Monday, May 2, 2011

Book Review: Denial: A Memoir of Terror by Jessica Stern

I don't generally read a lot of memoirs. I find them tedious, often unsatisfactorily dishonest, and generally prefer my own navel-gazing to that of others. However, I made an exception for Denial: Memoir of Terror by Jessica Stern, as it seemed like it would be more complex and interesting than the usual topics of living wackily for a year, cooking a whole bunch, adopting a new quirky behavior to compensate for a bad breakup, or, my personal favorite, better living through pseudophilosophical poverty tourism (it seems that the best selling personal journey memoirs involve all of the above). Denial's source material was a little different.

Sterns, a renowned terrorism expert, was contacted by a detective from the police department in her hometown out of the blue one day. He had reopened her and her sister's rape case, and was attempting to connect it to a series of assaults that had taken place in nearby towns over the years. He asked for her help. Sterns agreed, and decided to document the process, believing that it would provide her with clues as to why she was capable of interacting with terrorists who had few, if any, qualms about murdering Americans without being afraid, yet was totally crippled by fear when attempting everyday activities and was unable to have a normal relationship with other people. Over the course of the narrative, Stern's research takes her back to her hometown, to the childhood home of her rapist, and eventually to the seaside town of a fellow victim. All the while, she attempts to unravel long-suppressed, complicated feelings concerning the attack and its aftermath, along with the chaos of a childhood that, quite frankly, would have been traumatic even if she hadn't been raped.

This, of course, leads me to what bothered me about Denial. While I found Stern's exploration of her assault and the life of her rapist illuminating, along with her frank discussion of how it came to negatively (and positively, if in a perverse way) affect her adult life most illumination, I was often frustrated by her unwillingness to honestly investigate the full implications of her relationship with her dysfunctional family. Throughout the narrative, she continually hints at having been molested by her grandfather, but never seems to make the connection between that and her present difficulties. The same, for the most part, applies to her emotionally distant father (who basically foisted her and her sister off on a series of stepmothers following her mother's early death) and her possibly-abusive stepmothers. Her insistence on hashing out one traumatic instance in her life in hopes of improving herself while refusing to engage in a number of others simply didn't make any sense to me. It caused what would have been an otherwise engaging, honest read to bellyflop into the pit of navel-gazey denial.

That's memoirs for you.

Intriguing, but still more navel-gazing and dishonest than I care for. 3 out of 5 stars.

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