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Back in May, we invited readers of DomesticShelters.org to join our virtual book club and to pick up our inaugural selection—the harrowing and powerful survivor memoir and New York Times best seller Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner.
At 22, Steiner met a man and fell head over heels in love. He would wind up strangling her just days before their wedding. Steiner, the first person to ever give a TED Talk about being a domestic violence survivor, takes readers through a brutally honest account of living with an abusive husband and how she narrowly escaped with her life.
Below, she answers your questions about her story.
Q: “When your father came into the court and you saw him and for a moment felt good thinking that he came for you and then realized that he came to pay your abuser’s lawyer—what was that like?”
Steiner: It was many things. I was really hurt and confused and angry in the moment. I have a different perspective now. Many things unfolded between me and my father [since then]—he was a victim of abuse as a child and that made things even more confusing. In some strange way he was trying to deny this was happening to me because it was too painful.
He felt sorry for Conor and thought it would help me. It sort of made me realize how complicated it is when you leave an abuser—people who stand up for you are caught in the web as well and they can’t necessarily protect you. You need experts in domestic violence. If Conor had gone to a domestic violence advocate and said can you lend me $1,000, she would have just laughed.
The fact that my father was really naïve was illuminating to me. It made me realize that my father didn’t trust me and wasn’t putting my own best interests first. He should have turned to me as the expert. Most people don’t consider victims the expert.
Eventually, it led to my ceasing to have a relationship with [my father]. I couldn’t tolerate the fact that for his own very self-centered interests he couldn’t have a vested interest in me. It’s really so hard.
But it was also the beginning of the healing of my relationship with my mom. My parents divorced right before I met Conor—it’s part of the reason I was so susceptible, I think. I was trying to recreate my own nuclear family.
My mother could not have been more supportive in any other way. The moral of the story of that to me is that moms rule. They’re just incredible.
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Q: “Do you think Conor poisoned your dog Blue?”
Steiner: No. I thought it at the time. [Read about how domestic violence and animal abuse are often linked here.] I thought he was capable of anything. I’m absolutely positive I accidently poisoned my own dog by giving him chocolate. He loved chocolate. I gave him a piece of chocolate every day of his life practically. I had no idea dogs couldn’t have chocolate. My publishers thought readers would hate me if I included that.
To me it was not a coincidence that my dog was the only witness to the domestic violence. It was like he was an angel taking care of me.”
Q: “In the beginning of the relationship, you wrote off his strangulation as ‘kinky sex.’ Do you feel like there were warning signs like that that you didn’t want to see?”
Steiner: Yes. That was the biggest one. Strangulation and gun ownership are at the top of the list for lethality risk factors for domestic violence victims. But there were many others [warning signs]—he was very possessive, wanted to make a serious commitment early on, wanted me to marry him after a few months, he was an abuse victim himself and he was insanely jealous of other men in my life. All of those are glaring red flags.
When you’re in love with someone, you will write off just about any red flag because it doesn’t seem possible that someone you love so much could want to hurt you. It’s not conceivable. I was really naïve. I was 22 when I met him.
I’ve been in two emotionally abusive relationships since then [her divorce] and I was just as slow on the uptake on the emotional abuse as I was the physical abuse. Anyone can be vulnerable at any stage in your life even if you’ve had a lot of experience. I know many abuse victims who refuse to get into relationships again. It’s a high price to pay but I understand it. They know when they’re in love they become so blind they can’t see the warning signs.
Q: “I was so saddened to read the negative reviews [on Amazon] that focused on how the reviewers believed Ms. Steiner was complicit in her abuse. To me, this is just a testament to how manipulative and conniving an abuser is, that he/she can make even a neutral, noninvolved party believe the victim somehow ‘deserved’ what she got because she didn’t leave the minute he crossed some imaginary line, or because she was codependent. I’d love to hear what Ms. Steiner would say to people who refuse to believe this was true abuse, or what the rest of us could do to convince these people.”
Steiner: People don’t understand how strong your denial is when it was happening. If you had said to me, “Are you a battered wife?” I would have said no and I would have meant it. I’m a strong, smart woman with a troubled man. I didn’t know I was being abused and I wasn’t able to admit it to myself for a long time. That’s how powerful abuse is.
It doesn’t make me angry [the reviews]—they just didn’t know. It’s ignorance. I said before I’d never stay with a man who beats me. I understand how people have such misconceptions. Abusers are very skilled, almost at an intuitive level, on picking victims. They pick victims with really big hearts who are very gullible. I was and am a very big-hearted, kind and caring person. That’s not a coincidence to me. I put it all back on the abuser. It’s not a victim’s fault in any way for staying. No one should feel guilty or stupid for staying—it’s a very good part of them but a part that makes them vulnerable to abuse.
Q: “What do you say when people tell you that you don’t look like a victim of domestic violence?”
Steiner: I say that what they need to understand is domestic violence happens to all communities, everywhere in the country, to people of all income levels and education levels. There are people who were abused as children, are being abused right now and are abusing people. That’s what we need to grapple with and it’s hiding in plain sight.
It’s one of the reasons why I love speaking in public—I defy so many stereotypes. I stand up and say, “I went to Harvard and I was married to a man who abused me and held a gun to my head.” [Many] abusers target smart, strong independent women.
[My abuser was] horrifically abused as a child … and wanted to be protected by a woman. His mother witnessed all of this and was abused herself. Part of his rage was that he couldn’t protect his mother, but part of it was that she didn’t protect him. She never left her abuser. It was a source of agony for Conor. It’s a vicious thing to do to a child. It wasn’t his mother’s fault either, but he really paid for that.
It made him feel much more powerful to break me then to have control over me. The abusers are the ones who have no self-esteem. It fed his ego to break women like us. And to dominate women like us. I thought I was going to heal him and protect him, but I was only able to leave when I realized he was so damaged that I could not help him. He was going to kill me.
Q: “Do you have hatred for your abuser?”
Steiner: No, I don’t. I couldn’t hate him because I loved him and felt really sorry for him. I was really angry for about two years, which was really healing for me. It motivated me to change my life. I recommend it [anger] for any victim. But it faded because he let me go and we didn’t have children together. I was able to truly, deeply forgive him and move on. I haven’t talked to him in over 25 years.
If we had children together, I would still hate him because he’d still have that power over me. I have a lot of sympathy for survivors who hate their abusers—psychologically, it’s the most self-protective thing to do. I know I was really lucky. Usually, divorce from an abuser leads to another kind of abuse. But I had none of that.
Q: “How did you get your memoir published?”
Steiner: I’ve always been a writer. Part of my healing was to write this book. It was a therapeutic exercise of how and why I had been vulnerable to an abusive man and why victims stay. At the time, no publisher wanted to publish it. They didn’t think anyone would want to buy it. I knew they were wrong. Not just victims would want to read this, but other people.
I had an agent and editor at St. Martin’s Press, Jennifer Weis. She was very intelligent and very specific and was a brilliant marketer and knew the book would do well. She put a great team behind it. Of course, the sales force was all men—it was hard to convince them.
The first week it was published, it was a New York Times best seller. And then Chris Brown beat Rhianna at the time we were ready to publish the book. It said to a lot of people, this dynamic is a lot more complicated than you think. It has to do with a really twisted type of love.
Q: “Will you write another book?”
Steiner: There are two books I want to write: a children’s book about abuse, explaining abuse to children. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 686,000 children a year are abused. I’d like to write it through the eyes of my dog who saw so much abuse.
The other book I want to write is about what it’s like now to be a woman in her 50s and be an abuse survivor who still believes in love and still believes in men. Not in a fairy tale, magical happily ever after way, but one that’s really realistic about picking yourself up and trying again.
Our Next Selection: Girl Up
For our second Domestic Shelters Book Club selection, we’re talking bodies. Specifically, our own bodies and how to draw boundaries for them. Think of Laura Bates’ revolutionary Girl Up as the guidebook we all wish we’d had in our teens, but luckily, we get to read now. After all, it’s never too late for any of us to learn about sex, relationships and consent or to, more importantly, share this book with the younger people in our lives. Come for the education, stay for the cartoon illustrations of the dancing vaginas.
Have questions for the author? Send them to Amanda@DomesticShelters.org by Monday, Jan. 7 for a chance to be included in our follow-up discussion with Bates.
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