Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Transmission of Terror

Jessica Stern was the expert on terrorism before everyone else became an expert on terrorism. Her 2001 book, The Ultimate Terrorists, and her 2003 book, Terror in the Name of God, showed what everyone else was missing: that terrorism was, and is, a unique force in shaping the idea of conflict in the 21st century. While everyone else was grubbing around in the rubble of the collapsed Soviet Union and spending billions of dollars of elaborate missile shields and ever more massive destroyers, Stern was traveling through Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan and interviewing the modern architects of terror.

That Stern saw the threads of the modern terrorist threat before many others were listening or taking it seriously is remarkable, but even more fascinating is that Stern, a Jewish woman, successfully interviewed dozens of terrorists, even during and after the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl. How did Stern do it?

Denial: A Memoir of Terror is Stern's attempt to explain that, both to herself and to readers. Denial traces Stern's revisit of her and her sister's rapes as young teenagers in safe, suburban Concord. What Stern found out during the course of her research is no less astonishing, and infuriating, than what she's uncovered in her other work.

Stern had, or thought she had, successfully moved past the trauma of her rape. She credited her psychological survival, and her later success at interviewing some of the world's most dangerous men, to her ability to disassociate herself from her emotions and completely eliminate any feelings of terror. But at the same time, Stern writes that as she felt less and less terror, she felt less and less joy. The numbness was spreading.

Stern discovered that the idea she had harbored of her attack as a grotesque aberration in an otherwise safe town was an illusion, and her research also exposed fault lines in her family that had lain dormant for decades.

In the course of her research, Stern discovered that despite her attacker committing similar crimes with nearly identical characteristics, the Concord police refused to believe that there was a serial attacker in their district. They closed Stern's file after barely two weeks of lackadaisical investigation, insinuating that she and her sister knew their attacker and lied about it.

Brian Beat went on to assault forty-four other women and girls. One committed suicide.

With the help of a police lieutenant, Stern collected redacted copies of related cases, seeing clearly for the first time how her assault fit into a wider web of violence. Although Beat killed himself before Stern began her research, and she was never able to answer this definitively, Stern's discovery of a ring of pedophiliac priests and their now-adult victims, many of whom knew Beat, in a lower-income town near her upper-class enclave led her to conclude that Beat was one of their victims.

Why did Stern title this memoir Denial? Denial, more than terror, permeates the book, from the reaction of her father to the inaction of the police. In a series of interviews with her father, Stern revisits her assault and her mother's death, and, using the techniques honed in her interviews with terrorists, begins probing at the gulf between her memories and her father's recollection.

Denial is a raw, almost breathless book. Unlike the measured prose of her other works, Denial unspools in layers as Stern's attack on her topic unravels layers of silence and denial around her assault, her father's absence, and her mother's death.

No comments:

Post a Comment