≡ Menu

Review: Denial – A Memoir of Terror by Jessica Stern

Review: Denial – A Memoir of Terror by Jessica Stern post image

Title: Denial: A Memoir of Terror
Author: Jessica Stern
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2010
Acquired: From the publisher for a TLC Book Tours review.
Rating: ★★★☆☆

One Sentence Summary: An expert on terrorism and post-traumatic stress disorder revisits her childhood rape to explore the connections between sexual assault and being terrorized.

One Sentence Review: The format of Denial didn’t exactly work for me, but I still think it’s a book that is important to read and is one that I would still recommend to other readers interested in this topic.

Why I Read It: I’m always interested in memoirs, and the connections this one tried to make seemed important to read about.

Long Review: I have to start this review with a confession – Denial: A Memoir of Terror is not the kind of book I wanted to be reading when I read it, and I wish I’d read it another time because I think it would have worked better for me. Summer just wasn’t the time for me to read a book on a topic as difficult as rape, and I suspect some of my impressions were colored by that.

But I’ll back up: Denial: A Memoir of Terror is Jessica Stern’s attempt to investigate and recover from a childhood sexual assault by a stranger. At the time, Stern seemed fine, and she did not really get the support she needed. However, to most outside eyes she probably seemed fine. In the years after her attack, Stern became an expert on terrorism and terrorists. But in order to do this, Stern says she found herself drawn to dangerous men, but never felt afraid of them.

Then Stern’s case was reopened after the Concord police saw a pattern between her attacker  and other rapes at around the same time. Stern offered to help the investigation, then began her own search to find and understand her rapist. At the same time, she explores what it means to be terrorized and explores the connections between what happened to her and its connections to other forms of terror.

Some parts of Denial were really good. Stern writes in this almost stream-of-consciousness style where she’s both investigating the rape and trying to critically assess her responses to the investigation. This format could get a little bit heady, and sometimes repetitive, but it was always interesting to see this experience from almost two different perspectives.

The stories Stern shares, both about her family and from the people she meets to interview about terror in many forms, are quite good. They’re not easy to read, but it was good to have other voices in the story to explore what it means to be terrorized. Terror has a lot of faces, and the book tries to show many of them.

But at some level, I felt like the book wasn’t sure what it was trying to be. The first few chapters follow Stern’s research into her sexual assault – deciding to investigate, putting it off, getting the police file, reading the notes, and then following up with people connected to her rapist.

Once Stern identifies her rapist and finds out all she can about him, she moves on to a broader look at terror and recovery for victims. She talks to other sexual assault victims, soldiers, and child soldiers and other victims to do this. At this point, the book also starts to feel more academic – there are footnotes and outside research that Stern uses to justify her exploration of terror and PTSD in all its forms.

For whatever reason, this created a disconnect for me. I liked following Stern’s progress and process of research, her conversations with her father, and pieces that talked in this cool meta way about the process of writing this book. The researched parts felt like they pulled away from this, and I didn’t like it.

At the same time, I also really liked the research. It was fascinating to learn what science is starting to tell us about terror and recovery. In the middle of the research, I wanted a lot more about that too.

So in the end it felt like the book tried to do too much and was sitting uncomfortably between two ideas even though I really wanted to know more about both of those things. The topic of this book is important, so for that reason I’m still recommending it, even if it wasn’t quite everything that I wanted it to be. Man, am I a picky reader or what?

tlc logoOther Reviews: Book Nook Club | Take Me Away | Electric/Eccentric | Rundpinne | Heart 2 Heart | lit*chick | Crazy for Books | Reading on a Rainy Day | Jenn’s Bookshelves |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nicole July 12, 2010, 5:44 am

    It sounds really good but i can understand how it might have been different for you if you had read it when you were in the mindset for it. Sometimes that is hard to navigate with review copies. I have struggled with it myself at times.

    The research part does sound really good. The effects of terror on the brain and human behavior are incredibly fascinating. I’m curious as to whether she applied her research and analyzed her own experience.

    • Kim July 19, 2010, 8:12 pm

      Nicole: She did try to apply some of the research to her experiences, but not quite as much as I wanted her too. And yeah, sometimes the challenge of a review copy is to try and think about your own response at the ideal time, which can be hard for me.

  • Amanda July 12, 2010, 6:14 am

    I’ve seen this around in a couple places and I don’t think personally that I could handle this book.

    • Kim July 19, 2010, 8:13 pm

      Amanda: It’s a tough, tough book. I can imagine a lot of people who wouldn’t want to be able to read it.

  • Trisha July 12, 2010, 7:11 am

    At the end of the book, I found myself more interesting in the academic study of terror than I did in the main purpose of the book. I found myself wishing that had been the focus and the rape was secondary.

    • Trisha July 12, 2010, 7:11 am

      err…interested not interesting

    • Kim July 19, 2010, 8:14 pm

      Trisha: I was interested in that too and wanted to know more. I might look for some of her other more academic books on the subject.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) July 12, 2010, 5:21 pm

    I do like memoirs, but I’m not sure this one appeals to me.

    • Kim July 19, 2010, 8:15 pm

      Kathy: Some memoirs are just too hard to read — I can think of a lot on important subjects that just don’t appeal to me either.

  • Jenny July 12, 2010, 5:36 pm

    Hm. I’m torn. I am very interested in how people handle fear, and I am also very interested in childhood sex abuse, but I almost never read memoirs about either of those topics. I like to read scholarly books about them, and am fine with those scholarly books having case studies inside them (in fact I don’t trust them if they don’t). This sounds like it maybe tips a little memoiry for me.

    • Kim July 19, 2010, 8:16 pm

      Jenny: It would probably be too memoiry for your tastes — a lot of the first half is sort of stream of consciousness and experiential, not academic.

  • Stacy (A Novel Source) July 12, 2010, 6:45 pm

    I saw this one and thought it looked really interesting, especially the part about studying PTSD and terror. Didn’t she grow up to work with victims of PTSD? or am I thinking about another book? Ack, they all run together after awhile! I can understand your dilemna though – reading such a heavy subject in the summer is tough and it sounds like it might have been better as two different books, perhaps? Thanks for the thorough review. I still may pick it up when I have time to get to it.

    • Kim July 19, 2010, 8:17 pm

      Stacy: Yep, you’re right. Stern works with experts on terror and with people who have PTSD — she’s well know in the field, I think. I think it’s a good book to read, just at the right kind of time.

  • abuaisha July 12, 2010, 9:06 pm

    A gifted writer with an amazing (amazing – baby word) life. I only wish the ending would have included an interview with her sister as opposed to anecdotal, although well informed, ptsd theorizing of soldiers and possible reasons why terrorist terrorize. Excellent book just the same.

    • Kim July 19, 2010, 8:18 pm

      abuaisha: That’s a good point, actually. I think an interview with her sister would have been a good closer for the book.

  • Lynne July 13, 2010, 6:49 am

    I have this book and will get to it after the huge stack of hold books from the library I’ll be picking up today. Now I’m curious to see what I think of it since I’m a picky reader too 🙂 I don’t know about the combination of the research and her story…

    • Kim July 19, 2010, 8:19 pm

      Lynne: I think the balance is pretty individual. I think because I liked both parts it was ok for me, but if I’d disliked one part it might have been harder to read.

  • Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours July 13, 2010, 7:39 pm

    I completely understand what you’re saying here – I’d think I’d be torn between appreciating and enjoying the research aspect and really getting into the author’s personal story. I’m sorry this one didn’t work out better for you but I’m glad you were a part of this tour.

    • Kim July 19, 2010, 8:19 pm

      Heather: I’m glad I was part of the tour too. It was an odd reaction to a book, I think, liking all the parts but not quite liking how it went together.