After "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star Taylor Armstrong's husband, Russell, killed himself in August 2011, Armstrong could have pulled back from the spotlight. Instead, she sought comfort in it.
Five weeks after her husband's death, Armstrong appeared on "Dr. Phil," speaking about allegations that later would be unleashed on the Bravo reality TV series: that Russell physically and emotionally abused her. Six months after Russell's death, she has released a tell-all book about their marriage, "Hiding From Reality," further elaborating on the accusations and intensifying her media saturation with a slew of appearances on such shows as "The View," "Today" and "Dr. Drew."
"I know how it looks," Armstrong said softly, referring to critics who argue that she's trying to capitalize on her estranged husband's death.
Sitting in an armchair at her publicist's home on a recent weekday, a poised Armstrong insisted that her main motive for writing the book was to start a conversation about domestic abuse, returning to the theme regularly. "If I didn't think this would make a difference, I wouldn't be doing it," she said. "Trust me, you don't make that much money off a book." She will even have therapists from the 1736 Family Crisis Center, the abuse foundation she works with, on hand during her Barnes & Noble book signing Wednesday at the Grove.
"Hiding From Reality" renders a disturbing portrait of Russell as an insecure husband who couldn't control his anger, a man who constantly accused her of having rough sex with other men (making her take a lie detector test to prove otherwise), who set up recording devices around the home to monitor her conversations, who slammed her head against the car window while driving and dislocated her jaw.
These disclosures have elicited a strong response from Russell's family and friends, some of whom are speaking out on his behalf, insisting there are inconsistencies in Taylor's stories and blaming the show for damaging his reputation both before and after his death.
The show "completely defaced his character," Laurie Ann Kelsoe, Russell's sister, told Drew Pinsky recently on his HLN show. "Shame on [Taylor] for doing this and for thinking that all he was was bad … if that's the case, then why did she stay there and spend his money?" Kelsoe has also questioned the abuse allegations.
Armstrong, though, is standing ground: "There are a number of people who are trying to find their way into the story of my life with Russell," she said. "Russell's sister Laurie Kelsoe ... has no basis for saying anything about my life with Russell. She lives almost 1,500 miles away and saw our family on a small number of occasions. The facts are there."
Armstrong never filed police reports. However, she released medical records to The Times in order to corroborate an incident described in the book, in which she says Russell "raised up one elbow and punched me hard, in the right eye." It allegedly happened after a Las Vegas getaway filmed for the Bravo series. The blow, she wrote, caused an orbital fracture that required reconstructive surgery.
The documents note that the injury was the result of "blunt trauma" but do not specify that it was sustained from physical abuse.
Catherine Hwang, an orbital and oculo-plastics surgeon at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute, did not perform Armstrong's surgery but says says such fractures can occur from incidents ranging from falling on furniture to getting hit with a soccer ball to a fistfight.
Armstrong's case is unusual, Hwang noted, in that there was little bruising in the immediate aftermath of the injury. Typically, such a lack of bruising can occur in those 14 and under because their bones are softer. "Usually, older patients have some sort of bruising," Hwang said. "But anything is possible."
Armstrong had separated from Russell and claims that she originally planned to write the book before his death, but he did not know it, she said.
"He did know, though, that the extent of the abuse would likely come out in the press," she continued. "I spent a couple of days in Cedars-Sinai after [the eye] incident. There were nurses around. Plenty of people saw me in the operating room. The odds of keeping that under wraps, I mean, come on. He absolutely knew it was all going to come out. That was really something he was dreading."
Her candor in the book, she said, would have been toned down were Russell still alive. "I don't think I could have been as honest," she said. "One of Russell's big concerns, which he would bring up constantly after my eye incident, is, 'Do you think the D.A. could press charges against me and put me in jail whether you press charges or not?' I hate to say it, I would have wanted to protect him from that."
All of that raises the question: Why would she put her life in front of the cameras in the first place, knowing she had so much to hide?
Armstrong said she sought protection in the camera, believing there was safety in reality TV's watchful eye. "I thought one of two things would happen: either the cameras would force him not to be aggressive and abusive or it would give me a way out," allowing her the financial resources to leave and support the couples' 5-year-old daughter on her own.
Russell's financial stability became a source of scrutiny during the series' first season, however; after his death, it was revealed that he was mired in debt and lawsuits. Taylor now finds herself embroiled in a $1.5-million fraud lawsuit in which MyMedicalRecords.com claims the couple conned investors.
"I scratch my head about the finance stuff all the time," she said. "I'm still trying to pick up the pieces of the mess that was left behind. I have days when I'm in a ball, where I just sit and stare at the wall and just cry. ... I have every emotion in the world. I have incredible sadness for Russell. I miss him, I long for him. But I'm angry with him for leaving this mess for me to clean up."
Armstrong seems determined to clean it up in the public eye. She expressed a desire to continue on with "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" should it return for a third season.
"If there's a Season 3, I think it's important to see what happens next [for me]," she said. "I'm still working on myself. And I have to say for the first time in my life, I'm OK being alone. Every little thing that I thought was going to be so horrible, really hasn't been. I think for a Season 3 it would be nice for people to see the progression … and the lows too, because it's certainly not all good days."