Haunted by Memory Itself: Karen Stefano on Writing “What a Body Remembers”

Karen Stefano

Karen Stefano‘s memoir What A Body Remembers is an absolutely harrowing literary work. Initially it focuses on Stefano’s experience of an assault and what came next — but it turns into something even more complex as the years go by. Stefano explores questions of justice and empathy throughout the book, and there’s a moment towards the end that made me gasp in shock. I talked with Stefano about the origins of her memoir, its structure, and the themes she grapples with within it.

The narrative of What a Body Remembers spans over thirty years, beginning in the mid-1980s. When did you first think about writing about this part of your life? 

It wasn’t until 2014 that I allowed myself to embark on this telling. Before that I wasted a good two years doubting. Yes, the story of this assault and its aftermath felt interesting to me, but would it matter to others? Who was I to presume anyone else in the world would care? As I eventually shared with more and more women what this might-be-book was about, I can’t count how many said, “Yeah, something like that happened to me too.” And they shared their own story and that simple act of sharing unburdened them somewhat—at least that’s what I like to believe. This was before the #MeToo movement and I began to wonder, could my story be emblematic of something bigger? I finally realized I had to write this book because it’s important to speak out, to let others know they’re not alone, to let everyone know there are many ways to heal.

When writing a book that spans so much time, how did you determine what to put into the narrative and what to leave out? 

The story itself really answered this question for me. Although the overall time span runs thirty years, the narrative focuses on three distinct periods of relevance: 1984-1985, covering my assault, the aftermath of the assault, and the trial of my assailant; 1995, providing a glimpse of my days as a criminal defense lawyer and how much I connected with my clients and found a voice in the courtroom (which I lacked entirely as a “victim” within the justice system in the 1980s); and finally, 2014, in which I found my life unraveling (again) and the PTSD from the assault rearing its ugly head (again). It’s in 2014 when the section of the book titled “Excavation” occurs, because that’s what it was: me digging up that old ugly time from 1984-1985 and examining myself, and then researching until I finally found my assailant after so many years. And without giving up any spoilers, what I learn about him after all that digging is nothing less than life altering—so there was no question that would go into the narrative.

Within your book, you discuss a host of power dynamics, from your own assault to the internal conflicts within the police department where you worked to your experience working as a defense attorney. What was the most challenging aspect of covering all of this ground? 

In some respects it was easy. I simply told the story of these different parts of my life. There’s the story of the assault and the arduous task of being the “victim” in the criminal justice system and the powerlessness of that role. Then there’s the story of working within a police department, the dynamics, navigating the “be tough at all times” personas and the requirement that I also adopt that persona, even when I felt anything but tough. Then there’s the section of my life in which I, seemingly paradoxically, become a defender of persons accused of crimes.

The difficult part, of course, was looking deep inside myself, of reconciling both for myself, and for the reader, all of these seemingly contradictory roles. 

Much of your memoir focuses on your life and your career in law, but you’ve also had a place in the literary world for a while now. What was your first entry into this world? 

The frame of this question is interesting in itself. I still carry so much doubt even after all of this work. Have I really entered the writing world? What does it mean to have entered this world? What are the benchmarks for knowing you “belong”?

But to answer—it started in 2007, when I made myself the promise that I was going to take myself seriously as a writer. I took a class at UCSD Extension, then I joined a writing group, then I scaled back my hours at my law firm (which would subsequently contribute to my financial demise as the recession hit, but that’s another story—sadly a focus on writing and lessened financial conditions seem to go hand and hand). Once I scaled back my work hours I had not only more time, but more mental and emotional space which I could use for creativity. I also set certain hours during the day for writing without interruption. I published my first short story in 2009. I started going to workshops and conferences. I met other writers. I published my first book in 2011, a how-to business writing guide, then a short story collection in 2015, and finally, my memoir, What A Body Remembers, this year. It’s been a long, sometimes painfully slow journey but writing is a compulsion, something I will never give up even with all of the challenges that come with it.

Over the course of What a Body Remembers, you chronicle your own evolving feelings about justice; has writing this book caused them to change as well? 

Definitely. Writing this book forced me to examine my incredibly broad range of “experience” inside our criminal justice system: working in law enforcement, being the victim of a horrifying crime, getting flayed on the witness stand during cross examination at my attacker’s trial, coming frighteningly close to being charged with a crime myself (!), working as a law clerk in the San Diego District Attorney’s office, working for a federal judge, then, being a criminal defense attorney myself. What I’ve learned is that “justice” is not something clearly defined. What I’ve learned is that “justice” is different for people of means than for the indigent, for people without a safety net. What I’ve learned is that “justice” differs based on the color of your skin. It is unbearably fucked up, but sadly, it’s true. The next question is: what are we going to do about it? At a minimum we have to vote. At a minimum we have to show up for jury duty. At a minimum we have to make our voices heard.

Do you have a sense of what’s next for you as a writer?

Ideally? To never receive another rejection email. Fame and fortune. For great opportunities to suddenly fall into my lap rather than having to work my ass off hunting them down. To bask in the literary awe of my three teen stepchildren.

Realistically? To keep doing the work. Keep on pitching, keep on writing, keep on reading and spending quality time with all of my wonderful friends in the writing community. These friends keep me sane in this crazy, beautiful, wonderful, lonely, difficult writing life. I have a novel I might dig out and finish, or I might let it go in favor of the new novel idea that keeps insistently nudging the first one out of the way. And there will definitely be more essays. So many are rumbling inside of me right now. I just have to find the quiet place inside my mind so that I can wrestle them onto the page. 

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