Welcome to the DomesticShelters.org Book Club. Hopefully, you're here because you hate domestic violence and love reading. How are the two connected? Glad you asked. Putting a stop to domestic violence and dating violence means first acknowledging that it's happening all around us. It also means understanding the why: why violence exists, how our culture supports it, why survivors have a hard time escaping the cycle and why abusers keep getting away with it.
Every few months, DomesticShelters.org will introduce to you a book we feel touches on—and hopefully answers—some of these questions. They could be written by survivors, advocates or other experts in the field. We want to include stories of survival and stories of escape, as well as self-help books that can teach all of us ways to heal from life’s traumas and become stronger, more empowered, confident versions of ourselves.
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This book club is intended for everyone—those who have been personally affected in some way or another by domestic violence (and, let’s be honest, that’s probably the majority of us) and those who haven’t, but who still want to be part of the movement to end it.
Our Inaugural Selection
Today, we’re announcing our first selection for the DS Book Club: Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner. Crazy Love is a New York Times bestseller, a People Magazine Pick, Book of the Week for The Week magazine and subject of the first TED Talk by a domestic violence survivor. In it, Steiner tells her brutally honest journey of domestic violence—at 22, she fell for a man who would end up strangling her just days before they were married. As her abusive husband, he repeated the cycle of control and violence for years and Steiner kept hope that things weren’t as bad as they seemed. It wasn’t until he almost killed her that Steiner fully understood the truly dangerous place she was in.
Your Chance to Interview the Author
We invite you to read Crazy Love over the next month, then send any questions or comments you'd like to pose to the author to Amanda@DomesticShelters.org by June 15. We’ll be back with Steiner’s responses shortly after. (Please indicate if you’d like to remain anonymous, otherwise first names only will be used.)
Below, we talk to her about writing her book—what led her to find the courage to speak out about her ex-husband's abuse some 20 years later, and how her life has taken a 180-degree turn since her memoir was published.
DomesticShelters.org: In the prologue of Crazy Love, you talk about how you hesitated at the last minute to publish this book. You said you polled close friends in your life and every one of them said you shouldn’t do it—it was too risky and personal. What pushed you to go forward and release your story?
Steiner: I don’t fully understand what happened. I intended to call my publisher the next morning and say I couldn’t do it. And then I woke up knowing, I have to do this. Other women can’t speak out because they have children, they’re tied by cultural pressures or financial controls, or…they’re killed. I felt like I was in a unique position to tell this story. I can do this, I want to do this, I have to do this. I never looked back and I knew it was the right thing when I remade that decision. I haven’t had any negative feedback and there’s never been any repercussions.
DS: Crazy Love was published in 2009, but do you feel like it’s more important than ever now, to hear this kind of story from female survivors, given the #MeToo movement?
Steiner: I can’t believe the number of people [speaking out] now. #MeToo is obviously a watershed moment. I was afraid, when Trump was elected President, that it invalidated my work and every other advocate’s work. Trump has turned out to be a great teacher—so many of us have spoken out and marched because we can’t have a president who doesn’t believe us. I’m immensely grateful to everyone who marched in the Women’s March and spoken out as part of #MeToo.
The thing that is tricky about saying that everybody should speak out is it’s not right for everybody to speak out. Only the individual can decide that. I don’t want to make anybody feel bad for not speaking out. For the people like me who can and want to speak out, I applaud them. It’s empowering and healing on an individual level.
DS: Some people criticize survivors of abuse, assault or discrimination from not speaking out right away and even use it as an excuse to invalidate survivors’ stories when they speak up years later. What do you say to that, since you told your story 20 years after it happened to you at age 22?
Steiner: It’s an incredibly traumatic thing to be abused by somebody that you love. It’s very hard just to talk about it. The first thing that happens that’s maybe the hardest is to admit to yourself what happened. That makes it so much more real. I didn’t want to be a battered wife. And for so long, I had ferociously believed I was a strong woman in love with a troubled man.
I didn’t get divorced [from her abuser] until I was 27. It took me five years before I could even talk about it [the abuse]. It took 10 years to write and edit the book, and two years to publish it. It wasn’t until I was home from maternity leave with my second child [from a second marriage] that I felt safe enough and far away enough that I could look back on it.
DS: When you’re writing your own memoir like this, how is it possible to remember all the details, all the conversations, that happened so many years back?
Steiner: Part of what happens in trauma is it really imprints in the mind, and sometimes in your body. The most significant incidences that happened between us—the guns, the time he pulled his key out of the ignition while I was driving, the final beating—those are like movies repeating in my head. When it came to the less significant conversations—he was my husband and I knew him really well. It was really easy to put together the conversation the way it happened. Although there are many, many things that he did and said that I remember verbatim.
DS: What was the hardest part about writing this book?
Steiner: The hardest part falls into the category of when people say writing is like therapy, which it is. In the early drafts, my own character was incredibly unsympathetic. I had a lot of people who reviewed the book say to me, I liked your husband better than I liked you. I needed to forgive myself for falling in love with someone who caused so much fear and agony. And then I could write about myself in a much more sympathetic way. You have to get to a point where you can look at yourself more objectively.
DS: Did you have to get permission from your abusive ex-husband to publish this?
Steiner: No. According to defamation laws, if something is true, you can write about it. I have witnesses and police and legal documents to show it was all true. St. Martin’s Press assigned me a lawyer to make sure they and I wouldn’t get in trouble. We weren’t out to get him in any way—I wanted to be respectful and, I also didn’t want him to sue us. So, I changed every identifying detail. It’s tricky to still tell a true story, but in a way that someone who worked next to him every day wouldn’t know it was him.
As much as I don’t necessarily think abusers deserve protection, it was about protecting myself. There’s no upside in outing an abuser in my specific case. Even though I don’t have any love for him anymore, I do still feel sorry for him that he was abused as a kid. But I think he was responsible for the abuse [against her].
The things that I changed are the state we lived in, the city and state where we went to business school, his mother’s name. I changed some of his ethnic background. But everything that happened in the book was true.
DS: Did you ever feel any obligation to identify your abuser to protect other women he might come in contact with?
Steiner: I get that question a lot—do victims have the obligation to protect other women. When I talk about dating abuse, specifically, parents feel like they want to warn other parents and I get that. But a victim’s first obligation is to protect him or herself.
I didn’t always understand that it was OK to put myself first. I feel comfortable that I didn’t warn other people because that would have made him very angry. I have three children and I want to protect them too. Plus, no one who is falling in love with an abuser believes what the ex has to say. Just like I wouldn’t have believed one of his exes if they’d come to me. Just writing the book is warning enough. Writing the book was an altruistic thing I needed to do.
DS: Have your kids, who are now older teens to adults, read Crazy Love?
Steiner: They have not. I would love them to. There’s no book in my house that’s banned. I have a 19-year-old daughter and she’s read more of it than my other kids. It’s just too personal and painful. I don’t like reading Crazy Love now because it’s too painful. It’s hardest for my son. He has this terrible man guilt. He’s 20. It’s his gender who caused this.
Still, there’s a lot of Crazy Love in my kids’ lives. When I was working on the TED Talk, I practiced it 10 times a day. All my kids’ friends have read Crazy Love.
I feel like all three of my kids are advocates. They could give a great Crazy Love talk. The other thing I learned over time, if a child or teenager is being abused, their first choice is going to be to go to their friends. It has happened many times that my children’s best friends have come to them and said my dad is hitting me or my boyfriend is being really possessive. I feel like my kids are three little foot soldiers out there. It’s not to say my kids will never be victims. I think it’s something we should talk to kids very openly about it.
DS: How did your life change after you wrote this book?
Steiner: The requests [to speak] have been constant since the day it was published. I became a domestic violence advocate, and I didn’t intend to do that. I traveled more this year than any of the years beforehand. My hope is one day there will be so many people willing to talk about their experience that there’s nothing special about me. I feel like we’re getting there fast.
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