On Nov. 1, 1987, Joel Steinberg, a criminal defense lawyer, beat his illegally adopted daughter, Lisa, into a coma. She died Nov. 5. Hedda Nussbaum, who had lived with Steinberg since 1976, was also in the apartment. Her face and body were deformed from his assaults, she had a gangrenous leg from his beatings. With 6-year-old Lisa lying on the bathroom floor, Steinberg went out for dinner and drinks. Nussbaum stayed behind. When Steinberg came home, he and Nussbaum freebased cocaine. Early the next day, Lisa stopped breathing and Nussbaum called 911. She was arrested with Steinberg, then given immunity for testifying against him.
Steinberg had started beating Nussbaum in 1978. In that year alone, she reportedly suffered at least 10 black eyes. In 1981, he ruptured her spleen. During this time, she worked as a children’s book editor at Random House. She was fired in 1982, for missing too much work. Socially speaking, she was “disappeared.”
Many say Lisa’s death is Nussbaum’s fault. They mourn Lisa, they blame Nussbaum. A perception is growing that Nussbaum is responsible legally and morally for the death of Lisa Steinberg.
I don’t think Nussbaum is “innocent.” I don’t know any innocent adult women; life is harder than that for everyone. But adult women who have been battered are especially not innocent. Battery is a forced descent into hell and you don’t get by in hell by moral goodness. You disintegrate. You don’t survive as a discrete personality with a sense of right and wrong. You live in a world of pain, in isolation, on the verge of death, in terror; and when you get numb enough not to care whether you live or die you are experiencing the only grace God is going to send your way. Drugs help.
I was battered when I was married and there are some things I wish people would understand. I thought things had changed but it is clear from the story of Hedda Nussbaum that nothing has.
Your neighbors hear you screaming. They do nothing. The next day they look through you. If you scream for years they will look through you for years. Your neighbors, friends and family see the bruises and injuries--and do nothing. They will not intercede. They send you back. They say it’s your fault or you like it or they deny it is happening. Your family believes you belong with your husband.
If you scream and no one helps and no one acknowledges it and people look right through you, you begin to feel you don’t exist. If you existed and you screamed, someone would help you. If you existed and were visibly injured, someone would help you. If you existed and asked for help in escaping, someone would help you.
When you go to the doctor or to the hospital because you are injured and they won’t listen or help you or they give you tranquilizers or threaten to commit you because they say you are disoriented, paranoid, you begin to believe that he can hurt you as much as he wants and no one will help you. When the police refuse to help you, you begin to believe that he can hurt you or kill you and it will not matter because you do not exist.
You become unable to use language because it stops meaning anything. If you try to say you have been hurt and by whom and you point to visible injuries and are treated as if you made it up or as if it doesn’t matter or as if it is your fault or as if you are worthless, you become afraid to say anything. You cannot talk to anyone because they will not help you and if you do talk, the man who is battering you will hurt you more. Once you lose language, your isolation is absolute.
Eventually I waited to die. I wanted to die. I hoped the next beating would kill me. When I would come to after being beaten unconscious, the first feeling I had was a sorrow that I was alive.
I would ask God to let me die now. My breasts were burned with lit cigarettes. My husband beat my legs with a wood beam so that I couldn’t walk. I was present when he did immoral things to other people, when he hurt other people. I didn’t help them. Nussbaum’s guilt is not foreign to me.
A junkie said he would give me a ticket to far away and $1,000 if I would carry a briefcase through customs. I said I would. I knew it had heroin in it. I kept hoping I would be caught and sent to jail because in jail he couldn’t beat me.
I had been sexually abused in the Women’s House of Detention in New York City (arrested for an anti-Vietnam War demonstration) so I didn’t have the idea that jail was a friendly place. I just hoped I would get five years and for five years I could sit in a jail cell and not be hit by him. In the end the junkie didn’t give me the briefcase to carry, so I didn’t get the $1,000. He did kindly give me the ticket. I stole the money I needed. Escape is heroic, isn’t it?
I’ve been living with a kind and gentle man I love for the last 15 years. For eight of those years, I would wake up screaming in blind terror, not knowing who I was, where I was, who he was, cowering and shaking. I’m more at peace now. But I’ve refused until recently to have my books published in the country where my former husband lives, and I’ve refused important professional invitations to go there. Once I went there in secret for four days to try to face it down. I couldn’t stop trembling and sweating. I could barely breathe. There still isn’t a day when I don’t feel fear that I will see him and he will hurt me.
Death looks different to a woman who has been battered: It seems not nearly so cruel as life. I’m upset by the phony mourning for Lisa Steinberg--the hypocritical sentimentality of a society that would not really mind her being beaten to death once she was an adult.
If Lisa hadn’t died, she would be on West 10th Street being tortured--now. Why was it that we wanted her to live? So that when the child became a woman and then was raped or beaten or prostituted we could look right through her? It’s bad to hit a girl before she’s of age. It’s bad to torture a girl before she’s of age. Then she’s of age and, well, it isn’t so bad; because she wants it, she likes it, she chose it.
Why is it all right to hurt adult women? Those who love children but don’t think adult women deserve much precisely because we are not innocent--we are used and compromised and culpable--should try to remember this: The only way to have helped Lisa Steinberg was to have helped Nussbaum. But to do it, you would have had to care that an adult woman was being hurt--care enough to rescue her.
There was a little boy there too, Mitchell, 17 months old, tied up and covered in feces. And the only way to have spared him was to rescue Hedda. Now he has been tortured and he did not die. What kind of man will he grow up to be? I wish there was a way to take the hurt from him. There isn’t. Is there a way to stop him from becoming a batterer? Is there?