Leslie Morgan Steiner: Why Don't Domestic Violence Victims Leave? Writer Leslie Morgan Steiner tells the harrowing story of her abusive relationship, correcting misconceptions many people hold about victims of domestic violence.
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Why Don't Domestic Violence Victims Leave?

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Why Don't Domestic Violence Victims Leave?

Why Don't Domestic Violence Victims Leave?

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On this weeks episode, we're talking about the violence within us. And for Leslie Morgan Steiner it wasn't some abstract thing. Violence was real and it took a long time for her to figure that out. Here's how she started her TEDx Talk in Seattle.


LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: I was 22. I'd moved to New York City for my first job as a writer and editor at Seventeen Magazine. I had my first apartment, my first little green American Express card. And I had a very big secret.

RAZ: That secret will become clear a little later. So at the time Leslie was living in New York, she just graduated from college and she was starting out her life and she met someone.


STEINER: I met Connor on a cold, rainy January night. He sat next to me on the New York City subway and he started chatting me up. He told me two things. One was that he too had just graduated from an Ivy League school and that he worked at a very impressive Wall Street bank. But what made the biggest impression on me that first meeting was that he was smart and funny and he looked like a farm boy. He had these big cheeks, these big apple cheeks and this wheat blond hair, and he seemed so sweet.

RAZ: You say that he did something very smart.

STEINER: He did so many things that were really smart. He was a very, very smart person, perhaps the smartest man I've ever known. He worshipped me. He thought I was so smart that I had this great job at Seventeen Magazine, that I was passionate about helping teenage girls. I had never had anybody feel like that about me.


STEINER: Connor believed in me as a writer and a woman in a way that no one else ever had. And he also created a magical atmosphere of trust between us by confessing his secret, which was that as a very young boy starting at age four he had been savagely and repeatedly physically abused by his stepfather. And the abuse had gotten so bad that he had had to drop out of school in the eighth grade even though he was very smart. And he had spent almost 20 years rebuilding his life, which is why that Ivy League degree and the Wall Street job, and his bright shiny future meant so much to him.

STEINER: And I still don't know to this day if he intentionally was trying to deceive me, or if he really felt that too. It felt real at the time and I completely fell for it.

RAZ: Which brings us back to Leslie's secret, the one she talked about on the TED stage.


STEINER: My secret was, that I had this gun loaded with hollow point bullets pointed at my head by the man who I thought was my soulmate many, many times. The man who I loved more than anybody on earth held a gun to my head and threatened to kill me more times than I can even remember.

RAZ: But in the beginning, you had no idea he would turn violent.

STEINER: Right. His behavior showed no anger or even frustration. He was very sweet and thoughtful and gentle for almost the first two years of our relationship.


STEINER: I didn't know that the first stage in any domestic violence relationship is to seduce and charm the victim. Now Connor did not come home one day and announce all this Romeo and Juliet stuff has been great but I need to move into the next phase where I isolate you and I abuse you.


STEINER: So I need to get you out of this apartment where the neighbors can hear you scream and out of the city where you have friends and family and coworkers who can see the bruises. Instead, Connor came home one Friday evening and he had told me that he had quit his dream job. And he just wanted to get out of the city and away from his abusive, dysfunctional family and move to a tiny town in New England. Now the last thing I wanted to do was leave New York but I thought you made sacrifices for your soulmate. So I agreed, and Connor and I left Manhattan together. I had no idea that I was walking headfirst into a carefully laid physical, financial, and psychological trap.

RAZ: When did it begin? When did the violence begin?

STEINER: The actual violence began five days before our wedding. It was seven o'clock in the morning. I was trying to finish up a freelance writing assignment so that we would have some money for our honeymoon. And I got frustrated because my computer wouldn't work, and he got angry because I was angry. And he put his hands around my neck, squeezed really tightly, and used the chokehold to hit the back of my head up against the wall repeatedly. And he held me for a long time. I had 10, you know, bruises on my neck from his fingers. And it was pretty scary. I was just so confused and scared and didn't know where to turn. And had no - I had no realization that this was going to be a pattern.

RAZ: But then it happened a few days later?

STEINER: It happened again almost immediately, on our honeymoon, which it just broke a little piece of my heart. I was trying to find a secret beach, and I got lost and he got angry, and he punched the side of my head so hard that the other side of my head hit the driver's side window. And then a few days later driving home from the honeymoon he got angry again and he threw a cold Big Mac at my face as I was driving. I mean is that domestic violence? I didn't know anything could be so bizarre.

RAZ: So why did Leslie stay? That answer in a moment here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today we're talking about the violence within us. And we've been hearing Leslie Morgan Steiner's story, she tells it on the TED stage and in her book "Crazy Love." And she writes about her first marriage, to a man named Connor, and it was a marriage that was defined by violence. And how Leslie says she actually got used to it.


STEINER: Why did I stay? The answer is easy. I didn't know he was abusing me. Even though he held loaded guns to my head, pushed me down stairs, threatened to kill our dog, pulled the key out of the car ignition as I drove down the highway, poured coffee grinds on my head as I dressed for a job interview, I never once thought of myself as a battered wife. Instead, I was a very strong woman in love with a deeply troubled man, and I was the only person on earth who could help Connor face his demons. The other question everybody asks is, why doesn't she just leave? To me, this is the saddest and most painful question that people ask because we victims know something you usually don't. Over 70 percent of domestic violence murders happen after the victim has ended the relationship, after she's gotten out, because then the abuser has nothing left to lose.

RAZ: How did you do it? How'd you leave?

STEINER: You know in some ways he left me no choice. I gave him an ultimatum that if he kept on abusing me I would leave. So I drew a line in the sand and I really meant it. And he didn't for six months. But then one night, again he did. And I knew with the first punch the marriage was over, but what I didn't realize was that maybe my life was going to be over. That he was so angry and so full of rage. The beating went on for a very long time, for hours. I tried really hard to get him to stop and I think I was making headway, when I got very lucky, in that a neighbor who had heard the fight banged really, really hard on our apartment door. And that really broke the spell for Connor. And somehow Connor realized what he was doing and he started crying and he stopped beating me and kicking me and breaking things over my head, and he got his coat and his keys and he left. And I called the police, and I never went back to him.

RAZ: Have you talked to him since you split up?

STEINER: I haven't talked to him in 20 years. I think I couldn't talk to him today without shaking. And he called me once a year after we got divorced, and it was a very brief conversation and I have not heard from him or seen him since then. And one of my most sincere wishes in this lifetime is to never, ever see him again.


STEINER: We tend to stereotype victims as grisly headlines, self-destructive women, damaged goods. But since publishing "Crazy Love," I have heard hundreds of stories from men and women who also got out, who learned an invaluable life lesson from what happened, and who rebuilt lives, joyous happy lives, as employees, wives, and mothers. Lives completely free of violence. Like me. As it turns out, that I'm actually a very typical domestic violence victim and a typical domestic violence survivor. I remarried a kind and gentle man. What I will never have again, ever, is a loaded gun held to my head by someone who says that he loves me. Thank you.


RAZ: Would you characterize his violence as evil?

STEINER: No, I wouldn't.

RAZ: You wouldn't?

STEINER: I think that violence sometimes is contagious. I think his stepfather was evil. He had been a little kid horribly abused and he'd also seen his mother, who he loved so much, be abused and beaten and put in the hospital. And I think that does something to a kid. So I understood his rage. It was, in its own weird way, it was a logical response to what happened to him as a child. But that's different than evil.

RAZ: In some ways, do you think both of you were victims?

STEINER: Oh yes, absolutely. I don't know if he intentionally set out to victimize me. I don't think that he did. But the thing that still baffles me is, if what he wanted was me to really love him, then why did he hurt me? 'Cause he drove me away. He made it inevitable that I would leave at some point. That's the part that I really don't understand. I don't think it's ever a victim's fault. But I played a role in it by trying to save him, by trying to help him. In some ways I really bought into the twisted idea that I could heal him. You could argue that that was a very seductive thing to offer him, as well. You know, we both had our roles in this really twisted dance.

RAZ: It's amazing when, you know, you think about human resilience, right, because we're adaptable. We can adapt to the worst, most unbelievably violent situations and, and live through it.

STEINER: I know, we are adaptable. People say that like it's a good thing. In some ways, I think I would've been better off if I hadn't been so adaptable, if I had broken right away.

RAZ: Leslie Morgan Steiner. She wrote the book "Crazy Love" and you can hear her whole TED Talk at TED.npr.org.

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