Karen Stefano on the Aftermath of Sexual Assault
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
This week on Otherppl, Karen Stefano is the guest. Her new book, What a Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath, is available from Rare Bird Books. It is the official June pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club. Stefano’s other books include 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, California Lawyer, The South Carolina Review, Tampa Review, Epiphany, Volume 1 Brooklyn, and many other journals and magazines.
Karen Stefano: In 1984, I was a 19-year-old sophomore at UC Berkeley, and for a variety of reasons—one being that I needed a job—I got a job with the campus police department. I wore a full-blown cop uniform, with all the regalia minus the gun and the baton. The only thing that didn’t identify me as a real cop was a tiny patch on my sleeve that said aid. My job was to patrol this huge campus and surrounding areas. It’s a highly crime-ridden city, and it was my job to walk women home. There was a line you called, 642-WALK. That was my job. I finished a shift one night, go into the locker room, take off my cop clothes and put on my regular clothes, and sling my backpack over my shoulder, and I walk home close to darkness at midnight. At the threshold of my apartment, I’m assaulted at knifepoint. It was a brief, terrifying struggle. I was not raped; it was an attempted rape. I’m grateful for that, but it changed my view of the world, and I had to save face by going back out there patrolling these dangerous streets. My only protection was my uniform.
Brad Listi: I was going to say, you don’t have the gun and you don’t have the baton and you’re charged with walking people home safely. You don’t have mace or anything?
KS: I have a police radio, and I have my skills. A few times I would show up and women would say to me, what are you going to do? That’s fine, I’m here and I have this radio. I’ve been doing this a while, and you’re good . . . Obviously another piece of the story is the aftermath of the assault, and how I don’t cope at all.
BL: You’re speaking in the past tense?
KS: Going through the crash course in the criminal justice system, and even though I worked with the police department I had only a television-informed sense of what happens in the criminal justice system, like, “Oh, I have to go testify at this thing called a preliminary hearing.” A year later I get a subpoena to come testify at my attacker’s jury trial. It was extremely traumatic, and then there are many twists and turns in the story. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but one of the paradoxes in my life story after graduating Berkeley I went to law school with the intention of being a prosecutor and putting bad guys away. Ironically, through twists of fate, I become a criminal defense lawyer and representing people who had committed heinous crimes as heinous as the one committed against me. If you read the book, it makes perfect sense why it’s the path I took, but it’s an interesting paradox.