By Laurie Rockenbeck
Karen Stefano’s What A Body Remembers is a timely and moving illustration of how our bodies instinctively tie our senses and memories together. It is a compelling book that reads as much like true crime as it does memoir, while delving into heady topics like trauma, PTSD, and victim blaming. Stefano manages to approach these subjects with a sensitivity that invites the reader to a deeper understanding of the after-effects of trauma while evoking empathy over pity.
Stefano weaves an interlaced narrative, incorporating aspects of her life at different times by presenting multiple versions of herself. These variants serve to inform and reflect each other, commingling into a gloriously complicated whole. The 19-year-old college student attacked while returning home from work late one night is introduced only after we meet the powerful defense attorney she eventually becomes. At the top of her game, fully able to manipulate a jury with finesse, this version of Stefano is clearly accomplished. Yet at the heart of the memoir, following a quest for closure is an older version of Stefano twenty years after the attack who is still not yet healed. Her marriage is falling apart and her body quite literally rebels. It is this version of Stefano, looking back, who most informs the narrative. By reflecting on the pressures placed on her younger selves she makes sense of the attack which shaped her adult life. We are immediately hooked by her story: Here is the victim of a violent crime who ends up defending violent criminals. Here is someone who has ostensibly thrived and survived, driven toward obsession.
Only after Stefano establishes herself as a tough and capable individual does she jump back to 1984 in the second chapter, describing the harrowing encounter she faced at 19:
This is the story of the night I died.
The night of the footsteps, of the harmless, pale-haired man jogging down a sidewalk; the night I walked home from work in darkness; the night he turned into my hallway; the night our eyes locked and he showed me the knife in his hand.
This is the night that still possesses my body.
It was just a small tragedy.
And yet it wasn’t.
This tension between “small” and “tragedy” builds through the first part of the memoir. Because Stefano’s physical wounds were minimal, she tells herself and those around her “I’m fine” even though she never feels safe alone in her apartment. She uses the phrase “I’m fine” as a mantra to tamp down the fear and panic that bubble close to the surface. Her assault and its aftermath, including the self-talk and reaction of others, will feel disturbingly familiar to many women. It’s as if Stefano is sending a message to others: You are not alone. We all do this.
Stefano’s logical interpretation of the events and assurances from others are set in stark contrast to the emotional ramification of the events. Logical statements such as “I wasn’t really injured” or “it’s not going to happen again; they caught the guy” do nothing to quell her body’s visceral reactions or help her underlying emotional state. Instead, she shoves the pain and fear deeper inside until she can almost forget it.
These initial chapters also detail the trail of her assailant, which leaves Stefano without a sense of justice. The vagaries of memory and general self-doubt make her appear as an unreliable witness in front of a jury, even though she is absolutely certain that the man on trial for the attack is guilty. She is mocked because she has no physical scars. She isn’t allowed to testify to the daily terror she continues to feel. When her attacker is found not guilty, she is left feeling both furious and helpless, and we along with her. How many times have women been told it was their fault, or that they must be remembering things incorrectly?
Now twenty years after her attack, Stefano’s body forces her to re-examine her relationship with this fraught history. Newly separated from her husband, Stefano feels the added stress of her break-up release the pain she’d shoved down with her mantra, I’m fine, I’m fine. Stefano begins to suffer panic attacks while driving. What affects her most acutely, however, is the particular sound of her attacker’s footsteps. While walking somewhere in broad daylight, she hears someone jogging behind her and is transported back in time and emotion to the night of her attack.
His footsteps inhabit my body. How do I get them to stop?
From here, the memoir departs from past action, and becomes a different kind of story. As she thinks back on her own history, Stefano realizes she cannot remember the name of her assailant. She can describe him with utter certitude—his hair, his face, his eyes—but his name is gone. She becomes obsessed with finding out what has become of him in order to heal herself of the trauma from long ago. As Stefano sets out to find this man from her past, the memoir picks up a thriller-like vibe. Who was he, really? What happened to him after the trial? It’s not entirely clear what she wants to do when she finds him, but we are right there with her as she sets about her quest.
The investigation she launches into her past is as much about healing herself as it is about finding the man who altered her life forever. The search for this man, what she learns about herself, and what she learns about him make the second half of this memoir a true page-turner.
Laurie Rockenbeck was raised a Navy brat and moved around a lot as a kid. She lives near Seattle with her family, two cats and a dwindling number of chickens. She graduated with a degree in journalism and quickly learned that writing fiction was a lot more fun. With a grandmother who started every story with: this is a true lie… there is no doubt that story-telling and exaggeration are part of her genetic make-up. Rockenbeck has her private investigation license but prefers writing about made up cases over investigating real ones. Her mystery series features Seattle Police Department’s only trans male homicide detective and a pro-dominatrix turned PI. She is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus.