Authors: Jessica Stern
A Memoir of Terror
This book is dedicated to my father,
who taught me the value of persistence,
and that courage comes in many guises
The Legacy of the Holocaust
The Making of a Spy
The End of Denial
Knowing how traumatic reliving these times was for me, I did not want to expose the people who spoke to me about their own experiences. So, for many of the subjects I interviewedâvictims, family, friends, and law enforcement officialsâI have changed names and modified other identifying characteristics, such as their towns of residence, in order to preserve their anonymity. In chapter five, the words I attribute to Mary (a pseudonym) were actually combined with those of another person who knew the rapist. I have also chosen to change the names and other characteristics of the many priests who were named as possible abusers. Even though many of them were cited in the criminal and civil complaints that overwhelmed the Worcester and Boston dioceses in past years, confirming their connection to these events was beyond the scope of my project. The goal in all cases was to protect people's privacy without damaging the integrity of the story.
For the last twenty years, I have been studying the causes of evil and violence. Until now I never questioned why I was interested in this work, or why I was able to do it. This book answers a question that is always addressed to me when I speak about my work on terrorism: How could a “girl” like you visit terrorist training camps in Pakistan? Weren't you afraid? The answer is that I wasn't aware that I was afraidâand this book explains why. After a series of traumas, one can lose the capacity to feel fear appropriately.
My narrative takes at its starting point the hour that a rapist spent with a gun trained on my sister and me when she was fourteen and I was a year older. Both my sister and I went on to lead relatively happy and productive lives after the trauma. My sister is a successful marketing communications executive, an opera singer, and an actress. She is married and has two children. She feels great joy in her family and in her music, and no
one would describe her as a victim. I similarly take enormous pleasure from my family and my work.
And yet, from childhood on, I noticed puzzling changes that seemed to grow worse over time. With each passing year, I seemed to feel less and lessâless pain, but also less joy. As a child, I wanted to be a writer, but continuing bad grades in classes that required writing persuaded me to give up. I found myself more comfortable studying unemotional subjects. Instead, I majored in chemistry, in part because it came relatively easily to me, and in part because I found it comforting that the answers were either right or wrong, unlike in real life, where emotional valences count. I was planning to become a chemist, but then I got seduced by curiosity about violence. I was both repulsed and fascinated. I skipped the war parts in
War and Peace
, but wrote a doctoral dissertation on chemical weapons, which focused mainly on the mechanics of violence, with little attention to the human toll.
Ultimately, I became an expert on terrorism. I wrote my first article on terrorism in 1983. At the time, this was an eccentric choice, and not a very wise career move. Very few people took the threat of terrorism seriously. Still, I intuited that terrorism would become increasingly important, and I continued working on it. I started out doing technical work, related to terrorist weaponry. But eventually I gave in to an intense curiosity about the terrorists themselves. In that work I made use of a personality quirk, rather than my academic training. I am fascinated by the secret motivations of violent men, and I'm good at ferreting them out.
My unusual reaction to fear turned out to be an asset in this work: I discovered that I could do things that other people find frightening, such as traveling to Beirut or Lahore to meet with terrorists. I found that I was able to silence judgment as I listened, to stop myself from feeling fear or horror. I saw that if I
allowed myself to feel only curiosity and empathyânot to be confused with sympathyâthe terrorists would want to talk to me.
Nonetheless, fear found me. Situations that other people don't find frightening, such as the sound of fireworks, alarm me inordinately. I do not like to be in crowds, especially at night, when there might be a frisson of sexuality in the air. I do not like to be in shopping malls, especially under fluorescent lights. When I am nervous for any reason, I find the clicking of a turn signal or the ticking of a clock almost unbearably agitating. But in truly frightening situations, I retain my composure. For example, when I found myself facedown on the floor in the middle of an armed robbery, a peculiar sense of calm enveloped me. I paid little attention to these surprising states of calm. I could not will myself to respond to danger in any other way, and afterward I could hardly remember the incidents that elicited them. I assumed that my unusual response to danger was a personality quirk, unique to me. I had no idea that these peculiar reactionsâcalm in the face of danger but fear in response to innocuous sounds or scentsâwere well-studied aftereffects of trauma.
I consulted a therapistânot about my lack of feeling, but because I wanted to feel
. I did not consider it strange that I told the therapist that I wanted two things from treatment: to feel less emotion and to be more efficient at work. It seemed to me that feelingsâany feelingsâgot in the way of life. She told me that some of the qualities I assumed I had been born withâincluding heightened sensitivity to sudden movements, scents, sounds, and lightâwere actually markers of trauma. She suggested that I might have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I did not believe this diagnosis. I knew about PTSD from having worked with soldiers, and I could not imagine that my own life experience would result in similar symptoms. I had long ago brushed the memory of my rape aside. I considered myself to
have overcome it, to have “moved on.” I wanted to contribute to society rather than remain stuck in the past, cringing in terror. I did not want to allow fear to influence my decisions in any way. And yet, ironically, terror became my central preoccupation. I felt compelled to understand the deeper motivations of those who hurt others. Instead of feeling terror, I studied it.
After the completion of my second book on terrorism, I found myself wanting to understand what had happened to me during and after my rape. I requested a complete copy of the police report. When the police read the file in 2006 in order to redact it, they realized that a child rapist might still be at large. Pedophiles grow old like the rest of us, but they often continue committing the same crimes unless they are physically stopped.
The police required my help. But I also required theirs. Just as I needed to understand the motivations of the terrorists I interviewed, I found myself needing to understand my rapist, as a way to tame a terror that I was beginning to feel for the first time.
I soon realized that I had forgotten many of the details of the rape, even though I was not a small child when the crime occurred. I felt compelled to answer a question I have spent my professional life asking in regard to terrorists: What happened to the boy who became my rapist? Was there anything in his life story that might explain, at least in part, why he would want or need to hurt my sister and me? What happened to him afterward? I also wanted to know: Why did I go into a trancelike state during the rape, and why have I continued to go into that state whenever I feel truly threatened? And there were larger questions that pulled me in: Why does the threat of violent death alter some of us, even if subtly, forever? Why does it make us unusually numb or calm when we ought to feel terrified? Why do scents or sounds trigger in some of us a feeling of terror or unbearable dread, even in situations where we know, at least intellectually, that we are perfectly safe?
The story turned out to be much bigger than the rape of two girls. It seemed as if the entire community was in denial. The police had not properly investigated the crime. They gave up quickly. They did not believe my sister and me when we insisted that we did not know the perpetrator. And rape at gunpoint was unimaginable in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1973. Denial, I would learn, is immensely seductive. It is irresistible for bystanders who want to get on with their lives. In the moment of terror, denial and dissociation are life-preserving for the victim. But over the long term, denial can be dangerous. In this case, the denial of our community resulted in many additional child rapesâat least forty-fourâand the suicide of at least one of the victims.
In the police files, I would rediscover not only details of what occurred during the rape itself but also my own unusual reaction to the crime, and the unusual reaction of my family. There was a reason why I was drawn to spying on violent men. There was a reason why I was so good at it: I had done it my whole life, as a way to tame them, and to tame my own terror, the terror I didn't feel.
The book traces the investigation that the police undertook to solve this long-unsolved crime, and my own investigation into how the perpetrator came to be a rapist of children. It also traces my inquiry into the reasons I had acquired the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. This inquiry into my own history was far more frightening than interviewing terrorists. It would have been impossible to do this, to enter the eye of sheer terror, if I didn't have a lot of helpâa therapist who is an expert on trauma and dissociated states, and a partner who encouraged me to investigate my rape and who was willing to hold my hand while I did.
het keeps trying to get me to swim with him. I don't like to swim, I tell him. I keep telling him that. He took my son, Evan, and me kayaking. Evan and I beached our kayaks on the hot sand. Chet and Evan swam, and I watched, delighting in their delight, feeling a vicarious thrill of pleasure, the way you feel watching a puppy running in the wind. I pulled the kayaks farther in to safety, the stones sharp and burning under my bare feet. My skin was hot. I felt a premonition of ache in my temples; I hadn't drunk enough liquid. I ventured a few careful steps into the sea. The water was cooling to my feet. I wanted to want to swim. My son and my friend, who was not yet my lover, looked soothed and cooled, while I felt parched and oppressed.
I am not afraid of swimming. I just have no desire. And yet,
the sound of lapping water alarms me. It reminds me of being on my grandfather's boat. Why should that alarm me?
Grandpa loved to take us out on his yacht, into Long Island Sound. Sometimes we went for long trips, spending our nights moored in the slips that dot the Sound. There was that soothing sound at night, the water lapping against the boat. I remember the comfort of the wind on my skinâa reminder that there was a world beyond the oppressive world of yachtsmen at play. It seemed to me that this yachtsmen's world was unsavoryâthat there were too many people there, that they were unserious, too loud. I wanted to escape into the world beyond the oppressive luxury of these yachts, bobbing corruptly in their slips, but I wasn't fully persuaded that it existed. Perhaps I had imagined this cleaner, purer world.
We would often stop en route to our nightly destinations and lower the anchor in the middle of the Sound. If you were quiet, there was that lapping sound. My grandmother would make us lunch, and Grandpa would take us swimming. It was exciting to swim in the middle of the bay. But it was also alarming: there was no beach, no clear horizon, no way to anchor yourself in a specific location. There were jellyfish floating near the top of the sea sometimes, and the thought of sharks below. There was also Grandpa's body.
My sister and I had vivid imaginations. Suppose a shark bit our legs, and tried to pull us down into the deeps, where he might dine on us, undisturbed? Grandpa was a strong swimmer. He might be able to save us if a shark bit our legs. And he could, in principle at least, sew our heart cavities shut if a shark tried to bite out our hearts. He was a doctor. He knew how to remove warts, slice through bunions, irradiate tumorsâeven imaginary ones. He would know how to sew up shark wounds with a needle and thread.
I know a surprising amount about my grandfather's body. When I think of my dead grandfather now, I sense not his spirit but his corporeal selfâthe pasty, humid white flesh; the irritating hairs. He was old and fat and pallid. But he was not a sweet old man: he was strong as a shark. I associate certain odors with himâthe smell of decaying teeth that infected his breath, a sour scent that clung to his undershirts even when they were freshly washed, the smell of the bowel movements that his body strained to release, making the small bathroom even more claustrophobic. It was even worse if he sprayed Lysol in the bathroom to purify the air. The combination of the two scentsâthe attempt to cover up impurityâmade one dizzy, made one want to throw up. To me these are the scents of an old man, the scents of perverse thoughts. My grandfather's body was a fountain of shame and disgust. But it was also a source of comfort. He was strong and able enough to protect us, I thought.
When I had croup as a small child, he took me into the shower with him. I remember his holding me to his naked flesh, a flash of electricity in me, a mixture of comfort and discomfort. Was this comfort an acceptable substitute for my mother? Was she dead by then, or just too sick to hold me, too sick to intervene? And later, too, I don't know when, perhaps when I was eight or nineâanother shower, another encounter with naked flesh, which by that age I was old enough to recognize as repulsive.
I had a recurring dream at that age and into elementary school. A sickeningly soft white slug that came to me in my sleep. It is almost impossible to bear the memory of that dream. Even now, a nauseating bile rises to my throat, and even now, I feel locked in a prison of fear and fury. I cannot get out, I cannot breathe; how can it be that there is no one who will help me?
In fact, there was no one to help me. My father had disappeared into a life of work and love affairs, unable to bear the
pain of my mother's death. Although he was living with us at our grandparents' house, I rarely saw him, and thought he had moved away.
I was certain that the dream slug that came to me in my sleep had no right to be there, that he had no right to speak to me, that he was breaking the rules. I wasn't sure what rule he was breaking, but I had an intuition that slugs were not permitted to taunt little girls at night. Still, I was incapable of defending myself, rendered speechless by uncertainty. And there were no grown-ups around in this recurrent dream, or in my waking life, to clarify the situationâto punish the rule-breaker, or, if need be, the false accuser. The dream slug stood up, looking like the Pillsbury Doughboy. He would tell me, “You must learn to play along. You are a bad girl. You will never get away from here, and you will never succeed.”
I loved to swim in my teenage years, as long as it wasn't the Long Island Sound, which I saw as polluted. I liked the cold, pure waters of northern Maine and Canada. I liked to bathe in mountain streams, the water so cold it knocks your breath away, making you new, washing away shame. But later, the thought of slimy things made swimming unbearable for me. Swimming pools became chlorinated toilets. The sea had snails and slugs and snakes in it. It wasn't that I was afraid; I just had no desire.
A month ago, Chet tried again to get me to swim. I don't like to swim, I reminded him. We were in Vermont. We were walking by a stream. It was clean, with deep pools and occasional rapids. If you jumped in, the current carried you to the other side, where there was sand to rest. Somehow, I couldn't resist swimming this time, and as a result, I rediscovered exhilaration. But I also felt something like fear.
Later, he took me to the seaside, to a tidal pool that you could swim in, with narrow openings to the sea on either side. The pool was pristineâconstantly washed by the shifting tides. And
in that pool were tiny jellyfish. They didn't sting, but they slipped against your body like a hundred flaccid penises. No pain other than the agony of disgust. Eventually, it was more than I could bear, the terror of surreally soft flesh sliding against my unprotected skin. I begged him to hold me, to carry me out of that water, and he did. And he also promised to take me back to the sea so that I could vanquish that sea slug, my terrors, at last.