KAREN STEFANO TRANSFORMS TRAUMA INTO TRIUMPH
If you could bottle the very essence of San Diego, it would look, feel and sound a lot like this particular Friday evening. Beams of sunlight pierce through fluffy clouds and hit the calm sparkling water of Mission Bay. Seagulls circle above sailboats that are angling for the perfect spot to witness sunset’s nightly drama.
It’s a lot like paradise.
Just a block away, the front door of a house stands open in welcome. Inside a large living room, French doors open to a lushly landscaped patio with a jaw-dropping view of the bay, Karen Stefano ’04 (MBA) is chatting with guests who’ve gathered to celebrate the release of her memoir, What A Body Remembers (Rare Bird Books). She’s wearing faded jeans, a multicolored velvet top and a pair of Clark Kent-style eyeglasses. People are happily immersed in conversation while sipping wine and nibbling on stuffed grape leaves, falafel and spanakopita.
“My husband and I have been fighting over her book,” confides Donna Gross, Stefano’s former next-door neighbor. “It’s fantastic; a real page turner.” The host, Janice Deaton ’10, (MA) chimes in. “I thought it was brilliant, and the surprise near the end, well, even though I knew the story, I didn’t see it coming.”
A short while later, Deaton’s husband, Blake Harper ’18 (MA), makes a short speech before Stefano reads from her book.
“I knew she was a good writer,” he says to the crowd. “But I didn’t know she could tell a story. As it turns out, she can. This book is fabulous; if you haven’t read it, you must. This is a beautifully well-written story of surviving trauma. And to put yourself out there, like Karen has, is nothing less than courageous.”
He pauses, and beckons to Stefano to take her place front and center. “This woman is a total badass.”
She steps forward and begins to read.
“This is the story of the night I died.”
It’s been a long road to get to this evening. Thirty-five years ago, as a second-year student at UC Berkeley in 1984, Stefano struggled mightily to find a community to belong to. She thought she’d found her niche when she signed on as an aide to the UC Police Department.
“By joining the police department, in putting on that police uniform, I was seeking to reinvent myself: lonely young woman lost in sea of 30,000 students converted into member of a powerful tribe,” she writes. “Weakness morphed into strength. Powerless transformed into powerful.”
One of her campus duties was to escort female students safely to their destination. Putting on her uniform made her feel as if she’d been granted a superpower: “Wearing it allows me to do what other women cannot: walk alone down a city street,” she writes. Of course, there’s a wry admission that this particular superpower had limited use, since as an escort, “I am savior only to women — no man has ever called for an escort home.”
A few dozen pages in, it’s clear that Stefano has a flair for painting a picture with her words. In many ways, What A Body Remembers reads like a thriller or a police procedural.
What will happen to our protagonist next? Should we be worried for her?
The answer, as it turns out, is: Yes. We should.
On the night of July 19, 1984, at roughly 11:40 p.m., an event occurs that will reverberate and ripple throughout Stefano’s life for the next several decades.
This particular night felt much like others. She changed out of her uniform at the station, put on her street clothes and walked home — alone — through the dark streets of Berkeley: “I don’t know it yet, but this will be my last moment of calm, the last moments of before, the final moments of the first part of my life.”
In a flash, everything is changed forever. The sound of footsteps behind her. Two pairs of eyes lock. A knife glimmers. A struggle that lasts for what seems like forever. Finally: “the screams of a woman fighting to stay alive. Terror, I realize, has a sound.”
And while, obviously, Stefano does stay alive — she is, after all, here to tell the tale — her story is very far from over.
Karen Stefano is one of those people who it’s easy to feel an immediate connection with. Articulate, thoughtful and quick to laughter, it’s difficult to reconcile this 2019 version of Karen with the shattered 1984 young woman that she so vividly brings to life in her memoir.
Her journey to self-acceptance and transcending shame, anxiety attacks and PTSD was a decades-long quest to find a healthy way to live with her attack and its aftermath. What A Body Remembers is filled with surprising twists and unexpected turns.
“Everything in this book is 100 percent true as I remember it,” she says. “And I think I remember these events pretty freaking well because they were deeply important to me. They’re ingrained in my body.”
In the moments after that bloodcurdling scream, Stefano’s attacker fled. In quick succession, she called 911, was questioned by matter-of-fact Berkeley police (“I was just another victim to them,” she writes), and was asked to identify a suspect who fit the description. He was arrested on charges of false imprisonment and assault with a deadly weapon.
While the attack itself lasted no more than five minutes, Stefano’s life was immediately and irrevocably altered. “I sway back and forth,” she writes, recalling the immediate aftermath. “Playing my role as tough law enforcement woman unphased by this trifle of an attack, then lapsing into the silent lonely girl who is coming unhinged. I wake up every morning unsure which of these two people I might be.”
The wheels of justice turn slowly: More than a year later, Stefano was subpoenaed and summoned to an Oakland courthouse. She testified, and in mid-September, 1985, the jury rendered its verdict.
Fast-forward a decade. Stefano has earned her undergraduate degree in psychology from UC Berkeley, followed up by a juris doctorate from UC Davis.
In an improbable plot twist, she subsequently spent eight years as a criminal defense attorney in her hometown of San Diego. It seems a startling career path, given her own personal story, but Stefano doesn’t find it at all incongruous.
“Some people are going to take offense at the fact that I, a woman who was an assault victim, went on to become a criminal defense lawyer,” she says. “And my take on that is that they can be as offended as they want. I’ll never feel apologetic for helping the most indigent, downtrodden, damaged people.”
Much like other deeply personal aspects of her life, it’s a chapter that she addresses head-on in her memoir. She writes, “I represent men who hurt women. What does this say about me? How can a woman who herself was assaulted, then revictimized inside a courtroom, become a defender of people accused of crimes?”
It’s a good question, one that Stefano has a good answer for. It started when she spent a good deal of time dealing with prosecutors and didn’t emerge with a very high opinion of them.
“None of them seemed to appreciate that this task of being alive is difficult,” she writes. “To these prosecutors, there was right and there was wrong. They know nothing of the messy places in between. I began to wonder, how do we distinguish between good people and bad? How can we judge anyone with such certainty?”
And in fact, doing this work — defending what some may see as the very dregs of society — helped to give Stefano some sense of control, along with a blessed, albeit temporary, reprieve from nightmares, anxiety attacks and lingering trauma.
“I learned something unexpected in my criminal defense days,” she writes. “That I wanted to fight for these people, that fighting for them empowered me too … In my days at Berkeley and in my days in court I learned: Justice is not something clearly defined.”
From her perspective today, Stefano emphasizes her fervent belief in the principles that our country was founded upon. “Because I was a criminal defense lawyer and I believe in the Constitution, I believe in due process,” she says, leaning forward. “I believe that the prosecution has to play by the rules and it’s very important that we have defense lawyers — like I was — to hold them to that.”
Although it’s been years since her days as a defense attorney, Stefano still feels great empathy for her long-ago clients. She speaks fondly of a young man who crashed his car while under the influence; while the driver was uninjured, his passenger, who was a friend, suffered a broken back and traumatic brain injury.
“His friend testified at the preliminary hearing,” she recalls. “And he showed no signs of animus whatsoever. It was remarkable to me that people could be so civil to each other under such circumstances.”
Nonetheless, the client was distraught. “I feared he was suicidal,” Stefano says with a catch in her voice. “We got him a deal, because he had no prior record, and he served his probation successfully. In the years since, he seems to have had a pretty happy and productive life. It’s just such a stark reminder that we’re all human. You know? There but for the grace of God go I.”
After eight years in the role, Stefano moved on to a national class action firm that specialized in securities and consumer fraud cases. She decided to pursue an MBA at USD so that she could really understand the financial aspects of the cases she was involved with.
“The MBA was invaluable,” she says. “Lawyers always think they’re the smartest people in the room, but numbers people really have a different skill set.”
In some ways, being on campus at USD was a poignant experience for Stefano.
“I remember being really struck by how beautiful the campus was when I came here in the early 2000s,” she recalls. “Particularly, how safe it was. I remember thinking how my undergraduate years would have been so different had I gone to USD or a small private university where you’re more tended to.”
Through the years, the residual effects of her long-ago trauma remained. Panic attacks and depression. Triggers and therapy. Answers sought to unanswerable questions. In 2014, Stefano decided it was time to face it all head-on. She pored through old journals, started digging into public records, and bit by bit, excavated the past. What she ultimately found about her attacker was truly startling, and in a very real way, her sleuthing led to finally finding a way to heal and move on.
There won’t be a spoiler here regarding the bone-chilling details of exactly what Stefano uncovered. Suffice to say it was revelatory and life-changing.
So much so, that she shares a key takeaway with others: “If you’re ever faced with the fleeting decision: Fight or submit? Fight.”
Fast-forward to a room filled with applause and accolades. Stefano has finished her brief reading and smiles, incandescent. Her fiancé, John Bentivoglio, calls out to her.
“Do the stance!”
Stefano squares her shoulders, locks her arms and emits a steely, no-nonsense gaze. Clearly, this is a woman fully in charge of her life. Then, a moment later, just a hint of a smile.
No victim here. So much more than a survivor, Karen Stefano is triumphant. — Julene Snyder