Speaker discusses personal experiences in abusive marriage

Kansas State Collegian/March 15, 2000
By Kelly Glasscock

Hedda Nussbaum, a victim of domestic violence, tells her story Tuesday evening to an audience in Union Forum Hall. There are 572,000 reports of domestic violence each year.

It wasn’t supposed to happen.

Her mom was a housewife, her dad a barber and neither of them ever hit Hedda Nussbaum or used drugs or alcohol.

Nussbaum, the baby of the family, grew up shy, trusting and a little chubby, she thought.

“My childhood was so normal, it was boring,” she said.

But because of this upbringing, she said, she became ready for meeting someone abusive.

Domestic violence was the topic of the speech she gave Tuesday night in Union Forum Hall. The speech was sponsored by Union Program Council’s Issues and Ideas Committee.

Nussbaum first made the news in 1987, when police arrested her and her companion, a lawyer named Joel Steinberg, after finding their 6-year-old adopted daughter comatose. Their daughter, Lisa, had been beaten by Steinberg repeatedly that day.

However, she was not the only one abused.

Steinberg repeatedly abused Nussbaum for 10 years, leaving her with a ruptured spleen, a broken knee, broken ribs, broken teeth, a cauliflower ear and endless scars.

During the time they were together, Nussbaum wasn’t allowed to leave the house or eat without his permission, and she sometimes had to sleep in the bathtub or on the floor without a blanket.

“Now, it’s just incredible how low I had sunk without realizing it,” she said. “I became a walking zombie, and I was unable to save Lisa on November 2, 1987, when Joel hit her.”

After she left the police station that night, she was surprised to see the press outside. She said she was so brainwashed that she did not understand why all those people were making such a fuss about her hospitalized daughter.

The press, some feminists and others accused Nussbaum of causing Lisa’s death. They asked why she couldn’t just walk out.

Warning signs of an abusive partner

He’s pushing the relationship too far, too fast. Is planning your future together from the moment you meet.

He hates his mother and is nasty to her. Chances are he’ll treat you the same way.

He wants your undivided attention at all times.

You feel controlled because he must always “be in charge.”

He’s very competitive and always has to win.

He breaks promises all the time.

He can’t take criticism and always justifies his actions.

He blames someone else for anything that goes wrong — often that someone is you.

He’s jealous of you close friends and family members.

He’s jealous of any man you talk to, always asks you where you went and whom you saw.

He has extreme highs and lows — both unpredictable.

He has a nasty temper.

He has no respect for your opinion and always says you don’t know what you’re talking about.

He makes you feel like you’re not good enough.

He withdraws his love or approval as punishment.

He pushes you to do things that make you feel uneasy — like taking the day off from school or work or doing something illegal.

While 95 percent of abusers are men, 5 percent are women. Men in abusive relationships are also encouraged to seek help.

“With a battered woman, it’s not a matter of ‘just,'” she said. “Now why didn’t I see this? The reason is, abuse is subtle and gradual.”

Nussbaum said many women are scared to leave these types of relationships, and people have to understand that the level of abuse gradually grows over a period of several years. By the time this happened, she was severely brainwashed, she said.

She didn’t meet Steinberg until she was in her 30s. Prior to that, she had dated throughout college and received several marriage proposals, but none were Mr. Right, she said.

They met in 1975, and she was very attracted to his charismatic ways and vibrant eyes.

“I just fell for him right away,” she said.

But after a while, Steinberg began criticizing who she was. He would sit down with her and critique her social skills. He would act as a therapist and tell her what she should do and what she should say.

Nussbaum was flattered and pleased that she had become more outgoing and had received promotions and raises at work.

“I gave Joel all the credit for all these things that were happening,” she said. “He was my savior.”

It was three years before Steinberg hit her. He smacked her with the heel of his hand and seemed sorry, but never said the words, she said.

The next morning, she had a black eye and was worried what people at work would think. She went to the hospital, and after telling the doctor that her boyfriend had hit her, she regretted it. So she had the doctor cross out the reason for her black eye.

This was Nussbaum’s first rejection of reality.

“There is always a next time,” she said. “Women tend to think that it will never happen again, but it always does.”

There was a honeymoon period in Nussbaum’s life after she and Steinberg decided to adopt Lisa. But the abuse started up again, and Nussbaum was fired from her job because she didn’t show up, trying to cover her black eyes.

Then the mental abuse escalated.

Steinberg convinced Nussbaum that she had done horrible sexual things, and that she didn’t remember it because of her amnesia.

He also made her believe that her family was evil and the root of her behavior. He would make her smoke freebase cocaine with him, make her take ice-cold baths and hit her over the head every night with an exercise bar.

Nussbaum had to leave.

She did, five times, but returned every time. She sometimes would call him when she ran away to make sure he wasn’t worried about her.

During all these years, Nussbaum never told anyone the truth. She said she didn’t know why her family didn’t find out or why the police, when they visited her twice, didn’t take notice.

Those days are gone for Nussbaum.

Gone are the days of the trial, when she was granted immunity if she testified against Steinberg, and gone are the days of recovery, when she was placed in a psychiatric hospital.

Today, Nussbaum speaks out against violence and is the editor of Women’s News, a monthly publication distributed in northern New York.

Janet Bozarth, senior in English and Issues and Ideas Committee chairwoman, said the committee decided to bring Nussbaum to K-State because domestic violence is such a serious issue.

“The Issue and Ideas Committee is really here to make students think,” she said. “Sometimes it helps to have a controversial speaker, because we can look at an issue more deeply and from different angles.”

Nussbaum said she doesn’t have a boyfriend now, but she’s not afraid to have one.

“I’m not scared of it, but men are scared of me,” she said.

However, Nussbaum is concentrating her efforts on informing people on domestic violence for Lisa.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t see,” she said. “I’m sorry it’s too late to see. But we can help others.”