Q & A : Interview with Karen Stefano, author of What A Body Remembers.
Emily Bertholf: Your latest book is a memoir about the life-altering night in 1984 when you were violently attacked on your way home from work and your long struggle of dealing with the aftermath of that attack. You look back at that night from three distinct snap shots of time, each shading its own perspective of your experience.
You were nineteen years old when you were attacked. You wrote the book 30 years later. When did you decide you were going to write this story?
Karen Stefano: For a long time, I struggled with the question: is this story worthy? Sure, I care, but will it matter to anyone else? Then, in 2014, my PTSD from the assault returned, seemingly inexplicably. Once again, the sound of footsteps behind me left me unhinged. I became obsessed with my assailant—finding out what his life went on to be. Once I learned what became of him, I knew this was a story that had meaning for everyone, not just for me.
Emily Bertholf: There’s an uncomfortable moment in the book where you’re working as an on- campus police aide talking with your boyfriend, who was also a senior police aide, just days after the attack. You suddenly became aware that you were now a victim standing on the other side of the hero-victim dichotomy around the station, on the wrong side of strong-and-weak. What did it mean for you to suddenly be thrust into this role of victim?
Karen Stefano: Well, it reinforces what we all already know: the words we use matter. The words we choose dictate the story we are telling ourselves about our own lives, about who we are, about how much we matter, about how “successful” we are, about how much we are loved. I’m not even talking about writing, or words on the page. I’m talking about the words we use when we speak to ourselves. Not surprisingly, I abhor the word “victim.” It implies powerlessness. “Survivor” tells a much more empowered story. I’m a big believer that we must be conscious of our own internal narratives. I don’t always succeed, but I try to be conscious of what story I’m telling myself.
To answer the other part of your question, to find myself on the wrong side of strong-and-weak (I love the way you phrase that, by the way), was upending. The identity that I clung to, of actually belonging within the family of a police department, evaporated. I had felt like a bit of a fraud to begin with, putting on that police uniform, pretending to be tough, and then, post-assault, I felt exposed for the weak frightened girl-child I really was. I felt judged too—that a stronger, more capable person would not have let this happen to herself. Just saying that sounds horrible, but it’s what I believed. In a police department, particularly as a woman, you simply aren’t allowed to show weakness, vulnerability. And mine had been exposed for the whole department to see.
Emily Bertholf: I was surprised to see you dedicated the book to your assailant. Can you tell us why?
Karen Stefano: When I write, like many writers, I play with words on the page. I experiment. I put something down and see how it feels. I revise endlessly. I wrote that dedication pretty early in the writing of this book, way before it was a book. Honestly, it started as a Fuck You. A way of flipping the bird to this piece of shit. And frankly, there’s still a piece of that in this dedication. But as I say in the book, life is about learning, learning about the world and learning about ourselves and our place in this world. A lot of people have taught me a lot of things. But no one ever taught me greater lessons than my assailant did. They weren’t necessarily lessons I wanted to learn, but they were invaluable nonetheless. And, again, no spoilers, but the fact of him, the trajectory of writing this book, changed my life in ways I never would have imagined. So yes, an unusual dedication, but a fitting one.
Emily Bertholf: You write: “A woman should be able to walk home alone in darkness without fear. But she can’t…. All of this is happening to someone else right now. This thing will always happen. This thing will never stop. Unless we make it stop.” (p. 86) How do we make it stop?
Karen Stefano: I don’t have a formula, sadly. But at a minimum, we advocate for ourselves and for one another as women. We march. We vote. We show up for jury duty. We support those legislators who support us and our rights. We tell our stories—even when those stories might be difficult to hear.
Read an excerpt of Karen Stefano’s What A Body Remembers at (link) https://aflwmag.com/2019/06/18/karen-stefano/
Order your copy now from Rare Bird Books (link) https://rarebirdbooks.com/
Also available at your local independent store (link) www.indiebound.org/search/book?keys=karen+stefano
Amazon (link) www.amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/What-Body-Remembers-Assault-Aftermath/dp/1947856952/ref=sr_1_2?crid=1F2OIQL9G9EPL&keywords=what+the+body+remembers&qid=1569943418&sprefix=What+the+Body+Re%2Caps%2C158&sr=8-2
or Barnes & Noble:
Karen Stefano is the author of the memoir, What A Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath (Rare Bird Books 2019). She is the author of the short story collection The Secret Games of Words (1GlimpsePress 2015) and the how-to business writing guide, Before Hitting Send (Dearborn 2011). Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Rumpus, Psychology Today, Writers’ Digest, Tampa Review, Epiphany, and elsewhere. She is also a JD/MBA with more than twenty years of complex litigation experience. To learn more about Karen and her writing, please visit http://stefanokaren.com.
Emily Bertholf is an elusive enigma that temporarily resides in the collective imaginations of writers, readers, artists, and other bibliophiles. Recent sightings have been reported in or near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her stories and poems have appeared or are upcoming in Creative Wisconsin Anthology, Bending Genres, Digging Through the Fat, and others.