When the jihadis plied her with a bowl of fruit, Jessica Stern briefly considered: Were they being hospitable, or were they trying to do her harm?
It was 1999, and Stern, a Harvard-trained expert on terrorism, was at the compound of Lashkar e Taiba, or Army of the Pure, a Pakistani militant group believed to be associated with Al Qaeda and, later, behind the attacks in Mumbai that left nearly 175 people dead. She was alone, a woman, an American, and a Jew.
But Stern pushed her fear of poisoning away, allowing herself, she said later, to feel only curiosity and empathy: Who were these men, this henna-bearded emir and three elders, and what impelled them to acts of violence?
Stern's interview with the chiefs of Lashkar e Taiba, and her conversations with aspiring mujahedin at Pakistani madrassas, with Jewish radicals in West Bank settlements, and even with a former Christian cult leader living in a Texas trailer park, formed the basis of her 2003 book Terror in the Name of God (HarperCollins), a pathbreaking work that delved into the motivations of terrorists. She went beyond a calculus of geopolitics and policy to dissect the personal origins of violent extremism, to explore the ways in which belief, humiliation, and disenfranchisement can be turned to terrorism.
Now, Stern has taken on an equally challenging project, examining how her interest in terrorism is rooted in her own terror—her rape, at gunpoint, at the age of 15. Her latest book, Denial (HarperCollins), details an unflinching investigation that led to the identification of Stern's attacker, a serial rapist, as well as her attempt to reconcile the reactions that police, her family, and she herself had to the assault.
The book is also a meditation on the professional reverberations of personal trauma, on how her adolescent experience set her on a vocational path and gave her the tools to succeed in her specialty. "Why was I so interested in violence?" Stern says. "I realize now that I was trying to understand violent men, because I had been a victim of violence."
The book, says Carol Gilligan, a psychologist at New York University who read Stern's work in galleys, "illuminates what are the seeds, the roots of her work on terrorism."
Stern's insights about the impact of her own trauma, Gilligan hopes, may contain lessons for policy makers wrestling with the long-term repercussions of exposure to bloodshed, for veterans returning from battlefields, and for civilian bystanders to such strife. Already, Stern is studying such links, through a project examining the aftereffects of violence on teenagers in the Somali immigrant community.
"She makes connections," Gilligan says, "that are going to unsettle a lot of people."
Violent rape wasn't supposed to happen in Stern's hometown, Concord, a comfortable Boston bedroom community. And it wasn't supposed to happen to "good girls," like Stern, then 15, and her sister Sara, 14, who were doing their homework one fall evening in 1973 when a stranger walked into their former stepmother's home. He forced both girls upstairs at gunpoint, made them strip off their jeans and the leotards they had worn for an earlier ballet class, and assaulted them.
Afterward he admitted that his weapon was only a cap gun, and he told them not to call the police. But the sisters did, walking to a pay phone at a nearby restaurant after they discovered that the rapist had cut the lines to the house.
Stern recounts her sexual assault in the first chapter of Denial, her tone matter-of-fact, removed, relying heavily on the statement penned, in round, girlish script, by her teenage self. Her affect is as if it were someone else's story, someone else's trauma, an apparent remove that Stern admits:
"If my sister were not raped, too, if she didn't remember—if I didn't have this police report right in front of me on my desk—I might doubt that the rape occurred," Stern writes. "The memory feels a bit like a dream. It has hazy edges."
The police took testimony and swabbed for traces of semen, but they did not believe the girls when they said their attacker was a stranger. So the detectives did not take the crime seriously, Stern concludes.
Stern's father, a widower and a professor of engineering who was on an overseas research trip with his new wife at the time, did not talk with his daughters about the assault—feeling powerless, he told Stern later, to help them. He told the police four months after the rapes that he believed the girls had "forgotten" the incident.
Stern went on to earn degrees in chemistry from Barnard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But she was drawn to study national security, earning a doctorate in public policy from Harvard University. The good girl joined what was, in the early 1990s, a boys' club, "seduced," she says, "by curiosity about violence."
Stern's early expertise, however, did not center on perpetrators of violence but on weapons, specifically on the risk of terrorists' obtaining nuclear materials. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a nuclear-weapons research facility, she served as a staff member on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, focusing on the former Soviet Union. (The Peacemaker, a George Clooney-Nicole Kidman movie about efforts to thwart terrorists who have stolen nuclear weapons, is based on a fictional account of Stern's work at the NSC.)
In the waning days of the cold war and in the years that followed, national-security policy was still focused on détente among the major world powers, says Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and not on what would happen if dangerous weapons fell into the hands of rogue actors.
"Jessica took seriously very early on the idea of weapons-of-mass-destruction terrorism when a lot of people saw it as a matter of science fiction," says Wittes, who studies legal issues related to terrorism. "There are very few people whose intellectual lives were more vindicated by the events of 9/11."
By then, though, Stern had moved on to a fresh topic: terrorists themselves. Over five years, she traveled the globe, talking with, among others, Muslim militants in Indonesia and an anti-abortion activist in Florida convicted of murdering a doctor and his escort. Wittes calls the work, which culminated in Terror in the Name of God, "pioneering."
"She doesn't get enough credit for the fact that she had the insight to go ask the terrorists why they did what they did," he says. "Her instinct was not to go off and look in libraries, in archives."
Stern had little preparation for the task. Her background was in public policy; a pair of anthropologists whom she asked to train her in fieldwork declined. And her colleagues worried that Stern, petite and bookish, was putting herself in danger.
"I'd say to her, 'Jessica, be more careful,'" says Joseph S. Nye, who was then dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, where Stern was a lecturer. "But she didn't want to rely on secondhand information, on gossip."
Yet she found that she was good at the work, at getting violent men to talk with her, to tell her their secrets—although she did not, at the time, connect her interest to her sexual assault.
What's more, in tense situations, at times when she was in peril—moments when fear might have caused others to panic—Stern says she became more alert, clear-thinking, effective. "In certain circumstances," she says, "I became hypervigilant, just totally aware of my surroundings.
"It feels like you've got a shot of adrenaline, but it also feels like someone has made you much smarter."
Such a response, Stern later learned from a therapist, is a marker of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Stern is a practiced interviewee, with a skill honed by innumerable appearances in the nine years since the attacks of September 11, 2001. When she sits down to talk about Denial on a pleasant spring afternoon, she is in full-on Expert Mode: hair and makeup careful, suit authoritative, answers delivered in tidy packages. Even the location she has selected, an understated dining room off Harvard Square, conveys calm assurance.
The first few reporters who interviewed her actually ended up confessing their own traumas, she confides, clearly pleased that she has retained her knack for ferreting out secrets.
Confronting her own past wasn't always as easy, even though it was Stern who set things in motion in 2006 by requesting a copy of her 33-year-old police file. When the detective—a high-school classmate, although the two did not know each other—reviewed the criminal record, he was struck by its similarity to another cold case, a rape committed two years before Stern's. The attack happened around the corner and included another pair of young victims. Descriptions of the rapist, his weapon, and the assault itself were nearly identical.
Concerned that they were dealing with a serial child rapist, police reopened the case. In short order they tallied more than 40 similar attacks in suburban Boston in the early-to-mid 1970s. Stern's former classmate, the police lieutenant, asked for her help in revisiting the case.
Not every rape victim, Stern acknowledges, desires to re-examine the trauma. But she "wanted to tear away the facade, rip away the cover," she says. "I wanted to find the rapist, to interview him."
Even when, not long into the investigation, the police informed Stern that the man who had assaulted her was dead, a suicide, she continued her inquiry. She traveled to the rapist's small hometown in central Massachusetts, spoke with his old friends, and tried to learn more about his background, about the roots of his violent behavior.
At the same time, Stern set out to examine the nature of trauma. Rather than suppress the symptoms of her by-then diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, Stern, under a therapist's supervision, cataloged them: the confusion, the sensitivity to sound and light, the occasional inability to perform simple tasks, like driving to the police station, without becoming sleepy or lost.
She also sought to understand how others deal with the consequences of violence. She spoke with other rape victims, with military veterans sidelined by their wartime experiences, and with her own father, whose experience as a Holocaust survivor, she concludes, had colored his response to her assault. She had never before spoken with victims of violence, she says, only with perpetrators.
Stern's research assistant, who did much of the initial legwork, says he trod gingerly. "It's not like there's a standard for investigating your professor's rape," says Jack McGuire (a pseudonym that Stern gave him because she writes in the book about his father's post-traumatic stress disorder). "I wanted to impress her, but I also didn't want to retraumatize her."
Stern herself harbored serious reservations about publishing details of her personal experience, something she was urged to do by her editor after including a vignette about her rape in an earlier, and wholly different, book proposal.
Unlike typical academic works, where she can "hide behind footnotes," she says, Denial is about "what's going on in my head. It's a memoir of a state of mind."
"I'm divulging that there are subjective reasons I did the work I did, why I'm a terrorism expert. I'm making clear I had personal reasons," she says. And she wondered: "Would anyone still take me seriously as an authority, an authority on terrorism, when I've been a victim of violence?"
While Stern is concerned about the book's impact on her career—she sent advance copies to her national-security colleagues, she jokes, "so they can gossip about it ahead of time"—she has never hewed to a traditional academic path. She turned down a tenure-track position at the Kennedy School to focus on writing Terror in the Name of God. In recent years, she has lectured at Harvard Law School, but her contract was not renewed this year—as a nonlawyer who does not teach core courses, she was the victim of budget cuts.
"Academe isn't good at rewarding people like Jessica, who is difficult to pigeonhole," says her friend and former Harvard colleague Louise Richardson, who is now principal and vice chancellor of the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. "She has been driven by her intellectual interests, not by the standard career track."
In her final semester at Harvard, this spring, Stern says she could see the impact of Denial in her approach to teaching. The tenor of her seminar, on terrorism and its causes, she says, was unlike any other class she had taught.
It is hours later in the interview, and, back at her house, Stern has visibly relaxed, sitting cross-legged on her couch, scarf loosened, calmly stroking the agitated puppy on her lap. "I decided it was OK to bring emotion into the classroom," she says.
During an informal class session held at her home, Stern told the students about her latest work and about what led her to pursue it. Her students say Stern's "intellectual honesty," as one of them, Larkin Reynolds, put it, allowed them to have deeper discussions and to take scholarly risks, arguing over such potentially incendiary ideas as the morality of torture.
"She was unafraid to contribute pieces of herself," says another student, Paul Kremer. Stern's approach helped the students "develop a baseline of trust," he says, so that when difficult topics came up, "you didn't just hear the crickets chirping."
What Denial will mean for Stern's work and for scholarship on terror is unclear. Stern has thought about the possibility of turning away from the subject of terrorism, even considering divinity school in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. It is no longer safe for Stern, who has an 8-year-old son, to continue her work talking with terrorists.
And the blossoming of the discipline from a "geeky, niche issue" to a hot topic of study has left Stern unsure of where she fits. "I'm the kind of person who finds the overlooked, undertheorized, understudied areas," she says.
Her immediate plans include speaking engagements with veterans and women's groups and delving into her project on Somali immigrants, working with a group of researchers at Children's Hospital Boston to examine whether these particular immigrants' exposure to childhood violence may make them more susceptible to joining gangs or Al-Shabbab, a Somali terrorist group.
Broadly, Stern is interested in whether pre-existing trauma and, in particular, the experience of humiliation can serve as a risk factor for terrorism. In Denial she also calls for more discussion about the public-policy implications of the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among returning American soldiers and among terrorist detainees in need of rehabilitation.
"Bringing psychology into the world of terror," says her colleague Gilligan, "is a profound insight."
Stern says she now recognizes that her trauma yielded something positive. "I think we all end up, if we're lucky, doing work that is important to us personally," she says. "I think for many of us, there is some deeper need to understand the thing that we're studying. And maybe we don't figure that out right away."