October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. As a nurse, I am required by law, under my nursing license, to report both child and elder abuse, but domestic violence? Not really on my radar. I used to view domestic violence as something that went out in the ’80’s, like big hair and heavy metal. Then I saw a woman getting knocked out in an elevator by her boyfriend, now husband, (Ray Rice), splashed all over the media, and there it was again; front page news, and we didn’t have to wait for October to be aware; domestic violence happens every month, in fact every day; in fact every 9 seconds (http://domesticviolencestatistics.org/domestic-violence-statistics/).
Over the last few years, every October I attend our local Domestic Violence shelter charity event for Hope’s Door; a safe haven for women in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. Violence does not discriminate, and it doesn’t take bribes. It infests all walks of life. There are survivors, some who make it out, and live to tell their tales. These are the woman whose stories I sit and listen to, and lament over, and they bring me back in time. Back to 1987 when another famous domestic violence case was splashed all over the headlines, and I’m reminded how very little has changed in all these years.
I was a junior in high school and grossly unaware of the atrocities happening to women and children on a daily basis. A very famous case of domestic abuse in New York City came to light that year about a six-year-old girl by the name of Lisa Steinberg who had been struck in the head and killed by her adopted father Joel Steinberg.
On November 1, 1987 in a classic 19th century Greenwich Village brownstone, formerly the home of Mark Twain, Lisa received a forceful blow to her head by the hands of Mr. Steinberg. She fell unconscious, and was placed face down on the bathroom floor and left there unattended for approximately 12 hours. Her adoptive mother, Hedda Nussbaum, also a victim of Joel Steinberg’s leaded hands, remained in the apartment with her dying child, incapable of calling for help, while Mr. Steinberg stepped out to dinner with friends that night.
On the early morning of November 2, 1987 little Lisa Steinberg stopped breathing as a result of her traumatic brain injury. At that point, Hedda Nussbaum was given permission by Mr. Steinberg to call 911, but it was too late for Lisa.
When police arrived on the scene, Lisa, unconscious, naked, filthy, and covered in multiple stages of bruising, was handed over to an officer by Mr. Steinberg. The soles of her feet were so encrusted in layers of black neglect; they required scraping to remove all the grime. Behind this limp and lifeless child, in an adjacent room, the police officers spotted an infant tethered to a playpen with a rope tied around his waist; he was filthy and saturated in urine. This was Lisa’s younger adopted brother Mitchell.
(Just a brief note, both children were “adopted” under shady circumstances as Joel Steinberg worked as an attorney in the criminal court system in NYC and did not go through the proper channels of adoption.)
Hedda Nussbaum was quickly vilified by her inability to call for help to save her dying child. She refused to make any decisions without the consent of her partner, and the public outcry was deafening.
Domestic Violence had made the front page.
But what the public would soon come to find out, was that Hedda Nussbaum was also a victim of domestic violence. On the same day Lisa was brought to the hospital, Hedda was also examined at Bellevue Hospital and found to have facial cuts and bruises around her eyes and nose, a split lip, several broken ribs, a fractured jaw, a broken nose, and life threatening leg ulcerations. She was extremely malnourished. According to her later testimony, it was discovered that Ms. Nussbaum and her children were not allowed to eat without permission from Mr. Steinberg. Ms. Nussbaum was an educated woman. Liked and admired by her peers, she was described as: kind, intelligent, and quiet. She was a former editor and writer of children’s’ books for Random House Publishing. How could a woman of this intelligence allow a man to control her into such a state of immobility?
Charges against Nussbaum were subsequently dropped due to the severe nature of her abuse. She received immediate physical and psychiatric help, and later testified against Joel Steinberg. In the first ever televised courtroom trial, the American public was given a front row seat into the minds of both victim and abuser.
The doors to domestic violence awareness and public conversation were now wide open. That same year the National toll-free hotline for victims of domestic violence was established.
Hedda Nussbaum went on to help other victims of Domestic Violence, and began giving lectures about abuse at colleges and shelters.
In 1986, on a shoe string budget, Hope’s Door, a haven for victims in Westchester County, New York opened its first 24-hour crisis line; with no shelter to house their victims, they provided local hotel rooms to shelter the wounded and provide a safe place to breath.
In 1989 Hope’s Door was able to open its own shelter and provide temporary housing to victims of domestic violence. No doubt this was made possible by the Lisa Steinberg/Hedda Nussbaum case which brought to life the notion that domestic violence does not discriminate: race, gender, age, or class. Rich women and children can be battered just as easily as the poor. Money can be rationed as effortlessly as food.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by the then unknown group al-Qaeda, American women were introduced to words like the Taliban, Burqua, and Sharia Law. We learned of the atrocities of our foreign, female, brethren forced to shroud their identities under a shapeless black cloak, kowtow to men, remain uneducated and subservient, and suffer an antiquated death by stoning for the crime of being raped. How did an entire nation of women become so submissive?
If you don’t know the story of Malala Yousafzai, a fourteen year old Pakistani girl, gunned down by the Taliban, you should! Her crime? “Promoting Secularism”, according to the Taliban. Malala became an activist in 2009 at the age of eleven, writing a journal for the BBC Urdu about living conditions from 2007-2009 under Taliban rule, a time when girls’ schools had been ordered shut. Malala has championed girl’s rights to an education and has spoken out against female oppression imposed by the extremist laws of the Taliban. Her conviction is so compelling at such a young age, it’s no wonder the Taliban fear her.
On October 9, 2012, while traveling home from school. two armed men boarded the van Malala was traveling home in, identified her, and fired their weapons three times. One bullet entered her skull, and landed precariously close to her spinal cord. Immediate surgical intervention was performed in Pakistan, then Malala was air lifted to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham England for further surgery and long-term recovery, and no doubt for her own security. She survived and went on to write a book about her experiences.
My father was a N.Y.C. policeman. He wasn’t the preachy type. But when he had something important to say, it usually came out in the form of one or two cogent sentences. When the subject of men and violence came up, he said to me, “Jean, if a man hits you once, he’ll hit you again. Don’t ever let a man hit you once.”
That line has stuck with me my entire life, and no man has ever hit me once.
To the women out there, “Don’t ever let a man hit you once!”
To all the people who make Hope’s Door possible, I want to thank you.
To all the people who man the National Toll free hotline for domestic abuse, and all hotlines across the country I want to thank you.
To Malala Yousafzai: Your indomitable courage is a beacon for all Muslim women that equality is a birthright that no man can steal, beat, or shoot out of you. I pray for you, and your continued work for girls’ rights.
Domestic Violence awareness is represented by the color purple. It is believed to have come from the early British and American Suffragettes, who wore purple ribbons, and carried purple banners while protesting for equal treatment under the law.
Purple is supposed to represent: courage, survival, and honor.
My nine-year old son asked me if the color purple was used to represent the color of the bruises on the women who were beaten.
To all the people who might be suffering verbal or physical violence in your home, please reach out and get the help you need. You are worth it!
National Toll-free Hotline for Domestic Violence: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
Hope’s Door Pleasantville, New York: 888-438-8700
Woman Against Violence Europe (WAVE): 01-5482720
Women’s Aid Federation England: Free 0808 2000 247
Muslim Women’s Help Line Glasgow, England: 0808 801 0301
International Crisis Line for U.S. Women Overseas: 1-866-USWOMEN
Domestic Violence International Resources online: www.vachss.com