Author & Lawyer Revisits 30-Year-Old Assault That Shaped Her Life In More Ways Than One, In New Book.

[TW: PTSD, sexual assault, trauma]

Why does the body remember what the mind tries so desperately to forget? Author and lawyer Karen Stefano begins to answer this question in her new memoir, “What A Body Remembers” (Rare Bird Books, June 11, 2019), in which she revisits the 1984 summer night at UC Berkeley when a man follows her home and assaults her at knife point. After a soul-chilling struggle, she manages to escape –– but will she ever feel free again?

Though traumatized by her assault and the subsequent trial of her attacker, Stefano paradoxically goes on to become a criminal defense lawyer, defending those accused of crimes as heinous as the one committed against her. As more years pass, Stefano again finds herself struggling —navigating a dying marriage, devastating financial loss, and an elderly mother slipping into dementia. She becomes immersed in her own anxiety and PTSD, and this immersion prompts a delayed obsession with her assailant: What became of him? What is he doing now? “What a Body Remembers” tells the story of her quest of excavation, her determination to track him down. What she discovers is nothing short of life altering.

This book is both timely and honest, from-the-gut account of one woman’s journey to regain her power and confidence—a journey that continues to this day. “Sometimes we have to excavate the ugliest parts of our past in order to find peace, in order to finally see the beauty in today,” says the author.

“What a Body Remembers” chronicles a deeply emotional and traumatizing part of your life. How did you manage potential triggers while writing about your experience? 

I engaged in what have become my standard rituals of self-care: exercise, talking to a therapist, allowing myself plenty of down time/quiet time—something I’ve come to need more and more of over the years.

But I didn’t always succeed. Walking to my office one morning (broad daylight, safe and busy street), a man was running behind me and I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was a scene way more panicked and unhinged than the scene in the book with the jogger in the park. That poor man. He apologized to me profusely (though he had done absolutely nothing wrong). The look on his face said he knew: this woman has been assaulted on the street before. This woman is a trauma survivor. There were several similar incidents during the time it took to write this book. Writing this story brought all the trauma right to the surface and I was hyper-susceptible to triggers.

Why do you feel that it is important for others to know your experience?

As I shared with more and more women what this book was about, I can’t even count how many said, “Yeah, something like that happened to me too.” And they would share their own story and that simple act of sharing would unburden them I believe. This was before the #MeToo movement began. Now this story is more relevant than ever. It’s important to speak out, to let others know they’re not alone, to let everyone know there are many ways to heal.

You discuss the frustrations of dealing with unsatisfactory legal maneuvering after your assault. Do you feel like this has improved at all in recent years? Given your personal experience and your professional work as a lawyer, how do you think this can be improved?

Things have improved significantly since the time of my assailant’s trial. There have been changes in the law to enhance victim’s rights and many District Attorney’s offices have a victim liaison office. But based on my experience as both a lawyer and as a victim in the criminal justice system, there is still room for improvement.

Start with simple communication. Most victims don’t have the first clue what to expect from the system and that alone is extremely anxiety-inducing. DAs have to view themselves as advocates for victims in the system, just as criminal defense lawyers act as advocates for their clients. Simply telling a person what to expect procedurally from the system goes a long way toward helping those individuals navigate that system—whether they are victims or persons accused of crimes.

You were a victim of a brutal crime, and yet you went on to become a criminal defense attorney, defending people accused of committing crimes as atrocious as the one committed against you? How do you reconcile this?

It was an unexpected path and one I wouldn’t change. I will never apologize for spending eight years of my legal career defending the rights of the poorest, most damaged, most under-privileged in our society—and those were 99% of my clients.

And frankly, it’s a large part of what makes my story so interesting. The victim who goes on to become a prosecutor—that’s expected—that’s not interesting. The victim who suffers a brutal assault, who works in law enforcement, who goes on to defend persons accused of crimes, who is good at it, who sees the humanity even in her clients who have committed atrocious violent acts, who finds her own voice in doing this work—that’s a journey worth reading about.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known in the immediate aftermath of your assault? 

So, so much. And “What A Body Remembers” examines this from the other side of 30 years and all of the life experience those years gave me. Primarily, I wish I’d had a better understanding of the criminal justice system that I was thrust into against my will. But how would that have even been possible? I was 19 years old, a sophomore at UC Berkeley. I had no real life experience yet. But that’s one of the undercurrents of this book: life takes us places whether we’re ready or not.

These experiences stay with us and shape us in ways we may not even understand. How did you reconcile your attacker’s impact on your life after the assault?

As chronicled in the book in the year following the assault—I didn’t. There was no reconciliation. Due to a variety of factors—being so young and naive, having little in terms of a social network, lacking financial resources, working in a police department where the social code was BE TOUGH AT ALL TIMES, my strategy was denial. My mantra, as you see early in the book, was I’m fine.

But the terror became too great. I had learned something horrifying: that I wasn’t safe, that men do jump out of darkness and attack women at knifepoint, that I’d gotten lucky, and that as bad as it was it could have been so much worse. I learned life really did change in an instant. Eventually I did engage in acts of self care. I pulled back from patrolling the dark, crime-ridden streets of Berkeley even though doing so bruised what was left of my ego. I finally talked with my mother about what had happened.

Slowly the PTSD dissipated—on its own timeframe, not mine. It lay dormant for decades. When it started back in 2014—not coincidentally at another period in my life when things seemed to be crumbling—I finally said, okay. I’ve got to get to the bottom of this. And as readers will learn, the things I discovered from my excavation were nothing less than stunning.

For people who are not intimately familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, what is it? And what role has it played in your life?

I don’t hold myself out as an authority on PTSD, but in my personal experience: it’s your body refusing to forget what your mind has worked so desperately to push down.

The American Psychiatric Association defines PTSD as a reaction to an extreme traumatic event. Psychiatrists say that when people live through trauma, memories get connected in their minds with what they saw, heard, smelled or felt at the time. Fear becomes linked to the sensations that occurred during the event. These sensations become triggers – in my case, the sound of footsteps.

As far as the role it has played in my life, it was acute in the months following my attack. Then it fell dormant for decades. Suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, it reappeared again. PTSD brings terror into everyday events: walking down the street, going for a run. It makes you feel completely out of control. It makes you feel like a crazy person. Logically you can argue why the panicked reaction makes no sense – but your body isn’t going to listen. It’s going to judge what reaction is appropriate – and that reaction is to experience terror and to demonstrate vigilance, even hyper-vigilance.

How does PTSD affect relationships with friends, family, significant others and other acquaintences?

As shown in the book, my PTSD primarily manifested in two ways: a fear of the dark (a bit of a problem when you work in law enforcement and have to put on a police uniform and patrol a sprawling campus and surrounding crime ridden streets in darkness!); and a severe trigger by the sound of footsteps behind me.

My PTSD made me clingy – nearly destroying my relationship at the time with my boyfriend. Oddly, it also made me withdrawn, furthering the cycle of depression and self-loathing I experienced. It distanced me from my own mother because I was too ashamed to tell her about my assault. I couldn’t trust even her to not say something to make it all worse.

What advice do you have for others going through similar experiences, especially for those who are in the beginning stages of processing their assault? 

Ask for help. Be kind to yourself. Watch what story you’re telling yourself internally. Don’t say, “I’m going crazy.” Adjust that self talk to, “Something terrifying happened and I am processing this and it’s going to be uncomfortable and take some time…” Or something along those lines, something that creates an internal narrative that is more compassionate toward yourself. Make necessary life adjustments. If you have the resources, go to therapy. If your first therapist feels like a bad fit (as mine was), find someone else, but go.

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