For her new memoir, What a Body Remembers (Rare Bird Books, 2019), Karen Stefano, J.D. ’90, took on the arduous task of researching her own sexual assault from three decades ago.
Stefano shares the painful details of an assault that took place when she was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, her resulting feelings of fear and trauma, and her attempts to learn what happened to her attacker.
“I sort of became obsessed with my own anxiety, my own PTSD and wanting to find out about my assailant,” Stefano said. “So I wanted to track him down and see whatever became of him. I couldn’t remember his name.”
Investigating a pre-internet event was not easy. A sergeant with the Berkeley Police Department helped her find the information she needed and — without giving away details of the book — the resulting revelation is shocking.
Stefano, an attorney specializing in class-action civil litigation in San Diego, recently spoke with UC Davis Magazine editor Jocelyn Anderson about delving into the past and conquering fears.
Jocelyn Anderson: Why did you want to write this book?
Karen Stefano: For a long time, the actual writing and researching of the book was prefaced by two years of self-doubt. This is interesting to me, but [I didn’t know] if this story is interesting to other people. I finally overcame that. As I started talking to other women about what I was thinking about writing about, so many said something like that happened to them too. And this was way before the #MeToo movement. I realized maybe this does matter to other people. And to let people know they are not alone. People need to know that you ultimately turn from victim to survivor.
JA: Did you ever reconsider going to law school after everything happened?
KS: My decision to go to law school never wavered. I actually went to law school with the intention of becoming a prosecutor. Just by chance I knew some criminal defense lawyers, and they had me make some appearances, ghost write briefs. I kind of fell into it and really developed a taste for it and a sense of compassion for my clients. But [over time] my practice area changed.
JA: What was your time at UC Davis like?
KS: Davis was super attractive to me because it was the opposite of Berkeley. Berkeley and San Francisco are major urban environments, and Davis felt, in comparison, like “Mayberry R.F.D.” It was just safe, not crowded. It had a real small-town vibe. I’d run into my law professors at the grocery store or the gym. I got a wonderful education, but law school is not easy. I was working hard. And at that time, my issues from Berkeley were on a back burner and I don’t know why.
JA: Now that you have finished the book, how do you feel about the process? Was it cathartic, helpful?
KS: Now, on the other side of it, I can have a different perspective. It was cathartic. But during the writing process, especially during the initial draft, it wasn’t therapeutic at all. It was incredibly painful, and it brought back my PTSD with a vengeance. One morning I was walking to work — it was early morning, light out, tons of people, safe street — and a man was jogging behind me. I spun around so panicked. The sound of the footsteps just triggered me so much I completely lost it. The poor guy looked at me and apologized. He hadn’t done anything wrong, but I know he saw my face and knew I had been through something.
JA: How do you keep going when you feel that way?
KS: I like to engage in self-care. For me, I exercise, get enough sleep, eat right and give myself a lot of down time. If I want to binge watch “The Americans” at 5 p.m. on a Thursday I let myself do it. And now I’m in a new phase talking about it. So it’s just doing what I didn’t do back in the ’80s, which is being nice to myself. Like everybody else, I have my strong days when I feel like a powerful, forward-moving woman, and there are days when I have a panic attack walking down the street for no good reason. My therapist tells me I’m a work in progress.