MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.
Today, we want to talk about two stories that are literally out of the headlines. A couple of weeks ago, R&B superstars Chris Brown and Rihanna were together on the eve of the Grammy Awards. But before the night was over, something happened that left the young woman battered and the young man facing criminal charges.
Now, it's important to note that Brown has been charged only with making criminal threats and the investigation is ongoing. But parents know that their kids see what celebrities are doing. And frankly, the issue is closer to home than you might think. Surveys show that nearly one in 10 high school students says that he or she has been hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend.
And to top it all off, another story about physical abuse is making headlines for very different reasons. Muzzammil Hassan, who co-founded the American Muslim TV network called Bridges along with his wife Aasiya, is accused of murdering Aasiya and beheading her. This case is very disturbing, and it's challenging many Muslims to consider what this means for their community.
We decided we had to talk more about this, so I'm joined by Leslie Morgan Steiner, she's co-author - sorry, she is author of the upcoming memoir "Crazy Love," which details her experiences in an abusive first marriage. She's a Tell Me More regular contributor to our parenting conversations. Dani Tucker is also a regular contributor to our parenting panel. And journalist and Tell Me More regular Asra Nomani, who's been extensively reporting on the Hassan case. Welcome, ladies, moms.
LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Good to be here.
DANETTE TUCKER: Thank you.
MARTIN: And I don't even know who to start with because each of you has a story to tell. And I think, Dani, I think I'm going to start with you because you have a son and a daughter, and your son is not quite dating age, but he is certainly interested age.
TUCKER: He's dating.
MARTIN: He's dating. Well, that's new news to me. But he's interested age. When you heard about the whole Chris Brown-Rihanna thing, what came to mind? Did you feel a need to have a conversation with him, or what conversation did you think he might be having about this?
TUCKER: Oh, I most definitely felt a need to have a conversation with him. Because when I was growing up I had a high school sweetheart, he got abusive, and we didn't talk about those things, you know. From 14 to 17 I was with the same guy, and it didn't get physically abusive, it was verbal and mental. And I always made it a point in my mind to talk to my kids about that because a lot of high school relationships just go on and the parents just may set a curfew, or say you guys can't be in the same room at the same time. But they don't know what's going on outside of the house, and you know, in the relationship, so...
MARTIN: Can I ask you a question though, put you on the spot, which is that I don't think of you as a person that would take a lot of mess, and I think that that's an image a lot of people have of African-American women in general. So it's kind of...
TUCKER: Notice I said it didn't get physical...
TUCKER: (Laughing) But it was...
MARTIN: But why do you think you stayed in a relationship so long that - did you know you were being mistreated...
MARTIN: At the time, or you felt that was normal?
TUCKER: No. It wasn't until later when - I thought it was normal. I mean, you know, he was - called me fat and, you know, said things that did not lift me up or didn't - you know, I was with him for a long time. We're best friends now, but - and to his credit, he didn't know any better either. We were just doing what we saw other people do. You know, we would argue, we would fight, he would say things, I would cry, and to me that was normal. When I looked at my own kids - it's not normal and we have to talk about it. What I wasn't going to do from this point on was sweep anything else in the closet or under the rug.
MARTIN: Let me bring Leslie into this. You have an upcoming book where you talk about your own experience with domestic violence in your first marriage. And I want to ask what that experience was, and why you decided to go public with it.
MORGAN STEINER: Well, I was married very young. I was only 22, and my husband was physically abusive, and very much like Dani, I didn't know that it was abuse. I thought I was just in love with a very troubled man. And as a result of that experience I have talked to my children with my second husband. It's important to note that I did not have children with my first husband, which is one reason I'm free to speak about it so openly.
But my children now, they are six, 10, and 12. And since they were even younger I spoke to them pretty openly about the fact that I was - my first marriage was abusive. And with little kids you can be pretty simplistic. Now that my children are a little older, it gets more complicated, especially with my memoir "Crazy Love" coming out, and the fact that there probably will be some publicity surrounding it. I really need to prepare them for this really difficult subject. And it's hard to talk to kids about this.
MARTIN: In fact, you wrote about this for, I believe for cnn.com, where you wrote about the fact that a lot of people might look at Chris Brown and Rihanna - and again we have to say that it hasn't been confirmed that Rihanna is the victim of abuse - but a picture has been leaked, an unauthorized distribution of a picture that shows that she's been physically harmed. And you said that maybe people look at them and think they're young, they're beautiful, they are successful, that surely wouldn't happen to them, and people would look at you and say you were young, you're white, you're successful, that surely wouldn't happen to you.
MORGAN STEINER: And in fact I looked at myself in the same way. You know, I'd just graduated from Harvard. My husband also was an Ivy League graduate. I was working at Seventeen Magazine in New York, he was a Wall Street trader. You know, we had this great life. It looked like it - on the outside, and also looked like that to me. But behind closed doors there was a lot of really terrible stuff going on. And it wasn't necessarily my ex-husband's fault, you know, he had witnessed a lot of abuse as a child, and have been abused himself by his stepfather, like Chris Brown alleges. And I think the silver lining is that people are talking a lot about domestic violence now, and that is good. And it's, sort of, like if it could happen to people like Chris Brown and Rihanna it could happen to anybody. And in fact it does happen to everybody.
MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit more in just few minutes about what exactly you should be saying or what exactly you say to your kids to talk about something like this, but before you do, Asra, I want to bring you in. You've been reporting recently about the story about a mother of two near Buffalo, New York, who was the co-founder, with her husband, of this American-Muslim TV network. And this is a couple that had gotten a lot of attention, particularly in the wake of 9/11, for their efforts to show a different face of Islam. I don't know, I mean, this crime is shocking on its face, but tell me more about the reverberations that have arisen as result of this.
NOMANI: Well, yeah. This couple was, like, the model couple, the one that you thought that was living the perfect American immigrant dream, but behind closed doors it was a completely different story. What I have been able to now understand is that, for the last 15 years at least, the husband, Muzzammil Hassan, has been going between marriages - this was his third marriage - with a deeply troubled history of mental illness. And in this story is a story of silence. Basically, in our American-Muslim community, like so many traditional communities, we don't want to deal with issues of mental illness or domestic violence. And so, as one community organizer said, the community was an accomplice in this crime. And what basically happened was that this wife, Aasiya, lived a private hell. She went in and out of our police stations here in America, but for the most part didn't seek help from within the community. Everybody knew about it, and this is the cycle of pain. I think of so many of these situations, where the victim becomes victimized many times over and stays in a place of weakness.
MARTIN: But it isn't a case where she didn't seek help from the authorities. Why do you think, if she was willing to call the police - I'm not blaming her, please let me emphasize, I'm not blaming this woman for what happened - but I am curious to know what's your understanding of why it is that she was still so isolated.
NOMANI: I think that it happens to so many of us often times, where you know that a situation is unhealthy and yet you still keep trying to make a change, so in that you also become isolated. One of the activists was talking to me about suffering in silos, and I thought that that image was really appropriate. Because what you keep trying to do is fix the situation and that's what it seems Aasiya was trying to do.
MARTIN: If you just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with our regulars Asra Nomani, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Dani Tucker. And we're talking about two cases that have brought the issue of domestic violence firmly into our consciousness, into our living rooms.
And Dani, here's a story that came out in the wake of the whole Chris Brown-Rihanna situation that has been passed around very much in the blogosphere, and it pointed out how many kids think that pushing or hitting or mean words is normal in a relationship. The statistics - and this is in a number of studies that we've cited and we'll have links to them on our Web site - say that the number of kids, young kids, in dating relationships who were exposed to this is actually pretty high. And I wonder, what do you think about that, I mean, you...?
TUCKER: It is very normal, and it was one of the reasons why I took the opportunity to talk to DeVaughn and Imani, because I had to take responsibility when me and her dad were together and we fought and we argued, and he would push or I would push. That's what they see. They see us argue as, you know, in relationships or in marriages. They see the friends argue, and argument escalates a lot of times, if somebody doesn't walk away, to violence. So, that is normal because the first thing DeVaughn said to me is, well, mom, she keep coming, what am I supposed to do? You run away or you deal with me. You know, I always give him that option - is he really, you know, deal with me or deal with it. But you know, I see you just have to walk away. You have to run away, I know because his thing was - these girls are feisty, and they are, and you know, the girls are coming at them like, you know...
MARTIN: You're saying girls are physically aggressive?
TUCKER: Oh, yeah. The girls are - a lot right now, a lot more physically aggressive to hit a guy.
MARTIN: You're saying girls will hit a guy?
TUCKER: Oh, yes, they will and I've seen them, you know, and Imani said the same thing. She says, you know, well, so and so got into it with her friend. And my thing was well, why does she have a boyfriend? She's eleven. So, I mean, you know, these are the things that we have not talked about and that's what I said, OK, you know what, let's talk about relationships. Let's talk about you trying to play married or play couples. This is not a game. This takes a lot of work when we are in a relationship, when we're in a marriage, when we're dating or whatever. It's not just some when we all boo, I love you, or boo I love you and then we go off into the sunset. This is work.
MARTIN: What exactly have you told your kids about the boundaries that are to be set?
TUCKER: First of all, I told them I don't want them dating seriously. You try to play an adult game with a child mind, you know. I wish somebody had told me that in high school. So, they want us taking at the heat, it's like, well, ma, this young lady. He went on a date with a nice young lady. I met her, you know, we talked to the family. I want him to do it that way. We're going back to the old fashioned way. Because right now things to me are very out of control because people are not talking until something like this happens.
NOMANI: You know...
MARTIN: Leslie, OK. Go ahead, Asra.
NOMANI: I'll be honest. I was one of those women. I mean, when I - just was in meltdown with the father of my baby, and he was refusing to own up and take responsibility. It was an emotionally unhealthy situation, right? And I lost it. I mean, I walloped on him one night, and I became enraged and an animal like I would never otherwise be. But I still stayed in that unhealthy, sick relationship for months. And one night, after I'd had my son, I was, like, literally sitting on the floor of my bedroom, sneaking - I'm 37 years old at that point - I'm, like, sneaking a call to the father of my baby because I know that my mom would disapprove because she's not much liking on him, right. And I accidentally call 911, using the country code, city code for Pakistan, where I was trying to call. So, I've hit the West Virginia state dispatcher. She - I hang up the phone, she does the right thing and calls me back.
MARTIN: She calls back.
NOMANI: Yeah. And she says are you OK? I'm like I'm OK, I just misdialed. She said, does someone have a gun to your head? And that's when the light bulb went on, you know. And I had a gun to my own head. And that was the moment when I got out of that relationship because it was unhealthy. And that physical violence comes after long periods of unhealthy relationship and I think the best thing that we can try to teach our kids is the parameters of healthy relationships, right?
MARTIN: Leslie, what exactly have you told your kids about what acceptable boundaries are?
MORGAN STEINER: Well, that's...
MARTIN: How explicit are you?
MORGAN STEINER: As explicit as you could be in simplistic terms. That it's not OK to hit somebody and it's not OK to...
MARTIN: To be hit.
MORGAN STEINER: To be hit. But I think it's worth saying that domestic violence does happen where its women hitting men. I think it's very underreported because there's even more shame and embarrassment about that, but it does happen. So, it's wrong at any time to be hit or to hit somebody. So, I'm really clear with them about that. I think where it gets a lot harder is explaining to a teenager who is overwhelmed by feelings of their first love, what the parameters are. Because I remember being a young teenaged girl and being so flattered that one of my boyfriends was really possessive and didn't want me to wear a bikini in front of other men. I mean, I was just thrilled by it. And I look back at that now and I say how would I explain to my 10-year-old daughter how kind of twisted that was and that I wished that somebody had said to me at that time, you know, not only is this really kind of unusual that you're flattered by it, but extrapolate this out into a marriage and into long-term commitment, and are you really going to be happy with somebody who takes that attitude.
MARTIN: How would you have brought that up, though, in a way you think a kid world could hear it, kid ears could hear it?
MORGAN STEINER: You know, my mother and I - I love my mother and my mother was instrumental in me getting out of the abusive relationship, but we never talked about details like that when I was a teenager or as a young married woman. And my 10-year-old and I, we talk about everything. I mean, and that's - I feel like hopefully she will tell me about things like that. And I hope so much, even though they're too young to read "Crazy Love," that one day they do read it and that they are able to see for themselves how dangerous it can be to get - and how seductive that kind of love can be. I think, you know, we tend to demonize abusive love and say that the man who abuses a woman is a really terrible person, but the truth is that there's lots of good in them, too. I mean, I never would have fallen in love with my ex-husband if he didn't have a lot of wonderful qualities. And I think we as a society we will be better off if we recognize that.
MARTIN: Briefly, I wanted to ask each of you, also, what reaction have you gotten to your reporting on this case so far?
NOMANI: I reported this case for a publication called The Daily Beast and the letters have been really phenomenal. I mean, the idea that we can understand this killing in a way that is about universal issues like silence and shame are compelling to people because they - I think most people realize that domestic violence and abuse are universal issues. But understanding the human tragedy here is I think what people want to know.
MARTIN: Dani, very briefly, what reaction have you had with the kids, now that you started surfacing this issue with them?
TUCKER: I like their reaction because they're interested and they care. My thing to them always is it has to be a heart issue first when we're dealing with people. You know, remember that that's a person. I have not liked a lot of the responses for Chris Brown. He's not the plague. He's a young man that made a mistake and he needs our help, and he needs healing. So, my kids are having that spirit, and that's the one I want them to have. Because there're going to be people in their lives that are going to make mistakes, OK? And you may still have to interact with those people. You've got to come with the healing attitude of it.
You know, they don't need to be banned to a leprosy colony. They need us to help them. We have to pray it - whatever you can do. So, that's what they're doing. Nomani says, well what can I do? You can pray. They've all - we can - you can also when you're in that situation, and you see that happen to a friend. You do not be silent. You tell a parent, you tell an adult. Don't let your girlfriend or don't let your boyfriend hit each other and then you all just dab it up and go about like it's what we normally do. No. Be the big one and speak up. So, those are the two things I'm getting them to do.
MARTIN: And Leslie, finally, what reaction have you been getting to the conversations you've been having at home and the conversations you've been having online as a result of the work that you've been publishing about this?
MORGAN STEINER: Well, the piece in CNN, "Rihanna is not alone" got me about 100 emails from complete strangers who had been through the same thing. And I just can't tell you how gratifying and supportive it feels to know that there are so many other people who've been through it and who survived, and have gone on to have wonderful lives. That it's not something that ruins your life. Now, closer to home, my daughter, my ten-year old daughter, is very interested. She read the CNN piece and we talked a lot about it. And I made a copy for my son, and he just sort of shook his head and said, you know, I don't know mom, it makes me uncomfortable. And I think he's old enough that he really knows the seriousness of it and he knows that it really happened to me and that it made me very - that it was a very dark period in my life.
MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner, Asra Nomani, Dani Tucker, they all joined us in our studios in Washington. I thank you all so much for talking with us today.
MORGAN STEINER: Thank you.
NOMANI: A pleasure.
TUCKER: Thank you.
MARTIN: For more information and resources about where to get help if you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please visit the Tell Me More page of npr.org. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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