MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is 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 comments and some savvy parenting advice. Today, a special moms' conversation with one of our regulator contributors, Leslie Morgan Steiner.
Now, many people were shocked, shocked, when news broke about the alleged battering incident involving hot R&B couple Chris Brown and Rihanna. The young stars apparently got into an argument after leaving an event the night before the Grammy Awards.
Before the night was over, Rihanna would receive medical treatment for an array of injuries and Chris Brown would turn himself into the police.
One person who was not shocked was Leslie Morgan Steiner. She's one of our regular contributors, a happily married mother of three. She's an accomplished author and editor and the holder of not one but two Ivy League degrees.
On the surface, she had it all together, but what most people did not know until now is that she is also a survivor of severe physical and emotional abuse in her first marriage, a story she tells in her new memoir, "Crazy Love." She joins me now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Leslie, welcome.
Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER (Author): It's a pleasure to be here, Michel.
MARTIN: Why did you want to tell this story, and why now?
Ms. STEINER: Well, I wanted to understand as best I could why I'd gotten into such a terrible relationship, and I wanted to turn such a dark time in my life into a force for good.
And I thought if I could use my story to try to help other victims of intimate partner violence, I would feel somehow better and more empowered, and that's exactly how I feel right now.
MARTIN: Take us back to those times. You were young. You had a degree from Harvard undergrad. You had a great job. So you met this man who you call Connor in the book. I assume that's not his real name.
Ms. STEINER: That's not his real name.
MARTIN: What attracted you to him?
Ms. STEINER: The thing that really made him stand out - and this is typical, I've since learned, about batterers, is that he was so intensely interested in me, and I was very shabbily dressed on the subway one night. It had been snowing, and my hair was wet, and he was really obviously attracted to me.
And he tracked me down a month later at my job, and I was really flattered by that too. So that's really what made him stand out at first.
We dated for quite a while, and I was ready to tell him, you know, I don't want to date you anymore, because I just wasn't that into him, and in some ways that was the most seductive thing, is that I felt really in control of the relationship at first, because he was so much the pursuer of me.
MARTIN: So then what happened? You just weren't that into him. What do you think turned it into a thing where you couldn't get away until it almost was too late?
Ms. STEINER: Well, looking back now - and this is what I try to convey in the book - is how in some ways I was very confident, but in some ways I was extremely vulnerable, and I think that he sensed that. He had a sixth sense for it.
And he did something that a lot of abusive men do, consciously or unconsciously, is that he really isolated me from my family and my friends. He convinced me to leave my job and to leave New York City and to move to a very isolated part of New England, where he had a lot of control over me.
And that is when - I mean, the abuse started long before that, but the first physical attack started five days before our wedding, when we were living in New England.
MARTIN: One of the things that I appreciate about the book is you don't spare anyone, including yourself. You talk a lot about the fact that you had a drug and alcohol problem, which you had pretty much mastered by the time you got to college.
It was almost like you had done a lot of living before you even got there. Is there something in that whole scenario that you think made you vulnerable to someone like Connor?
Ms. STEINER: I think so, and also my parents were going through a divorce at the time that I met Connor, and I think I unconsciously wanted to recreate a family very desperately.
But I have to step back and say that I think a lot of women, a lot of people, are really vulnerable in those same ways. It's like I had a chink in my self-esteem. Who doesn't? Love can be so seductive and overwhelming, and I really thought at the time that I was completely in love with him, and it masked so many red flags.
MARTIN: One red flag I want to point out which really intrigued me is that you pointed out that his behavior was pretty okay until you moved in together.
Ms. STEINER: Yes.
MARTIN: The very night that you moved into his apartment, he showed himself for the first time. You'd been dating for months by this time. Why don't you tell us what happened.
Ms. STEINER: Well, it's so sad for me to even talk about this now because it was the happiest day of my life. He had asked me to move in with him. We went to my apartment to move out the rest of my stuff, and then we went and had this romantic dinner on our little balcony. And I happened to mention over dinner that a friend of mine from college had called that day, and this was a friend who called me a lot, who Connor had already known about. He happened to be a guy. He happened to be a guy who I had fooled around with in college, and Connor just absolutely flipped out.
MARTIN: Called you names.
Ms. STEINER: Called me names.
MARTIN: Which we don't need to repeat here.
Ms. STEINER: Right, but he called the bad names. He said that he wasn't really my friend, that he was just using me, and he was vicious. And I over-reacted and stormed out of the apartment, and I eventually kind of snuck back into the apartment and cried myself to sleep. And then it just kept getting worse. The next morning I got up and it turned out that Connor had been awake when I came home, and he had heard me cry myself to sleep, and he said to me the next morning don't you ever do that again in my bed.
MARTIN: And a lot of people want to know, why didn't you just walk out right then and there?
Ms. STEINER: I know, and that's why I had to write this book, is that I had to try and understand for myself why I didn't just walk out.
MARTIN: As you mentioned, the physical abuse started right before the wedding. What happened?
Ms. STEINER: Five days before our wedding, I was frustrated trying to get a new computer to work, and his rage just took over seeing me frustrated, and he grabbed me around the neck, and he squeezed my throat enough so that I had 10 bruises on my neck and he banged me against the wall several times, and then kind threw me down on the floor and then left.
I called the domestic violence hotline and the phone was busy, and it was sort of like just a few minutes as I waited to call again, and my denial crept in, and I thought - you know what: he didn't really hit me, he's never going to do it again, we're getting married in five days. And I just managed to kind of deny it all and I married him five days later. He beat me up again on the honeymoon, twice, and then the abuse continued on a fairly regular basis.
talk about ways in which you confronted him. You said we have to talk, you can't treat me like this. But then it didn't go anywhere.
Ms. STEINER: Well, the thing that is, it's astonishing to me even now, is that I actually only confronted him once. After the abuse had gone on for over two years I really tried to draw a line in the sand and I said to him, If you ever do this again I will leave. But up until that point, we had never talked about the violence. And this is astonishing to me now to admit, but I didn't think of myself as a domestic violence victim at the time. I thought I was in love with a very troubled man and that I was really trying to help him. And I think that that's typical and that denial is a really strong force.
MARTIN: You thought you were going to save him.
Ms. STEINER: I didn't just think so. I was sure I was going to.
MARTIN: Why was it your job to help him? And I do want to say at this point that he had had a miserable childhood, at least according to his testimony.
Ms. STEINER: Right.
MARTIN: That he'd had a miserable childhood. He was horribly abused himself.
Ms. STEINER: He was. He had told me that he got put in the hospital several times by his stepfather.
MARTIN: But why was it your job to save him?
Ms. STEINER: You know, I had a twisted idea about relationships. I really kind of thought that if I helped him, I helped him solve these huge problems that he had, then in some ways he would be mine forever, and he would never leave me. And I understand now that that's not what love is about. But I really didn't understand it then.
MARTIN: If you are just joining us, you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Leslie Morgan Steiner about her new memoir, "Crazy Love." It's about her abusive first marriage and how she found her way out. One of the things that I found interesting is the way he used your upbringing against you, even though your upbringing was no picnic either. Did that bother you? Or was it only later that you thought that's just really messed up?
Ms. STEINER: It's only when I really started writing the book that I realized how messed up that was, because at the time - and I think this is what makes domestic violence so confusing when you're in it - there was always two sides to the same coin, and he idolized me. You know, he really loved that I'd gone to Harvard and that I came from this WASP-y family where everybody was blonde and everybody had gone to Harvard, and he loved that about me.
But he also really turned it against me and was always saying that I didn't deserve anything good in my life because he had had such a terrible childhood. It's a very twisted way to see it. But you know, as part of the confusing world of domestic violence that I try to capture in "Crazy Love" is that he worshipped me and denigrated me at the same time.
MARTIN: What do you think was in it for him?
Ms. STEINER: It's a very powerful question and it's one I think we should ask more about domestic violence. Why - why would a man - any man - hurt the very people who love him the most? Why would anybody do that? And why don't we ask that question more? And I don't think that he consciously manipulated me and trapped me and isolated me and then abused me. I don't think he did that on purpose. I think it has a lot to do with his childhood and that always for him intimacy and violence were linked together. And you know, no abuser hits a woman on a first date.
It's not a surprise that it took a very long time for the abuse to surface in our relationship, because for him the dynamic had to do with having control over somebody who he loved and was vulnerable to. I think he didn't want to be vulnerable to me. I also think that you can't trust rage. You can't trust somebody else's rage and when you are the victim of rageful anger, you can't trust what you're going to do. And that's actually what the final beating taught me - was I realized that even though perhaps he loved me and I loved him, he couldn't control his rage and that he was going to kill me one day, and it was very clear to me.
MARTIN: What was it that made it clear to you that you had to get away and what allowed you to get away?
Ms. STEINER: Well…
MARTIN: How were you finally able to get away when you hadn't all those other times?
Ms. STEINER: As I said earlier, I had confronted him once. We had been apart because of our jobs for the summer, and it had given me a little bit of clarity, and I confronted him and I said, You can't hit me anymore; if you hit me once more, it's over and I'm leaving. And for six months he didn't, and it was so wonderful and I began to hope again. But then after six months he just broke and he attacked me one night.
We were on the verge of going away for a trip to celebrate his birthday and to celebrate the fact that he hadn't hit me, and he just really lost control. He beat me so badly that he really came very close to killing me. I have never been so scared in my entire life. It's like all of my denial just dissolved in the space of that terrible time, because it was like a stranger was in my bedroom, choking me and kicking me. And it scared me so deeply, because I thought I was gonna die, that it broke through my denial and…
MARTIN: Did the police come?
Ms. STEINER: The police came. Thank God. The police were really, really good to me, and I have to say, sadly, perhaps the reason they were good to me is that I was a business school student, I'm white, I'm - you know, had the trappings of affluence, although I wasn't affluent at the time. They were very good to me and they had obviously seen this type of behavior a lot before, and they told me what I had to do, that I had to file a restraining order that night, that I had to hire a divorce lawyer the next day, you know, and thank God I listened to them.
MARTIN: Do you think that race, ethnicity, any of those things played a part in the dynamic of what happened to you?
Ms. STEINER: I am absolutely convinced - and the numbers bear this out - that domestic violence happens to everybody, no matter your religion, your ethnicity, your age. It happens everywhere, and I wish I had known that when I was in my 20s, because I think I would have recognized it more. I think our stereotypes about domestic violence are really dangerous.
MARTIN: How were you able to not make the same mistake again?
Ms. STEINER: You know, I think that in a strange way I was very lucky that this happened to me, because I had always been kind of one of those good girls who liked bad boys and thought I could help them. I had sort of maybe you'd call it the savior complex or something. And that night that final beating - it changed something in me and it made me realize that this was a very dangerous game I was playing, and I never want to repeat that mistake again, and I certainly don't want to bring up children in that kind of environment.
I'm very fortunate that I didn't have children with my first husband. I wouldn't be here today if I did, because I wouldn't be able to speak out so openly, because I'd be afraid. I'm also very lucky that I'm alive. You know, a lot of women are not, and I feel like I have an obligation to speak out on their behalf. And I'm - you know, it's ironic, but I'm - in many ways I'm very grateful that this happened and I was able to go on at the age of 27, you know, before most of my friends had even got married and get a second chance at love and marriage and parenthood and a career.
MARTIN: Are you ever afraid that this person will come back into your life in any way? You know, he will deny it - that he will say, well, that didn't happen, you made it all up.
Ms. STEINER: Well, you know, I have very clear proof in the police documents and the family court documents and the divorce documents from the time, so there is no way that I could be accused of making it up. I think it's important to be realistic here, that you have to be afraid of somebody with a history of violence, and I would caution any woman who has somebody in her life who has a history of violence to be afraid. But I don't live in fear, because it was a very long time ago, and I also feel like our society perhaps has changed quite a bit, you know, from 20 years ago.
I think that we recognize for the most part that domestic violence is a crime and so I feel much more protected by our society and by my family and also just by my own inner strength.
MARTIN: Do you ever wonder what became of the man you're calling Connor?
Ms. STEINER: You know, in so many ways he died for me that night, that night that he beat me the last time. And I wish him well.
Ms. STEINER: Because, you know, men who abuse are not demons, and he is a good person in lots of ways, and I wouldn't have fallen in love with him if he hadn't been, but I don't - I don't think of him often at all, because he is -it was over for me a very long time ago.
MARTIN: What would you want people to take away from your story? And it's probably going to be different depending on who you are, but I know that a lot of people are very engaged in this Chris Brown/Rihanna situation right now, and she's getting a lot of free advice. He's getting some too. But you're a person who knows the story about as well as anybody. In a lot of ways your story is very similar. You were very young, charismatic, successful people, both of you, self-made people, really. Is there a message you would like people to draw from what you've told?
Ms. STEINER: I think the main thing I would wanna say to people is that domestic violence is a crime and if anybody is hurting you, you need to ask for help and get out, and that there is a lot of help in our society now. There are wonderful 24/7 anonymous hotlines. There are support groups in almost every city, shelters in many, many of our cities. There's a lot of help. I also would want to say to Rihanna and to any other victim, that you have much more strength inside you than you possibly realize and that what got me out, that final beating, was that I heard a voice in my head - it was my own voice but I just hadn't ever listened before - telling me, you know, it's a choice; you can choose him or you can choose you. I would say to anyone out there, choose yourself.
MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner is a regular contributor to our parenting conversations. She is the author of "Crazy Love," a memoir. You can find out more about Leslie and her memoir at our Web site npr.org/tellmemore. She'll be reading an excerpt from "Crazy Love." She joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Leslie, thank you so much for talking to us.
Ms. STEINER: Thank you so much, Michel.
MARTIN: Finally, as we wrap up Women's History Month for this year, we want to bring you one final installment of our series Tell Me More About Women's History. Marge Snyder of the Women's Sports Foundation tells us about three phenomenal female athletes who inspired her. To hear that, visit our Web site at npr.org and click on TELL ME MORE.
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.