Your Voice

A victim of assault takes an unintentional career path

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Karen Stefano

Karen Stefano.

On a summer night in 1984, I left my uniformed patrol job at the University of California at Berkeley Police Department and walked home alone in darkness.

I was a 19-year-old sophomore. At the threshold of my apartment, a man assaulted me at knifepoint. After a soul-chilling struggle, I managed to escape and call 911. Police caught my assailant, I identified him, he was arrested.

I found myself plunged into an incomprehensible reality: I became terrified of the dark and unhinged by the sound of footsteps behind me. Yet, I paid my rent and clung to a shaky identity by wearing a police uniform, patrolling dark streets of a sprawling campus and crime-ridden city, walking other women home to safety. My only protection was that uniform.

Traumatizing me further was the crash course I received on the flaws of our criminal justice system. I testified at my attacker’s preliminary hearing, then suffered a scathing cross-examination at trial. Six weeks later, in another absurd twist of fate, I, myself, was nearly arrested and prosecuted for alleged felony fraud within my own police department.

Through all of this, I felt completely alone. When I finally graduated from UC-Berkeley, I went to law school. I planned to become a prosecutor to put away “bad guys.”

But that’s not what happened.

Paradoxically, I became a criminal defense lawyer, defending men and women accused of crimes as heinous as the one committed against me.

I’ve been asked how my sexual assault informed my decision to become a criminal defense lawyer. I was a victim of a brutal crime, yet went on to defend alleged perpetrators of identical crimes? How can a feminist represent men who hurt women? What makes that woman want to excoriate victims on cross-examination the way she herself was flayed? People want to know: How do you reconcile this?

Before the release of my memoir, What A Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath, few people knew about the events of 1984. A handful of friends remarked on the irony of me specializing in criminal defense. Some opined that I chose this path because long ago I lost my power—my assailant stripped it from me—and I remained desperate to regain it.

They said I was turning my history, my victimhood, on its head and claiming strength by violating others in the courtroom as I was violated, because there’s a primal urge to injure that which has injured us. As a victim I had been silenced. Now I had a voice.

Others believed I was taunting everyone: “Look! I’m so forceful I can defend people accused of heinous crimes.” The ugliness of humanity manifested in criminal acts once found me, but now I’m in control; now I go hunting for it.

Others identified it as an evolved form of dissociation—of leaving my body as I had that night of the assault—but a dissociation instead lasting years. Still, others argued that for me to mirror the steely force of my own legal rescuer—a woman who represented me pro bono after the police in my own department violated my constitutional rights—created a way to reclaim my power.

My response to each of these theories: maybe.

Life proves to be full of both choice and chance, and we try to reconcile all the enigmatic inconsistencies, try to thread a life into a linear narrative, all in hope of finding meaning. The truth is, I never intentionally chose that career path. It was flung on me, like everything else.

During law school, I clerked for the San Diego District Attorney’s office. I still wanted to become a prosecutor, still wanted to make things right. Clerking in the DA’s office, I guaranteed myself an offer as a deputy DA with an annual salary of $36,000. But with student loans, I was a financial disaster, so instead I took a job with a civil litigation firm ($52,000!). The firm assigned me a “mentor,” whom I nicknamed “tor”-mentor. This woman told me, “We own you. You’re going to earn every last penny of that bloated salary.”

Miserable, I quit. It was 1991, and an ugly recession triggered a hiring freeze for San Diego County, eliminating the deputy DA position that would have been mine. Worse, there seemed to be no jobs anywhere. I had no income. I moved in with my parents.

Desperate for cash, I started making court appearances for the handful of criminal defense attorneys I knew. Opposing prosecutors, I felt powerless again, even humiliated, by what felt like a total lack of voice. In the windowless room outside court where those prosecutors conducted plea negotiations, I did my best to wheedle out a better deal for clients. But so often there was no negotiation. The choices were: Take the deal or go to trial. So, I began to view prosecutors differently. Many seemed smug, so neat and tidy, so in control.

None seemed to appreciate that this task of living often proves difficult. To those prosecutors, there was right, and there was wrong. They knew nothing of the messy places in between. I began to question, how do we distinguish between good people and bad? How can we judge anyone with such certainty? What if people commit acts for reasons longer than their rap sheets, reasons more complex than the elements of their crimes?

After a few months, I started making some money, moved in with a friend and opened my own office. I joined a panel where private attorneys took cases when the public defender’s office had a conflict of interest. I made court appearances for more seasoned lawyers, did ghost writing briefs to make ends meet—and to learn. I came to understand phrases like voir dire, fruit of the poisonous tree, locus poenitentiae—a place for repentance.

Walking into jails, prisons and holding cells felt like adventure. Proximity to criminals made me feel tough, potent. These were serious places stocked with dangerous people, yet, I felt protected, untouchable. Like my days as an aide in the UC-Berkeley Police Department, it became a way of playacting, brushing up against the bad—but from a safe distance. Defending men and women accused of crimes became a way of rebelling, of waging war with authority. And in those battles, I began to wonder: How do we uncover truth? In my ringside seat, I saw up close what goes wrong to deliver a person to a jail cell. I witnessed all the ugly beautiful humanity. Too much sometimes. Sometimes, so much it hurt.

So yes, I’m a defender of persons accused of crimes. Sometimes awful crimes.


Because we never have a clue where this life might take us.

People who know about my past have also asked, always in hushed conspiratorial tones, did I ever pull any punches? Because I was once flayed on cross-examination as a victim, did I ever hold back when cross-examining victims—particularly assault victims—at trial? The answer, of course, is no.

In my memoir’s opening scene, I cross-examine the female victim of an assault. During this cross, I identify with her: she is blonde like me, petite like me, in her early 30s like me. I feel like we could be friends. At the end of this chapter, I reveal my concern she is hurting, that my pummeling is making her suffering worse—and I wonder if she feels the same way I did when I was a victim fighting back tears on the witness stand.

Still, I cross-examine her hard. Because all I care about is my client.

I have fallen in love with clients. Not romantic love. Not the sexual love portrayed by so many Hollywood movies featuring female criminal lawyers—but love, nonetheless. Because what else can you call it when you know that decades later you will still think about the men and women whose lives intersected so briefly with your own? When you wonder if they’re still alive, still addicted, still in prison, still funny and smart and wry? Or maybe it isn’t love. Maybe it’s the thrill of a strange kind of intimacy with another human being. Maybe it’s the thrill of being needed.

What if we simply accept that nothing happens in this life the way we expect it to, that we are complicated, layered, conflicted beings loaded with inconsistencies? What if we accept that our paths are jagged? That they lack a single clear trajectory?

It’s been 35 years since the seemingly harmless man entered the hallway outside my apartment, showed me the knife in his hand and grabbed me in one fluid movement. Some days I still feel powerless, voiceless, out of control. And with this sense comes the heavy weight of shame. But I learned something unexpected in my criminal defense days: I wanted to fight for these human beings who were my clients and fighting for them empowered me, too. I learned that beneath the narrative of our days, there is another story, a story we don’t get to write. In my days at Berkeley and in my days in court I learned: Justice is not always something clearly defined.

Karen Stefano is the author of the memoir What A Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath. She is the author of the short story collection The Secret Games of Words and the how-to business writing guide Before Hitting Send. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Psychology Today and California Lawyer. She also has a JD and an MBA and has more than 20 years of litigation experience. To learn more about Stefano and her writing, visit is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

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