Jessica Stern Brings a Deep Understanding of Violence to Her Next Investigative Project

Jonathan Gourlay - February 2, 2017

Type: Artist News, Artist Profiles

Writer and terrorism expert Jessica Stern worked on new projects in Mansfield Studio in the summer of 2016.

Jessica Stern, a national expert in terrorism, trauma, and post-traumatic stress, who has written books about terrorism and has penned multiple articles about the subject for the likes of The New York Times, Politico, The Atlantic, the BBC, and Foreign Affairs, among other publications, was in residence this past summer for her fourth residency. While here, she began writing a book she is still researching on Radovan Karadić and the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia. Karadić, who was president of the Serbian portion of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is also a poet, psychiatrist, energy healer, and was convicted for genocide for his part in war crimes.

Stern’s most recent book is ISIS: The State of Terror, co-authored with J.M. Berger. She has also written Denial: A Memoir of Terror, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (a New York Times notable book of the year), and The Ultimate Terrorists. She is one of a growing cadre of MacDowell Fellows pursuing writing projects based on deep reporting. We asked her a handful of questions about her MacDowell residency and the difficulties encountered by practitioners of the art of journalism.

Q: How did you go about combing through ISIS communications for the most recent book, and what were some of your most shocking findings?”

Stern: At the time my co-author and I were working on our ISIS book, ISIS communications were very easy to find on Twitter. Indeed, they were hard to avoid. That is no longer the case. Terrorists’ on-line communications are a great resource for researchers. But there is a tension between the opportunity such communications provide to those of us who work in counterterrorism and the need to forestall recruitment. Most social-media companies have now made what strikes me as the right decision: taking most of those communications down. The beheading videos were the most appalling. But ISIS is determined to keep shocking us: beheadings are now carried out, not with swords, but with chainsaws. Burning “traitors” alive (and filming the process) is becoming a standard practice. I cannot watch these videos. Fortunately, I chose my co-author well – he is more accustomed to blood and gore than I.

Q: How do you prepare for a meeting with an imposing presence like Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadić and did your preparation help once you found yourself in the room with him?”

Stern: Karadić is the most challenging perpetrator I’ve ever interviewed. For one thing, he’s brilliant. He’s not just a war criminal; he is also a psychiatrist, a poet, a novelist, and an energy healer. He’s an expert liar and a master manipulator. He is polite when he wants to be, a charismatic charmer, with an extraordinary ability to control his emotions. When he was in hiding for 12 years, he spent part of the time disguised as a new-age energy healer. He grew his hair long and wore it in a top-knot on his head. He lost 70 pounds, and changed his accent. Thus, he’s an incredibly accomplished actor. He is a shameless flirt (in my case, only in front of the guards), and reportedly, a tremendously accomplished seducer. “A chameleon,” in the words of historian Robert Donia.

I’ve spent 50 hours interviewing him, four hours at a stretch. We drink instant coffee and eat snacks, but we don’t take any breaks, even to pee. Thus it’s very intense. How often do we sit and chat for four hours with any one person as adults?

As for how I prepare, I pray for guidance and hope that someone is listening.

Q: Given that the Karadzic interviews were so intense, and so much of your and other journalistic work is done in the field engaging with subjects, how does your writing process benefit from a residency?

Stern: For me, the research – studying perpetrators of violence – is extremely difficult, emotionally as well as spiritually. [This kind of] writing requires extended periods of concentration. To be able to focus on one thing, and to take breaks when I want or need them, rather than in response to the needs of others, is something that a residency provides – something that is very hard to find in one’s normal life. In my normal life, I cannot imagine putting my own needs before those of others for days on end. At MacDowell I feel utterly fed, maybe even indulged – spiritually, aesthetically, intellectually, and physically. The combination of the silence that MacDowell offers, the surroundings, and the presence of fellow artists struggling to create is a healing gift.

Q: Have the new challenges of funding deeply investigated stories changed the way you think about or approach other opportunities like residencies?

Stern: I fund my work by teaching and grants. Often those grants require me to do work not directly related to my own long-form writing, so it doesn’t always help me get my writing done. Many writers today have to teach. I love teaching. But teaching, and cooking, and my wonderful extended family are the main things that get in the way of writing books. Residencies provide much needed time for contemplation ... time to be alone but not too alone.

Q: What is the benefit of doing your type of work in an environment like MacDowell where so many other disciplines are being practiced?

Stern: I find it incredibly inspiring to be around artists across disciplines. We face many similar challenges. The work is lonely, but people are a great impediment to getting work done; we all face that tension. Listening to MacDowell composers, hearing them read their poetry or novels, seeing them explain their art works – all of this is like food for the mind. And then there is nature right outside our doors, food for the spirit. I feel incredibly enriched by the experience of spending time at MacDowell.

Read a Q&A with Fellow Shane Bauer about his journalism.

Read a Q&A with photojournalist and Fellow Finbarr O’Reilly.

Jessica Stern is a fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health and a research professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. She is an advanced academic candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Psychoanalysis and is an expert on terrorism. She serves on the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law, and served on President Clinton’s National Security Council Staff in 1994–95. She is a 2014-2015 Fulbright Scholar and, in 2009, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her work on trauma and violence.