AN AMERICAN VIEW

An unnerving tale of domestic abuse

The grotesque case of Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum may seem to have been tailored for a TV mini-series

FRED BRUNING February 27 1989
AN AMERICAN VIEW

An unnerving tale of domestic abuse

The grotesque case of Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum may seem to have been tailored for a TV mini-series

FRED BRUNING February 27 1989

An unnerving tale of domestic abuse

AN AMERICAN VIEW

The grotesque case of Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum may seem to have been tailored for a TV mini-series

FRED BRUNING

Side by side on the page of a New York City newspaper, the pictures amounted to a cruel parody of before-and-after photography. On the left was a snapshot of a young woman in a print blouse. She was pretty, with dark hair and a pleasant smile. The woman was holding a baby on her lap. “Hedda Nussbaum and Lisa Steinberg in a 1981 photo,” said the caption.

To the right appeared a larger picture, this one with the stark quality of those taken by police photographers. Here, the viewer saw the head and bared left shoulder of an individual who might have been male or female. The person’s hair was swept back, perhaps to make certain the face was not obstructed. It was an extraordinary face, to be sure, broad and misshapen, looking not so much swollen as inflated by a bicycle pump. The lips were thick. There were bruises under both eyes and another near the left side of the mouth. The nose was flat and cut on the bridge. Six years had passed between photographs. The person in the second picture also was Hedda Nussbaum. And Lisa Steinberg? Lisa Steinberg was dead.

The case of Nussbaum, a former editor of children’s books, and her lover, Joel Steinberg, commanded headlines for months. They had become the “parents” of Lisa in 1981, when an unwed mother hired Steinberg, then an attorney, to place the youngster with an adoptive family. Steinberg ignored the mother’s wishes and kept the child himself.

On Nov. 1,1987, Steinberg, who often beat Nussbaum, turned on Lisa and knocked the child into a comatose state. Steinberg went to dinner, leaving Nussbaum with the injured girl. As she was to testify later, Nussbaum believed Steinberg had “healing” powers and so, at first, did nothing to help the youngster sprawled motionless on the bathroom floor. When Steinberg returned to the couple’s Greenwich Village apartment, the attorney and the book editor free-based cocaine. Not

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York

until the next morning did Nussbaum summon help. Three days later, the child died. Nussbaum was hospitalized for a psychiatric evaluation. Steinberg was arrested and charged with Lisa’s death. A month into 1989, Joel Steinberg, 47, was found guilty of manslaughter in the first degree.

In court, Nussbaum proved a spellbinding witness. She had been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony and, despite attempts by Steinberg’s lawyers to blame her for Lisa’s death, Nussbaum prevailed, if the word reasonably can be applied in such circumstances. Even if she had not revealed the nature of her bizarre relationship with a man to whom she once attributed “godlike” qualities, Hedda Nussbaum would have been a stunning presence. After months of convalescence and treatment, she still looked the archetype of the battered woman. Her features were flattened, her lips permanently bloated, her eyes dim. About Nussbaum there seemed a weariness that would never retreat.

And yet Hedda Nussbaum is a disturbing figure, not only because of her suffering but because of her willingness to suffer. Whatever he did, Steinberg could be certain that Nussbaum would protect him, that she would over-

look his perverse and evil instincts, that she would shield him from inquiry at all costs, that she would take his blows again and again and never hold him accountable.

It is a familiar story in the United States, where domestic abuse has become a scourge. Experts say that at least 1.8 million women and two million children are mistreated each year and that violence occurs in 25 per cent of American marriages. As is well known, battered women often are reluctant to call the police. They fear, with good reason, that authorities will not be able to intervene adequately and that the man who hurt them in the first place will become even more dangerous, perhaps even homicidal.

During the recent holiday season, three women on Long Island, N.Y., were killed within a nine-day period by husbands who, in turn, killed themselves. And still, one learns of a woman in the community whose abusive husband turned to her after the succession of deaths and said, “Watch out, you could be next.” Frightened and humiliated, the woman remains. She does not, however, consider her husband a god, but a bully. She does not stay with him out of fawning respect but because she has little money and few alternatives. About her husband’s intent and character she is entirely realistic. The woman believes herself to be stuck. When she rises each day, she hopes only for the best.

Nussbaum is another matter. Some have viewed her as courageous for testifying against Steinberg, but, if that is true, Nussbaum’s courage came too late. The time for valor was years before—in 1978, when she began using cocaine; in 1981, when Steinberg brought home a child who belonged to someone else; on the night of Nov. 1, 1987, when Nussbaum allowed Lisa to lie comatose on the bathroom floor while Steinberg attended a business dinner. “Don’t worry, just let her sleep,” Steinberg said to Nussbaum that night. “I will get her up when I get back.” Asked on the witness stand why she honored Steinberg’s wishes, Nussbaum said, “I didn’t want to show disloyalty or distrust.”

In a telling New York Times essay, Susan Brownmiller, a feminist author who has written a novel based on the Steinberg-Nussbaum case, argues that Nussbaum, 46, should have been denied immunity and brought to trial for recklessly endangering the life of a child. Steinberg may have been a fiend, Brownmiller says, but Nussbaum became his accomplice. By acceding to her lover, Nussbaum snuffed something precious within herself, and, in the process, a little girl died.

With its grotesque elements, the case of Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum may seem to have been tailored for a TV mini-series, and, indeed, who can doubt that there will be such a production before very long? But, as the statistics indicate, Steinberg is hardly the only brutal fellow in America, and Hedda Nussbaum is surely not the first woman to follow a man to ruin. The issues here are those of responsibility and selfrespect, and apply to women as much as men. If we are smart, we will not look to the television for solutions but consult the mirror, instead.