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- February 13, 1989
- Vol. 31
- No. 6
A Love Betrayed, a Brief Life Lost
Her Daughter Dead, Her Lover and Tormentor Behind Bars, Hedda Nussbaum Reflects on a Grim Descent into Horror
The words are taken from a South African novel, yet they echo with somber resonance through a contemporary tragedy in New York's Greenwich Village. In November 1987, a 6-year-old girl named Lisa Steinberg died after being brutally beaten by her adoptive father, Joel Steinberg 47. Steinberg a disbarred and disgraced attorney, was convicted last week of first degree manslaughter and now faces a jail term of from 8 1/3 to 25 years.
Prosecutors had dropped all charges against Steinberg's lover, Hedda Nussbaum, 46, on the grounds that she had been physically and emotionally unable to harm—or save—Lisa. But she also faces a sentence—a lifetime in which to wonder whether she could have rescued her daughter with one word, two words, even a shrill scream for help. Nussbaum testified that while the child lay unconscious for 12 hours, Steinberg refused to let her summon help and ordered her to freebase cocaine with him.
After a year of intensive medical treatment Nussbaum was sufficiently recovered to give evidence against Steinberg. Her testimony mesmerized a packed Manhattan courtroom and a national television audience. Nussbaum's story was both chilling and pathetic. It included passion and torture, interwoven with drug use and something clearly akin to madness. Once an attractive and vibrant editor of children's books, Nussbaum told of being systematically brainwashed and humiliated by Steinberg over a dozen years. He was depicted as a once-charismatic, successful lawyer who sacrificed his own and other lives during his descent into drug addiction and sadism.
Nussbaum's role in the tragedy arouses powerful emotions and troubling questions. To some she is a battered woman psychologically unable to save Lisa; to others she is a woman worthy only of scorn. There are at least 2 million battered women in the U.S., and many can empathize with her plight. But most people familiar with the case have wondered how she could have kept her deadly silence.
One person who knows of Hedda Nussbaum's attempts to understand the nightmare that befell her and her family is Naomi Weiss, an old friend. A writer with her own marketing and communications business and a former Hunter College classmate of Hedda's, Weiss, 46, has become an emotional mainstay for Nussbaum. On the following pages, she tells about her friend's ordeal and the insights Nussbaum has gained during her painful recovery.
The last time Hedda and I had been together was in 1981 at a shower celebrating Lisa's arrival. "I'm so lucky I have her," Hedda told me as she held the 3-week-old infant while family and friends crowded around. We talked on the phone frequently in the months that followed, but eventually we drifted apart.
Then, on Nov. 3, 1987, on my way to work, I spotted Hedda, black and blue and swollen, on the front page of every New York newspaper. I read with disbelief the details of what her life had become. Lisa was in the hospital, gravely injured, apparently dying. The news accounts described Hedda's physical condition: Her nose splayed, her upper lip cleft; 16 ribs broken and a leg so badly ulcerated that doctors considered amputation.
It seemed impossible that this was the caring, loving friend I had studied and double-dated with, the friend who scribbled comments with me about our sexy male teachers in our notebooks, the tall, elegant, dark-haired beauty who came to my wedding in 1965, shortly after our graduation from college.
During those first months I remained a silent observer, following Hedda's ordeal through the media, unsure whether to contact her. Finally, in May, I said to my second husband, "She's my friend, what should I do?" "Go to her," he said. "She'll need you." I wrote to her parents and asked if she'd like a visitor. Three days later her father called and said, "Hedda would love to see you."
A week later I made my first trip to Four Winds, the private psychiatric facility in Katonah, N.Y., where she was being treated. I waited nervously outside the blue wooden cottage that is now her home. Soon I sensed someone walking up behind me. I turned slowly. I was astonished at what I saw. Despite three plastic surgeries to reconstruct her face, she was unrecognizable. I wanted to run away, to cry alone at what Steinberg had done to her.
"I'm so happy to see you," she said as we hugged. As we talked, I felt as though I was with a stranger. Questions welled up inside me, but it seemed futile to ask them. She rarely initiated conversation, and when I mentioned some world event or a hit movie she would go blank. It was as if she had been locked away in a cave for the past five years. It reminded me that in the TV news pictures of her arrest she had seemed zombie-like, standing mute at Joel's side.
After that first highly publicized appearance at the precinct house, Hedda was sent to Elmhurst Hospital in Queens and placed under a 24-hour guard. One of the first professionals to see her was Sister Mary Nerney, the founder of STEPS to End Family Violence and director of a halfway house for battered women. "In the 13 years I've worked with abused women, I've never seen anyone as physically battered as Hedda," she says. Although Hedda talked about the beatings Joel had inflicted on her, she minimized them—a trait, says Sister Nerney, that is "typical" of abused women.
Four months later, when Hedda entered Four Winds, her mental condition had not improved significantly. "Hedda still had little understanding of what happened to her," says Dr. Samuel Klagsbrun, the director of Four Winds, who agreed to treat her personally and without charge. "She was immersed in powerful feelings for Joel. Her need to hold on to her image of him was so strong it overrode her pain and suffering, even Lisa's-death. Emotionally she was dead. I didn't think I could ever help her return to normalcy."
Through daily private and group psychotherapy, as well as art therapy, psychodrama and workshops in pottery and photography, Hedda slowly began to feel safe enough to allow her feelings about the past to surface. To me she seemed like a child awakening from a nightmare, but for Hedda the terror, instead of disappearing, became real.
Easiest for her to recall were the good times with Joel, whom she had met at a party in the spring of 1975. "He had these bright, sparkling eyes and was very outgoing," Hedda said. "He was very intelligent, and I loved listening to him talk."
In 1976 she moved into his Greenwich Village apartment. "Everything was so wonderful then," she says of those early years. "We had a kind of ESP." From the beginning of their relationship, Hedda says, Joel became her mentor, working with her to build up her self-esteem. "I was so flattered," she recalls. "I thought, 'Here is this handsome, successful, intelligent lawyer taking such an interest in me.' And it worked. I got several promotions and a raise. I didn't think I could have accomplished any of this without Joel."
As time went on, though, Joel criticized her and embarrassed her in front of others and put down those who cared for her. "He sent mixed messages," she recalls. "He built me up, but he also made me feel I couldn't live up to his standards." Joel convinced Hedda that his criticisms were for her own good. "And I believed him," she says. "Why shouldn't I? I had all this evidence that he was on my side."
According to Klagsbrun, Hedda's low self-esteem made her particularly vulnerable to a controlling and domineering man like Joel. "Because of her background, she was someone who needed emotional security at any price," says Klagsbrun. But far from the abusive upbringing many have imagined, Hedda's was a relatively normal childhood.
She lived in New York City with her parents (her father, William, an immigrant from Poland, is a retired hairdresser; her mother, Emma, a housewife), her older sister, Judy, and her grandmother, Rachel. When Hedda was 2 years old she was very attached to her grandmother. Then Rachel Nussbaum suffered a breakdown and was hospitalized. "I didn't understand. I thought I must have done something to make her leave," says Hedda. "When she came home a few months later, she stayed in her room with the door shut. I hardly ever had real emotional contact with her again. She lived with us like that until her death 20 years later, and I lived with that rejection every single day."
To make up for the loss of her grandmother, Hedda turned to Judy, 22 months her elder. Fostered by their mother, it was an intense bonding. "My mother dressed us alike, and we had the same friends—Judy's friends," says Hedda. "It was always 'we' or 'us,' never 'I' or 'me.' " As a result, Hedda thinks, she never really developed a sense of her-self. She also became terrified of being abandoned. "I was always trying to be a good girl so I wouldn't be left alone," she says. "I was very shy and timid. And I never showed any anger."
Hedda also repressed those same feelings of anger as her relationship with Steinberg took an ominous turn. They had been together about three years when he struck her for the first time. "It was in my face," Hedda recalls. "We were both shocked. I don't remember why it happened. I know I wasn't angry, and Joel didn't apologize, but afterwards he was very affectionate. We both thought it would never happen again."
Instead, it became a way of life. At first the abuse was sporadic, but even in 1981, after a series of blows by Joel required her to undergo surgery for a ruptured spleen, Hedda says, "I didn't see myself as being battered. To me, the beatings were isolated incidents. I always thought each one was the last. I loved Joel so much. I felt there was much more good between us than not."
That same year, after an unmarried client had paid Steinberg to find a good home for her illegitimate daughter, Hedda and Joel took custody of the child, naming her Lisa. Despite Steinberg's abusive behavior, it never occurred to Hedda that Lisa could be in danger. "I didn't see Joel as a threat to me or to a child. I believed Joel when he said the beatings were my fault," she says. "I was so thrilled to be a mother. I felt if I tried hard enough, I could behave appropriately and not upset him anymore." For six months everything was wonderful, but then Steinberg's violent attacks on Hedda resumed. They were harsher and more frequent than ever.
Embarrassed to be seen with so many black eyes and bruises, Hedda kept taking time off from her job at Random House until finally, in 1982, she was fired. Without a job, which had provided her with a source of income and contact with the outside world, Hedda became increasingly isolated and dependent on Steinberg. "Slowly, Joel convinced me that my friends weren't good enough for me," she says. "So I stopped seeing them and became friends with his friends. It was the same pattern I had had with my sister, so it didn't seem strange to me."
In order to separate Hedda from her family, Joel took a different tack. He told Hedda that they were part of a group of dangerous people, a "cult" that could hypnotize them both and destroy him. He also said they had a terrible effect on Hedda's behavior, and he forbade them from coming to the apartment. "I missed my parents," she says. "But I was actually relieved when they stayed away because I began to believe the things Joel told me about them." For a time, her parents continued to call, however, and Hedda always told them everything was fine.
In reality, behind the closed doors of the couple's apartment, Hedda's life was increasingly dominated by domestic cruelty. Before her court testimony, she provided the prosecution with a list of more than 30 incidents, although there were many more. In court she was allowed to talk about only five of them. Even so, the list of her injuries reads like something from a horror movie. A versatile attacker, Steinberg had kicked her in the eye, strangled her, beaten her sexual organs, urinated on her, hung her in handcuffs from a chinning bar, lacerated a tear duct by poking his finger in the corner of her eye, broken her nose several times and pulled out clumps of hair while throwing her about their apartment. "Sometimes he'd take the blowtorch we used for freebasing and move it around me, making me jump," she says. "I have burn marks all over my body from that. Joel told me he did this to improve my coordination."
In addition to the beatings, Joel instituted what he called disciplines. Says Hedda: "He'd take away my meals, and I'd have to ask his permission to eat. I went from a 125-lb. size 11 to 100 lbs. and a size 5. He'd order me to sleep on the floor without a blanket and take ice-cold baths." Joel also gave her assignments, forcing her to repeatedly write pet phrases of his such as "I will care about Joel" and "I will not resist Joel."
As Hedda testified about the torture, she had difficulty recalling what led up to each attack. The incidents were so frequent and so numerous that in her mind, many of them are merged. She does remember Joel's telling her frequently that he beat her because he was trying to help her—and that she often objected to this twisted logic.
"I am not a masochist," she says. "I told him I hated the beatings. I didn't think they were helping me, but he'd run down the list, giving me all these reasons—I didn't say the right thing, I didn't hear him, I supposedly lied to him—why I needed to be hit. He always warned me just before he'd hit me. That was the time I was most afraid of him. But I always believed he meant to help me. I needed him and wanted to please him." She now realizes she was trying too hard to win the love of a manipulative and egomaniacal man. "The pain of my life," she says, "was that he was never satisfied with me."
By 1984 Joel had become obsessed with endless harangues about imagined culls. "Many days and nights Joel would push me to fantasize about the cults, about the sexual encounters he said I had with all these people, and about pornographic videos I had supposedly made. Joel got me to believe these things happened, but I never had any recollection of them." Acting as her therapist, Joel encouraged Hedda to unblock her memories of these events, and eventually she came to believe all the horrible things he said she did.
Central to Steinberg's accelerating madness and Hedda's submissive acceptance of his tyranny was the couple's use of drugs. In 1978 Hedda had accepted a snort of cocaine from one of Joel's clients. "It was fun," she says. "I was always the good girl trying to do all the right things, and this made me feel naughty." Later Joel joined in, and soon the couple were freebasing the drug. "Freebasing made me feel like I wanted more and more," says Hedda, "and I hated that feeling. But Joel loved it and demanded that I smoke with him. Although Joel said the cocaine helped us communicate better, he used the drugs to enforce his will on me."
From the end of that year through the middle of 1984, Hedda ran away six times, seeking refuge either with friends, in hospitals or in a women's shelter. In the end, she always returned home, sometimes lured back by a display of overwhelming affection from Joel, because she missed Lisa or because she didn't want Joel to worry. Not once did any of the people or agencies she turned to recognize the urgency of her cries for help.
By that time, says Klagsbrun, it is very unlikely that these attempts could have succeeded. "Joel had become so incorporated into Hedda's system that she couldn't see herself not under his control," he says. "Separation from him would mean that she would perish."
A brief respite from the horror came in June 1986 with the arrival of Mitchell, a newborn baby that Steinberg had received from a physician friend. However, Steinberg never legalized either adoption, and Hedda was in no condition to oppose him. "Being able to hold Mitchell and give him my love was a personal comfort to me," she says. "Lisa loved Mitchell too. When she'd come home from school, she'd play with him in the house while I helped Joel with his work or prepared meals."
While the beatings continued, Hedda still did not believe that Steinberg might turn his violent attentions to the children. She had become a recluse, leaving the apartment only to bring Lisa to school or to go shopping for food. She had no contact with family or friends, no place to go and no money left. Although he had assets worth millions of dollars, Joel forced Hedda to give him most of her savings.
By this time Hedda was permanently disfigured. "One day Joel grabbed me and said, 'Look in the mirror. Look what you've done to yourself.' When I looked and saw myself, I cried." In the past Joel, Hedda and Lisa used to go everywhere together; now Lisa became his companion at dinners out and on weekends. Joel's defense attorneys claimed that Hedda became jealous of the child as a result, but Hedda adamantly denies it.
Although it started out as a modish flirtation with drugs, Hedda now believes that Joel's cocaine addiction may have led directly to Lisa's death. In the weeks before, Hedda says, "Joel was smoking it every night through the night. He'd make me stay awake with him and smoke, but I'd only take a few puffs. Then I'd sleep one or two hours and get up to take care of the children. He'd sleep until the afternoon. The last month we were together, I hardly slept at all. I think the constant freebasing made Joel increasingly paranoid," she says.
The night Lisa was fatally injured, Steinberg at first wouldn't tell Hedda what had happened. "He just said, 'What's the difference what happened?' " she recalls. " 'This is your child. Hasn't this gone far enough?' " But later, after Lisa had been lying unconscious for hours, says Hedda, "He told me, 'I knocked her down, and she didn't want to get up again.' "
Three days later Hedda was at Elm-hurst Hospital when she learned of Lisa's death. "My uncle told me," she says. "I was numb. I watched her funeral on television alone in my hospital room with corrections officers guarding the door."
Last November, a year after Lisa's death, Hedda asked me to drive her to the child's grave. "I brought her a plastic Ernie from Sesame Street and ALF. She loved them so much," she said as we walked toward to the small stone marker. "I figured the plastic would last through the bad weather." I walked away as she knelt down and began talking to her child. A few minutes later she walked toward me and broke down in my arms. "What's the point?" she sobbed. "Lisa's not here."
In her room at Four Winds, resting against the pillows on her bed, Hedda has a big, smiling doll that belonged to Lisa. "This was retrieved from the apartment," she says. "It's not the doll Lisa loved best, but I'm happy to have something that belonged to her."
During the trial a student teacher in Lisa's school brought in a story Lisa had written in first grade. One of the detectives showed it to Hedda. "It read, 'My mom writes books for Random House,' " she recalls. " 'She brings some to me. Chapter 2. My brother pulls my hair. Chapter 3.1 have a boat. It is a sailboat.' The story made me realize how much I mattered in her life," Hedda continues. "I'm dealing with the pain of Lisa's death. I visit her grave, I think of her. With Mitchell it's different. [Mitchell, now renamed Travis, is being raised by his natural mother, Nicole Smigiel.] He's alive, but I can't see him. He was with me all the time. I hear he's doing great, but still I miss him."
Hedda has learned a lot about herself during her stay at Four Winds. But perhaps her most difficult accomplishment was learning to get angry. "That was a big step for me," she says. "I also learned to see Joel clearly. He lied to me, and he robbed me of my two children, my motherhood and my career. I'm angry at him for that."
Now that the trial is over, Hedda says she wants "to reach out and help battered women. I hope I've begun to do that. I've gotten over a hundred letters of support; only three of them were negative." Her advice to these women, she says, is to get out before there is a tragedy. She wonders if she would have heeded such advice herself. "I would probably have stayed there until I died," she says.
The most difficult thing for her to adjust to now is being a public figure. She spent New Year's Eve with me at my home. The next day, driving back to Four Winds, her car stalled going through a toll booth. Suddenly the man in the booth said, "I know you. I think you did good." Hedda wasn't happy about it. "I don't want to be recognized," she says. "I want to be me."
But who that person might be is still evolving. Early in her therapy, Four Winds required her to keep a visual notebook of her feelings, and she drew herself as frightened—hearing no evil, seeing no evil and speaking no evil. "Now," she told me just before Joel's trial, "I hear, I sec and I'm ready to speak." Her therapy will continue for many months to come, as she deals with a whole range of new fears: getting a job, living independently and dealing with a hostile world. And before she can plan the future, Hedda still has to grapple with the past. Recently she told me about a night back in 1976, when she was still living with a woman friend on the Upper West Side. A couple in their building were fighting. "We heard a lot of noise and screaming and saw the woman run out of the house in her nightgown," Hedda says. "It looked like she had been hit. I remember saying to myself that if anyone did that to me, I would leave and never comeback.
"You never think it can happen to you," she says. "I still don't really understand how it did."
with Bonnie Johnson
- Bonnie Johnson.
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