Denial is a book written by Dr. Jessica Stern, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, which chronicles her struggles with undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, since an unsolved adolescent sexual assault by a serial rapist at the age of fifteen. Dr. Jessica Stern is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on terrorism and post traumatic stress disorder and in her book she details how her own denial of her condition enabled her to ignore her own symptoms and diagnosis of PTSD for many years before seeking help. The book is an excellent illustration of the struggles a person must deal with throughout their life if PTSD goes undiagnosed and untreated and is a must read for anyone who deigns themselves treatment for PTSD due to the all too prevalent stigma society associates with it. Dr. Stern on You Tube
Dr. Jessica Stern, besides being a lecturer at Harvard Law School, is also a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law. She served as a staff member at the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration, where she was responsible for policies to reduce the threat of nuclear smuggling and terrorism. Dr. Stern received a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College in chemistry, a masters of science degree from MIT, and a doctorate in public policy from Harvard University. She is the author of Terror in the Name of God and The Ultimate Terrorists as well as numerous articles on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
What follows is an interview with Dr. Stern about her book Denial, scheduled for release on 22 June 2010.
Q: Could you briefly summarize how you came up with the title of the book?
A: Denial is a theme in the book. Those who are traumatized by violence want to deny what occurred to them as they cannot bear to remember. And bystanders also want to deny what occurred because they don’t want to live with the knowledge of another’s pain. This is especially true when it comes to soldiers. We have trouble accepting that when we send soldiers to war, they are risking, not just their lives and limbs, but also their spiritual and psychological health, on our behalf.
Q: Is there a message in your memoir that you want readers to grasp?
A: We all want to deny pain. Denial is almost irresistibly seductive, not only for victims who seek to forget the traumatic event but also for those who observe the pain of others and find it easier to ignore or “forget.” When we deny the pain of traumatized others, we are participating in yet another assault.
Q: You are well qualified in your career so would you recommend a specific book(s) to your readers which would give them a true understanding of terrorism and PTSD?
A: I have written two books on terrorism: The Ultimate Terrorists, and Terror in the Name of God. I also like, very much, Louise Richardson’s What Terrorists Want. On PTSD, I would recommend the work of Judith Herman and also Bessel van der Kolk.
Q: What books have most influenced your life most?
A: Victor Frank’s Man’s Search for Meaning probably influenced me more than any other book.
Q: Do you see writing Denial as providing closure to your life’s struggle with your trauma and PTSD?
A: No. I don’t expect to recover fully from PTSD. We learn to manage our symptoms, and if we’re lucky, to use dissociation and hyper- vigilance productively in our work.
Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your book Denial?
A: There is a typo in Chapter 1. I would change that!
Q: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
A: I have just started a project with Children’s Hospital in Boston that involves working with Somali youth. Around thirty Somali-American youth have left for Somalia to join a terrorist group called Al Shabab. We are trying to understand what leads these youth to radicalize in this way.
Q: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
A: I used to travel all over the world to talk to terrorists. Now I travel significantly less, though I was just in Libya.
Q: Who designed the cover?
A: An artist who works for my publisher.
Q: What was the hardest part of writing Denial?
A: Feeling my own feelings, as I was interviewing people who knew my rapist. Staying in the moment, and not running away from feelings.
Q: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers
A: My goal in writing this book is to help not only the millions of women and men who have been raped or tortured but the soldiers who risk their lives on our behalf, returning with psychic wounds so excruciating that both they and we cannot bear to admit that these wounds exist.
Q: How many years did it truly take for you to accept your PTSD diagnoses after you entered adulthood?
A: Well, I guess I have to admit that I don’t fully accept the diagnosis. I still fight the diagnosis, some of the time.
Q: At what point did you truly begin to see that maybe you could begin to cope and heal with PTSD?
A: For me, PTSD symptoms aren’t all bad. Hyper-vigilance can really help you in your work. But it burns you out. The real issue is that it’s bad for relationships – I was hurting the people I love. I was in therapy a number of years before I began to understand how these altered states functioned.
Q: How has having a son changed your willingness to heal and to continue the work it takes to heal the human psyche?
A: Luckily, my son and I are close enough that he always knows – and complains – when I’m in an altered state. He doesn’t know what it is or why I get this way, but he confronts me about it instantly. More than any other factor, being a mother has made me committed to healing.
Q: How have you learned to handle flashbacks and still maintain a healthy level of parenting?
A: Writing this book brought on flashbacks. I tried to make sure he wasn’t exposed to me at those times. But it’s a constant struggle.
Q: Each day with PTSD is different, how did you get used to the constant change and amount of trauma that you feel?
A: It’s hard. I find that a regular yoga practice helps.
Q: Now that you have reached the point in your life when you can write and talk about your experiences what are your plans for the future, not only of PTSD but your message to people who suffer with it as well, truly what is next after denial?
A: The Somali-youth project, I mentioned above, is keeping me busy at the moment. But over the long term, we’ll see!
Q: How does it make you feel when people tell you how much you have helped them realize that they can do something about the symptoms of PTSD?
A: I am moved and gratified beyond words.
Q: Outside of being a mother, what is your greatest accomplishment personally? Not just in your career but in your own heart and mind?
A: Learning to love. That requires a constant struggle to understand “that was then, this is now.” It’s a daily discipline.
Q: The most important person in my life who have helped me the most to overcome the most sever symptoms of my PTSD has been without a doubt my wife. How has your husband influenced/helped you cope with your PTSD?
A: I agree with you. Having a spouse who understands what you’re going through – and brings you away from war in your head, and back into the room, makes all the difference.
Q: If there was one message you would want me to give the 2000+ soldiers and veterans that will read my interview what do you want them to know?
A: Thank you for your service. Please try to get help learning to leave the war behind. Society owes you that, and you deserve it.
Q: Ms. Stern, I wish to thank you for taking the time to conduct this interview and I apologize for the amateur approach as I am sure you have conducted many more professional interviews in the past. I am a retired First Sergeant (fifteen years Special Forces) not a journalist and though I hope my writing career will one day take off I must use my limited skills to ask you the questions you have so graciously taken the time to answer. Therefore, thank you for your time and book which I found most enlightening. I have dealt with sever PTSD related to my many deployments for many years and you quite simply have found the words to describe what living with PTSD truly requires from its sufferers.
A: Your questions are sincere. That is more important than journalistic skill! I am honored if my words helped you. Thank you so much for telling me.
Dr. Jessica Stern on Youtube
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