January 21, 2020 Book Review

What a Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath

By Karen Stefano, Rare Bird Books, 312 pages, 2019, 978-1947856950

Reviewed by Robert Costello

What is your book about?

On a summer night in 1984, I left my uniformed patrol job at the UC Berkeley Police Department and walked home alone in darkness. I was a 19-year-old sophomore. At the threshold of my apartment a man assaulted me at knifepoint. After a soul-chilling struggle, I managed to escape and call 911. Police caught my assailant, I identified him, and he was arrested.

But though I survived the emotionally devastating assault, I was plunged into an incomprehensible reality: I became unhinged by the sound of footsteps slapping concrete, terrified of the dark, and yet paid my rent and clung to a shaky identity by wearing a police uniform, working for a police department, patrolling the dark streets of a sprawling campus and crime-ridden city, walking other women home to safety. My only protection was my police uniform.

Traumatizing me further was the crash course I received on the flaws of our criminal justice system. I testified at my attacker’s preliminary hearing, then suffered through a scathing cross-examination at jury trial. Six weeks later, in another absurd twist of fate, I myself was nearly arrested and prosecuted. Through all of this I felt completely alone, unable to reach out to my mother for support, and jeopardizing my relationship with my boyfriend with all my strangling, clinging need.

Paradoxically, I myself went on to become a criminal defense lawyer, defending people accused of crimes as heinous as the one committed against me.

Fast-forward to 2014, 30 years after my assault, when my life, once again, appeared to be crumbling. As I stumbled my way through the days, navigating a dying marriage, devastating financial loss, and an elderly mother slipping into dementia at disheartening speed, I became fascinated by my own anxiety, by the PTSD still triggered by the sound of footsteps, and I began to wonder, Why does the body remember what the mind tries so desperately to forget? These questions prompted an obsession with my assailant: Whatever became of him? What was he doing now? I began a quest of excavation, determined to find out, tracking down the police report and court file from the case, and on the 30th anniversary of my attack returned to Berkeley and the scene of my assault. What I discovered was life altering.

What a Body Remembers is the intimate memoir of a woman’s traumatic past catching up with her, an honest, from-the-gut account of one woman’s journey to regain her power and confidence—a journey that continues to this day.

As a young 19-year-old who had an affinity for law enforcement and with thoughts about becoming a lawyer, how did the criminal justice system respond to your victimization? Did the response meet your expectations?

I worked for a police department, but as a relatively naive 19-year-old sophomore I had little life experience in general, and only a television-informed sense of what happened in the criminal justice system past the phase of arrest. In my book I describe a conversation with a well-meaning sergeant in my department who tried to reassure me not to worry, that my assailant would likely plead out and I wouldn’t even have to testify. And my inner reaction was, What??? I might have to testify??? So as a victim, I entered the system without the first clue of what to expect procedurally, and that alone was extremely anxiety inducing. But individuals working in the system (be they cops, prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers, investigators, etc.) have to understand that this is true for most victims—they don’t have an understanding of criminal procedure, and that sense of not knowing is stressful. The lack of communication toward me as a victim is where I felt the system failed me most. On the other side of all of these years since my assault and my assailant’s trial, I understand that I should have taken more personal responsibility, should have spoken up more, should have asked more questions. But at the time I was basically a kid trying to make it through school and pay her rent. I was focused on trying to recover from the trauma of the assault and on living my life. I had no room for the crash course in criminal justice that was being forced upon me.

Moving forward, could you explain how this attack impacted your life personally and professionally?

Personally, it affected me in so many ways—some obvious, many not so obvious. Clearly it introduced me to terror, to a fear of darkness, to PTSD. Later in my life, and without giving away anything to ruin a major turn of events in the book, it came to give me a profound sense of gratitude to be alive, a profound sense that as horrible as my assault was, it could have been so much worse.

Professionally—and here I’m going right back to the communication issue again—it made me more conscious of the need to tell “new participants” in the criminal justice system what would be happening procedurally. It gave me a unique perspective, and frankly I believe it made me a kinder person, more sensitive to what people who were new to the criminal justice system were experiencing emotionally.

You dedicate your book to your attacker, which is amazing. How were you able to do this?

When I write, I often experiment with a concept, an idea, a feeling. Still in relatively early drafts of the book (much earlier than an author generally concerns herself with a dedication, I believe), I tried this dedication. I typed out, “For My Assailant,” and asked myself how that felt. There was no pressure, just like there’s no pressure writing a first draft—you can always delete what you’ve written, you can always edit. Asking myself how it felt, I understood it was intended as a F**k You, a taunt. There was nothing evolved or spiritual about it. But as I worked through the ending, as I examined my feelings looking back through the years, this dedication came to mean much more. I don’t want to give anything away from the book’s ending—those ending pages give the most complete answer to this question. What I can say is that while my assailant took so much away from me, he also gave me some great gifts. I think this life is about learning. We learn about others, and we learn about ourselves. My assailant and I spent a relatively short time together, but of all of the people I have interacted with in my lifetime, no one has taught me more than he did.


Robert Costello is professor and chair of the Criminal Justice Department at SUNY Nassau Community College and an adjunct professor at Hofstra University.