Episode 27: Author and Thought Leader Leslie Morgan Steiner on Domestic Violence and Why Women Stay
Author, consultant, and thought leader Leslie Morgan Steiner discusses Women's Leadership, Overcoming Adversity and Surviving Violence Against Women speaks with Karen and Sabah about domestic violence and why women stay in those relationships.
Leslie Morgan Steiner Bio
Leslie Morgan Steiner is an author, consultant and thought leader on women’s leadership, work-life balance, inspirational parenting, overcoming adversity and surviving violence against women. She lives in Washington, DC. She recently completed her fourth nonfiction work,The Naked Truth, a memoir which explores female aging and sexuality after motherhood and divorce. Her corporate experience includes The Washington Post, Johnson & Johnson, Leo Burnett and Seventeen Magazine. Follow her on Facebook or LinkedIn via Leslie Morgan Steiner, or via @lesliebooks on Instagram and Twitter, or visit her Amazon page.
Intro Voices [00:00:05] Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me?
Intro Voices [00:00:31] This is “You Matter”, a podcast for the NYU community developed by the Department of Public Safety.
Karen Ortman [00:00:36] Hi, everyone, and welcome back to “You Matter”, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I am your host, Karen Ortman, Assistant Vice President of Field Operations in the Department of Public Safety and a retired law enforcement professional.
Sabah Fatima [00:00:59] And I am your co-host, Sabah Fatima, a pre-med graduate student here at NYU’s College of Global Public Health. If any information presented today is triggering or disturbing, please feel free to contact the wellness exchange at
212-443-9999 or NYU’s Department of Public Safety and their victim services unit at 212-998-2222.
Karen Ortman [00:01:19] Today we introduce Leslie Morgan Steiner, author, consultant and thought leader on Women's Leadership, Overcoming Adversity, and Surviving Violence Against Women, to name a few, to talk about domestic violence and why women stay in those relationships. Leslie, thank you so much for joining us today on “You Matter”.
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:01:41] It's a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Karen Ortman [00:01:43] So, Leslie, can you share with our listeners, why do women stay in domestic violence relationships?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:01:50] Well, there's a lot to unpack here because there's so many misconceptions about abusive relationships and how they start and how they evolve from a fairy tale connection between two people into dominance, abuse and violence. My story is very typical. I met my abusive ex-husband when I was 22. I had just graduated from Harvard and I had not grown up in an abusive family. And the people who are most vulnerable are people who grew up with abuse, so they think it's normal, or people like me, who grew up with none of it so we think it's never gonna happen to us. And I was typical in that way and I was also typical in terms of my age. Women and girls 16 to 24 are three times as likely to get into abusive relationships as older women. My ex-husband was so wonderful at first. Abusers don't hit you on the first date and they don't come with a warning label on their forehead. He was funny and kind and he adored me and he was also extremely troubled. He'd grown up in an abusive home and instead of seeing this as a warning sign, a red flag, I saw it as just a reason to love him more and to try to help him.
And he didn't start abusing me until we'd been together for a year and a half. We had a very solid, supportive, loving relationship and he attacked me five days before our wedding. It was really almost too late for me to leave, and he knew that. And I married him anyway, I thought it would never happen. And things devolved from there. The abuse was a near constant in our life, he eventually got three guns and he terrorized me. But in
between the attacks, he was still that wonderful, amazing man who I had fallen in love with and who I felt sorry for and who I wanted to help.
Karen Ortman [00:03:39] So it's just interesting and noteworthy. You come from an environment in which there was no abuse. He came from an environment in which there was. So you have such totally different life experiences coming together, which is interesting. And then you speak about the abuse five days before your wedding. Can you talk about what that abuse was and what was your response to that? Did you share that with anybody? Did you talk to your family about it?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:04:10] Well, what happened was I had gotten angry at my computer and I had yelled at the computer and this somehow triggered him or was it just the excuse that he needed? And he strangled me and told me to shut up and to not ever yell like that, that it reminded him of his mother. And he hit my head against the wall with the chokehold. And as soon as he was done, he left. It was very early in the morning, it was 7:00 in the morning. He went to work. And for about an hour, I knew what I needed to do. I knew I needed to call the police. I knew I needed to call a hotline. I needed to tell my parents. I needed to call off the wedding. But then my denial crept in. And denial is a really strong force. And my denial said that he hadn't really hit me. And that was true. He hadn't hit me. My denial said he loved me. And that was true, too. And that he was scared of getting married and making a commitment. And that was true, too. And that I was strong and I could take it. And that was true, too. So it was this very confusing mix of denial and love for him and fear. And, you know, naivete that he would never do it again. And so that's why I didn't tell anybody. And it wasn't that I was stupid. It wasn't that I was insecure. It wasn't that I thought I deserved it. It really was based in a very confusing mix of love and pity and fear, which is really typical of abusive relationships. And abusers are very good at targeting people, mostly women, because women are the vast majority of victims. But male victims exist too, victims with really big hearts who are really understanding and forgiving. And it really was not my fault. And in some ways, it wasn't his fault either, because he had been so terribly abused as a young child. It was his responsibility to not continue hurting me, but it's - he wasn't a monster in any way.
Karen Ortman [00:06:13] Were you aware of the - I'm assuming you knew he had an abusive childhood prior to marriage. And if that's true, were you aware of the circumstances of the abuse in his life?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:06:27] Yes, he told me in great detail. Not at first, but after we had been dating for a couple of months, he had been suspiciously silent about his background and childhood. And I just thought that it was because, you know, I had gone to Harvard and I'd grown up in this really, you know, outwardly loving and supportive family. And he had grown up with no money, you know, with a welfare mom. But he eventually confessed that his stepfather had started physically abusing him when he was 4 and not like he spanked him occasionally. He broke his arm, he broke his nose, he broke his collarbone. He broke his ribs. My ex-husband was in the hospital regularly as a young child, and his mother was, too. His mother was beaten in front of him, which is an especially vicious thing to do to a child because you just make them feel so helpless. So it was sort of as if Connor had had this rage implanted into him as a young child. And I knew none of this. I was so naive about abusive patterns and that an abusive childhood like that is very hard to leave behind. And it also kind of reminded me quite a bit of my father. My father grew up extremely poor and uneducated and went to Harvard and Harvard Law School and lived a very successful life. And so I was raised from, you know, from an early
age to believe in the best in people and that you could overcome a background like that. I respected Connor more that he had overcome that and he had gone to an Ivy League school himself and had a wonderful Wall Street job. I thought he had left it behind him. I just - it wasn't that I was insecure, it was actually the opposite, that I was sort of arrogant. And I thought that I could overcome this and that he could, too. And that because I was strong and smart and independent, that I could deal with it and that love would conquer all. It wasn't that I thought I could change him. It was that I thought I could show him what love was really about. And he was very committed to changing himself. He did not want to be in an abusive relationship. He wanted to leave all of that behind him. But he had never sought professional help. And I think at the core of it, he was terrified that I would be yet another loved one in his life who abandoned him. And so he wanted to dominate and control me so that I wouldn't leave him. It was a really sick dynamic.
Karen Ortman [00:08:43] So you're married at this point. How long did you stay together?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:08:46] For four years total.
Karen Ortman [00:08:48] So during that time, can you speak to your experience, married to this person?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:08:55] Yes. A lot of the time it was still great. He believed in me in a way that no one in my life has ever believed in me. He told me all the time that I was beautiful and so smart and that I was a great writer, that I'd be a great mother one day. And he was funny. And we had a great time together. And then randomly, several times a week, he would just fly into a rage that I couldn't predict or prevent. And he did crazy things, the kind of things a 4 year old child would do. You know, he poured coffee grinds on my head. He pulled the key out of the car ignition as I was driving down the highway. He held loaded guns to my head. It was terrifying and inexplicable. And I lost a piece of myself every time he attacked me because it wasn't like being attacked by a stranger. It's very different when you're attacked by someone you love and trust. It's a really deep physical, psychological betrayal that is very difficult to make sense of.
Karen Ortman [00:09:53] What gave you the strength to do something about this?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:09:59] You know, I'm so unlucky that I fell in love with an abusive man, but I'm so lucky because of the friends and family that I have in my life. And I had two very close friends who realized there was something wrong. They didn't know what it was, but they knew there was something wrong, that something in me had changed. And they very gently confronted me and supported me.
Karen Ortman [00:10:21] What did they recognize that that changed?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:10:24] Well, I had one friend who said, he said, “Leslie, do you know that when Connor is in the room, your voice shakes and when he's not in the room, it doesn't”. And I did not know that. And it was like he was holding up a mirror to me. So they saw - they could see and sense that I was afraid. And they didn't tell me that I had to leave him. They didn't say that he was, you know, a terrible person. They understood that I loved him and that he in so many ways was a good person. But they very gradually made me see that I couldn't live this way and that it was very dangerous to live this way. So I had two friends who broke the silence. And that is what saved me. And that's what I tell everybody, is to try to break the silence, to try to find somebody to confide in, to talk to
about this. Even if you just call an anonymous hotline or tell a therapist or your mother or your best friend, all you need is one person who knows. And they can really help you. And that's what you should do, too. If you think a friend of yours or a family member or a colleague or somebody you work with has changed or you noticed bruises or you think they're afraid. Try very lovingly to talk to them and just say, you know, I think something is wrong and I want to help you. I need you to know I'm here for you.
Karen Ortman [00:11:42] Did your family know?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:11:43] I worked so hard to hide it from my family. I didn't want them to know because I knew they would make me leave him and I didn't want to abandon him. So, no, my family didn’t know. And when I told them, it was very interesting. My father, the one who had grown up in such terrible circumstances, was not supportive of me. He just couldn't face it. And he was in his own kind of denial. But my mother, who would always - honestly, she'd always hated Connor, you know, which it didn't mean a whole lot to me, because she actually was one of those moms who sort of hated every man I dated, thought nobody was good enough for me. But when she came out and hated him, it was so reassuring to me because I couldn't hate him. I was too conflicted. And the fact that she steadfastly said, “No, he can't treat you this way”, it was amazingly comforting. And then I also have a younger sister who was very close to me and Connor and she was wonderful, too. Very, very supportive.
Karen Ortman [00:12:41] So how many years has it been since you have not been with Connor?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:12:45] Oh, boy. The last time that I saw him was the day that we - we went to business school together. It was the day that we graduated from business school. And I had ended the relationship about six months before, but we had to finish and get our MBAs at the same school. And there was a reception that day. And it was - it's been over twenty-five years. I have not seen him since that day. I talked to him once, a year later, he called me randomly. And he lives in another country now. And so I'm totally, utterly free in a way that so many abuse victims are not free. And I never had children with him, which was really important, because when you have children with an abuser, because then you have to deal with the family court system. And abusers often try to get you pregnant to increase your dependance upon them. So that's one of my other pieces of advice is do not have children in a bad relationship.
Karen Ortman [00:13:37] So it's been a long time since you were living that life. And I'm so glad that you had the support to move on. What would you tell your younger self if your younger self would have listened to you? What would you tell her today?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:13:51] I would tell my younger self that it's such an amazing thing about you that you love with such abandon. But the best thing you can do to love yourself and take care of yourself is to go very slowly in relationships. Because if I had slowed things down with Connor, I would have seen the warning signs and I would have gradually realized that I needed to to love myself as much as I loved him. And during the final beating where I decided to leave him, that was my decision. I I knew somehow that I couldn't love him and myself. And the only reason I'm here today is because in that really dark, terrifying moment, I chose me. And that's what I would say to anybody, including my younger 22 year old self. Choose yourself first and don't keep secrets, any kind of secrets. Secrets are very, very destructive. And sunlight is the best disinfectant. So if there's
something that you're hiding in your relationship, that's a really big red flag in and of itself. And you should be able to tell your friends and the people you work with and your family all the good and bad about the relationship. But I tell you that that advice is hard to follow. It's hard for me even today as a mature, seasoned woman. But that is very important advice.
Sabah Fatima [00:15:09] Did you ever consider yourself an abuse victim while the abuse was occurring?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:15:14] That's such a great question. It's so revealing. If you had asked me that, you know, in the thick of things, like the day after he had held a gun to my head, I would have looked you straight in the face and said, nope, I'm not an abuse victim. I'm a strong, smart, independent woman who's in love with a troubled man. And I'm gonna help him. I couldn't see. That’s why I needed other people too, to try to hold up a mirror and show me what I couldn't see myself, and you can't ask for help if you don't know that you need it, that friends and family are so important. Bystanders are really important in any kind of abuse. Bystanders who can see the truth and are brave enough to tell you it.
Sabah Fatima [00:15:53] Were you still hesitant about taking that step to change after you heard it from your friends and family?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:15:58] Yes. It took me two years after I started talking to my friends and family about the abuse to actually leave him. It wasn't until I became really convinced that he was going to kill me, that I was able to leave and to call the police and to file a restraining order and go see a therapist and get a divorce lawyer. All of that was really painful and really hard, but I knew I needed to do it in order to rebuild my life and to have the life that I wanted. You know, I wanted children. I wanted a good relationship. I wanted a great life. And I could see that even though he loved me, he couldn't get there and I had to leave him.
Karen Ortman [00:16:33] What made you draw the conclusion that he was going to ultimately kill you?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:16:41] I started doing a lot of research about abuse, you know, even though I was in denial about the fact that I was being abused, there was part of me that knew that I was. So I started doing a lot of research and I realized that every bit of the facts about abuse applied to me and it broke through my denial. And one of those friends also told me the truth, that I could never have children with him. And I realized that that was true, too. And so I gave him another chance. And I told him that if he ever abused me again, I would leave. And for six months he went without hurting me. And then one night, it was like all of his rage came out. And in that night, I really knew that it was over. I just knew it in the core of my being.
Sabah Fatima [00:17:25] How has the “Me Too” movement impacted the stigma surrounding domestic violence?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:17:30] So the Me Too movement and just decades of feminism that came before it and are ongoing have done so much to shift the blame and responsibility from victims to perpetrators. And it's been slow, but incredibly important. And I'm so grateful to the Me Too movement and to every single woman who has spoken out because it just happens to everybody. Every woman in the world has some sort of abuse
or harassment that's happened to her. It's part of being female. And our strength comes from uniting and talking about it. And I'm just so grateful to the Me Too movement. And it has changed my life and it has changed the world in a way that I couldn't be happier or more joyful about.
Sabah Fatima [00:18:22] Why do you think that survivors are still judged or victim-blamed by society as it pertains to domestic violence?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:18:30] I just think it's so much easier to blame a victim. And because the vast majority of sexual assault and domestic violence victims are women and we don't - we historically have not had the same power as men do. It just is - it’s a convenient psychologically, legally, in every way it's a convenient thing to do. And you have to have a lot of discipline and honesty to look at the facts and say this is not the victim's fault and that our entire society has to change. But that's a big ask of anybody. So this is - abuse against women is like an enormous iceberg that has always been in our society. And every single advocate, every truth teller, every Me Too member, we have a little ice pick and we're chipping away at this and we all have to keep chipping away at it. But it's not going to change overnight. It's not going to dissolve overnight. We're doing great work, but progress is really slow. And so you have to be, I think, very determined and very hopeful and to realize there are gonna be a lot of setbacks along the way and a lot of really otherwise wonderful people who need to be educated about the realities of violence against women.
Karen Ortman [00:19:42] And that's the beauty of having somebody speak out like you, Leslie, and share your story, because I think that that is definitely chipping away at this iceberg that you speak of.
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:19:54] It is the way that I can do it. I think that everybody finds their way, because some victims can't speak out or their culture demands that they be silent or they have children to protect or they just don't want to speak out. But there are so many different ways to be an advocate and to be a truth teller and to support victims. And I just encourage everybody to find their own way, because we need everybody in this battle. It’s not a women's issue. It's very clearly a men's issue, if it's any kind of gendered issue, because men perpetrate it. But we need everybody in this, because bystanders are so critical in order to stop it as it's happening and also to ensure that the criminal justice system works as it should, on campuses and in every corner of our society. And I also want to say a shout out, especially to you, Karen, as a member of law enforcement. The police helped me so much. They were so kind to me. And they knew so much more about abuse than I did. And I'm eternally grateful to the two officers who came in and saved me that night, the final beating. And I don't know their names. And I was never able to thank them. So I always like to thank other police officers, because this is hard work and it's confusing and they really helped me so much.
Karen Ortman [00:21:07] Thank you so much for saying that. I'm so proud to have been part of the law enforcement profession. It can go through a rough time in society on occasion, but there are some really good people out there. So thank you for that.
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:21:21] Thank you. Thank you both.
Sabah Fatima [00:21:22] Is there anything you would like to add before we conclude today's episode?
Leslie Morgan Steiner [00:21:27] I would add two things. One is that I really love to connect with other victims and survivors. And I own both of those labels with a lot of pride. So come to my website, Leslie Books. I have an email address there that I answer right away. And then also another wonderful resource is a nonprofit group called the One Love Foundation, joinonelove.org. And they have a lot of educational materials, specifically for 16 to 24 year olds to figure out how to see the warning signs and how to really encourage healthy relationships in your life and in your community.
Sabah Fatima [00:22:04] Thank you. Thank you to our guest, Leslie, and to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of “You Matter”. Please share, like, and subscribe to “You Matter” on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Stitcher or Spotify.