Mind Reading on TIME.com:

Oliver Sacks on The Mind’s Eye

Christopher Ryan on Sex at Dawn

Heather Sellers on Living with Face Blindness

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