Still harping on the same subject, you will
exclaim–How can I avoid it, when most of
the struggles of an eventful life have been
occasioned by the oppressed state of my sex:
we reason deeply, when we forcibly feel.
–Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters Written During a Short Residence
in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (Letter XIX)
In the long months of confinement, I often
thought of how to transmit the pain that
tortured person undergoes. And always I
concluded that it was impossible.
It is a pain without points of reference,
revelatory symbols, or clues to serve as
–Jacobo Timerman, Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number
On November 1,1987, Joel Steinberg, a criminal defense lawyer, beat his illegally adopted daughter, Lisa, 6, into a coma. She died on November 5. Hedda Nussbaum, who had lived with Steinberg since 1976, was also in the apartment. She had a gangrenous leg from his beatings; her face and body were deformed from his assaults on her. With Lisa lying on the bathroom floor, Steinberg went out for dinner and drinks. Nussbaum remained in the apartment. When Steinberg came home, he and Nussbaum freebased cocaine. Early the next morning, Lisa stopped breathing, and Nussbaum called 911. She was arrested with Steinberg. She was given immunity for testifying against him. Steinberg had started beating Nussbaum in 1978; in that year alone, according to Newsday, she suffered at least ten 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; she got buried alive in torture. A. D.
LETTERS FROM A WAR ZONE. WRITINGS 1976-1989.
What Battery Really Is, Andrea Dworkin
Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape and a founder of Women Against Pornography, began a media crusade against Nussbaum. She blamed Nussbaum not only for Lisa’s death but also for being battered herself. Hearing Susan take this stand had a devastating impact on me. I began to have flashbacks to when I was battered: to when it was impossible for me to make anyone believe me or help me. Susan was denying the reality of battery just as my friends, neighbors, and acquaintances had done, just as doctors had done, just as police had done, when I was trying to escape from being physically and mentally tortured. Flashbacks are different from memories. They take over the conscious mind. They are like seizures–involuntary, outside time, vivid, almost three-dimensional; you can’t stop one once it starts. You relive an event, a trauma, a piece of your own history, with a precision of detail almost beyond belief–the air is the same–you are there and it is happening. I wrote this piece to try to stop the flashbacks.
Newsweek accepted this piece for publication. Then Newsweek’s lawyer halted its publication. The lawyer said I had to prove it. I had to have medical records, police records, a written statement from a doctor who had seen the injuries I describe here. I had to corroborate my story. Or I had to publish this anonymously to protect the identity of the batterer; or I couldn’t say I had been married–to protect the identity of the batterer; and I had to take out any references to specific injuries unless I could document them, prove them. Outside evidence. Objective proof. I asked Newsweek when the freedom of speech I kept hearing about was going to apply to me; I asked Newsweek when the batterer was going to stop having control over my life–over what I can say, what I can do.
The Los Angeles Times published this article on March 12, 1989. The same week, I read about the murder of Lisa Bianco. Ms. Bianco was twenty-nine. She was killed by a batterer, her ex-husband, who was on an eight-hour prison furlough. Prison authorities were supposed to tell her if he was ever let out because she knew he would kill her. They didn’t. Guess they didn’t believe her. « Indeed, » The New York Times reported, « prison officials said that on paper Mr. Matheney did not look as dangerous as Ms. Bianco said he was. » She had been preparing to change her identity, go underground, on his release from prison, which was a year off. Lisa Bianco escaped. She hid, wore disguises, got protection orders, had security guards escort her to classes at Indiana University. After her divorce, the batterer still showed up to beat her savagely (my own experience as well). Once he kidnapped and raped her. She prosecuted him. He plea-bargained so that the rape and assault charges were dropped to a single count of battery. Largely because he had also kidnapped their children, he was sentenced to eight years in prison, three of them suspended. She did things right; she was exceptionally brave; she could have proven everything to Newsweek’s lawyer; she’s dead. Escaped or captive, you are his prey. Most of us who have been hurt by these men need to hide more than we need proof. We learn fast that the system won’t protect us–it only endangers us more so we hide from the man and from the system–the hospitals, the police, the courts–the places where you get the proof. I still hide. It’s not easy for a public person, but I do it. I’m a master of it. I don’t have any proof, but I’m still alive–for now.
Now, about being a writer: are there other writers in the United States whose freedom is constantly threatened by murder or beatings; whose lives are threatened day in, day out; who risk their lives in publishing a piece like this one? There are: women hurt by men, especially husbands or fathers. What is Newsweek or PEN or the ACLU doing for writers like us? Following is the piece that was accepted, then declined, by Newsweek; it was subsequently published in The Los Angeles Times in a slightly different form.
My friend and colleague Susan Brownmiller does not want Hedda Nussbaum to be « exonerated »–something no battered woman ever is, even if a child has not died. Gangsters are given new identities, houses, bank accounts, and professions when they testify against criminals meaner, bigger, and badder than they are. Rapists and murderers plea-bargain. Drug dealers get immunity. Batterers rarely spend a night in jail; the same goes for pimps. But Susan feels that Nussbaum should have been prosecuted, and a perception is growing that Nussbaum is responsible legally and morally for the death of Lisa Steinberg.
I don’t think Hedda 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 pure 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 much has changed at all.
Your neighbors hear you screaming. They do nothing. The next day they look right through you. If you scream for years they will look right through you for years. Your neighbors, friends, and family see the bruises and injuries and they do nothing They will not intercede. They send you back. They say it’s your fault or that you like it or they deny that it is happening at all. 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 that you don’t exist. If you existed and you screamed, someone would help you. If you existed and you were visibly injured, someone would help you. If you existed and you asked for help in escaping, someone would help you.
When you go to the doctor or to the hospital because you are badly 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, fantasizing, 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 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 use regular words and say you have been hurt and by whom and you point to visible injuries and you 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 stupid and worthless, you become afraid to try to say anything. You cannot talk to anyone because they will not help you and if you talk to them, 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, or the one after that. When I would come to after being beaten unconscious, the first feeling I would have was an overwhelming sorrow that I was alive. I would ask God please to let me die now. My breasts were burned with lit cigarettes. He beat my legs with a heavy wood beam so that I couldn’t walk. I was present when he did immoral things to other people; I was present when he hurt other people. I didn’t help them. Judge me, Susan.
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, and 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 fifteen years. For eight of those years, I would wake up screaming in blind terror in the night, 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 invitations to go there–important professional invitations. Once I went there in secret for four days to try to face it down. I couldn’t stop trembling and sweating in fear; I could barely breathe. There 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 what I regard as the phony, false mourning for Lisa Steinberg–the sentimental and hypocritical mourning of a society that would not really mind her being beaten to death once she was an adult woman. If Lisa hadn’t died, she would be on West Tenth Street being tortured–now. Why was it that we wanted her to live? So that when the child became a woman and she 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. By then, she wants it, she likes it, she chose it. Why are adult women hated so much and why is it all right to hurt us? 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–try to remember this: the only way to have helped Lisa Steinberg was to have helped Hedda Nussbaum. But to do it, you would have had to care that an adult woman was being hurt: care enough to rescue her. And there was a little boy there too, remember him, all tied up and covered in feces. The only way to have spared him was to rescue Hedda. Now he has been tortured and he did not die. He will grow up to be some kind of a man: which kind? 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?