June 14, 2010

Denial: A Memoir of Terror by Jessica Stern

I feel overwhelmed. There are so many things that I want to say and they are all competing for my attention. Please bear with me while I start by telling you a little bit about myself. Perhaps this can put my review and untamed train-of-thought into context.

Just over a year ago I was teaching high school in a suburb of Atlanta and I was five months pregnant with my first child. On April 27th, while driving home from work I was in a near fatal car accident. A woman in the opposing lane stopped watching the road and hit me head on. In the moments surrounding the accident I felt unusually clear headed. I still remember with cruel clarity the instant I knew I was going to be hit. That second (more likely millisecond) was the single most terrifying moment of my life. I knew what was about to happen and I was completely powerless to stop it. I can still see it when I close my eyes. I remember the sound of the cars crunching together. I remember choking on the powder that was expelled when the airbags deployed. I started screaming. I felt like I couldn’t make my voice loud enough. I just yelled over and over, “I’m pregnant! I’m pregnant! Help!”

Miraculously there was an off-duty EMT in the car behind me. He got in the passenger seat and started calming me down and tending my wounds. I had received first-aid training and so I began a rudimentary self-examination. While wiggling my toes I noticed that something felt wrong. I didn’t feel pain but something was off. I looked down and saw that my lower leg had snapped in two. I looked at the EMT and said, “Holy Crap! I broke my leg!” He screamed back, “I can SEE that!” The sarcasm was actually comforting. They had to call two fire trucks to the scene. The second was to bring the “Jaws of Life” to cut the door off my car. To avoid further trauma to my leg it took seven men to get me out of the car. I wash rushed to the ER where they cut off all my clothes. Then I was sent straight in to get MRIs or CAT scans or whatever else they subjected me to. Then I got wheeled into a room to wait for the on-call orthopedic surgeon. That’s when I saw my mother-in-law waiting for me. That’s when I finally started to cry.

Over the next two and a half weeks I went through two surgeries to save and repair my leg. Our baby boy died and I delivered him on the 29th. We buried him with his great-grandfather over Memorial Day weekend. I eventually learned to walk again. If you met me today you might not even notice anything weird about me, unless of course I were wearing shorts. In that case you would see twelve dark scars between my knee and ankle.

Sometime while I was in the ICU a shrink came to me and started throwing around words like, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD). My first thought was, “Does he mean PTSD like soldiers get after being in war? That can’t be me. How weak must I be to get something so serious after a car accident? What business do I have claiming to suffer with something that people only get after surviving a war?” They put me on anti-anxiety medication immediately, almost without discussion. I was certain they were over-reacting. It was kind of insulting actually. I thought I was handling things quite well.

Let me shift gears now and talk about the book. Jessica Stern is a noted expert on terrorism. She served on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council Staff and as a lecturer at Harvard. She received recognition from the FBI for her for her assistance in the effort to thwart international terrorism. If you met her today you might not even notice anything weird about her, even if she were wearing shorts. Jessica’s scars aren’t like mine. They aren’t splayed out all over her leg. She was raped at gun point when she was fifteen. She has been struggling to deal with the impact of that trauma her whole life.

Dr. Stern decided to request the police file on her rape case in the hopes that reading the file might help her in some way. The lieutenant who responded to her request was so moved by what he read in her file that he decided to re-open her case. Denial: A Memoir of Terror is her account of those events and the discoveries that follow.

I would love to say that with the help of her loving husband, a hard-working assistant, and a committed police lieutenant Dr. Stern solved the case and as the credits roll we see her walking into the sunset with a smile. I wish that this journey took her to some place psychologically where she no longer feels pain or shame. But, this isn’t fiction. This is her life. This is a woman who is smart and strong; a woman that other women envy, a woman who sits with terrorists! Yet, the thing I am most awed by is her courage in telling her story. She had the courage to share the most intimate and painful experiences of her life in order to help others heal.

It wasn’t until I read her book that I began to acknowledge that I might actually suffer from PTSD. I started to understand a little better why people hoped I would just “get over” my accident. Rather than questioning, “Have I healed?” I have started asking, “What does it mean to heal?” I truly believe that anyone who has suffered though a traumatic event will feel a kinship with Dr. Stern. Even though my trauma wasn’t the same as hers and even though I don’t suffer with the same symptoms as her, I feel a connection to her.

I would recommend this book without hesitation. I am typically a happy-ending kind of girl. If there is a remote chance that a book or movie will be sad, I avoid it. However, reading about Dr. Stern’s rape and subsequent struggles helped me begin to acknowledge my own trauma. This book was, for me, life-changing. Five stars.

Book Nook Club is the first stop on a book tour for Denial: A Memoir of Terror. The next stop will be on Wednesday at http://www.takemeawayreading.com/

(I received a free uncorrected proof of this book for the purposes of review.)


  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I only rolled my vehicle and did not suffer half the trauma to my body that you did, but I know exactly what you mean about being able to close your eyes and experience the accident all over again. I don't know if that will ever go away.

    Yours is the second review I've read tonight, and you have convinced me to definitely put this on my wish list.

  2. Thanks for the comment Michelle. I really hope you enjoy the book.

  3. I can't imagine the feeling that this book brought up for you - it seems like it was the perfect book at the perfect time. Thanks for sharing your story with us.

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