Why Women Stay

In her harrowing memoir, Leslie Morgan Steiner chronicles her abusive marriage. She talks to Will Doig about why she feels sorry for Rihanna—and Chris Brown.

Leslie Morgan Steiner isn’t stupid, but she says that’s the first word that pops into people’s minds when they think about someone like her: a woman who, for years, stayed with a man who savagely abused her. Steiner met her ex-husband, “Conor,” on the New York City subway when she was in her early twenties with a promising journalism career just beginning to develop. Conor’s charms were intoxicating, so much so that when the beatings started, Steiner felt compelled to keep giving him more chances. After they were married—he punched her in the face as she drove them to their honeymoon—Conor convinced her to quit her job and move with him to Vermont, isolating her from friends, support networks, and the density of Manhattan, where neighbors might intervene. Even as life in their little New England house devolved into madness, Steiner couldn’t bring herself to leave the man who pushed her down the basement stairs, threw food in her face, held a loaded gun to her head, and beat her with increasing abandon. It was only when they moved again, to Chicago for business school, that she was able to finally leave him, following a terrifying beating during which Conor smashed their framed wedding photo over her head.

“I think Rihanna will leave him eventually, but I think there will probably be more violence before then.”

Steiner’s story is harrowing, hard to comprehend, and, she says, a fairly typical case study. In her new memoir, Crazy Love, she dissects those dark years with Conor, attempting to figure out why women like her stay with men like him. She spoke with The Daily Beast about what was going on in her head each time he hit her, domestic violence during recessions, Rihanna’s gun tattoo, and why she feels sorry for Chris Brown.

While I was reading your story, all I could think was, 'Why is nobody stopping this? Why don’t her friends drag her away from this guy? Kidnap her, if necessary?'

From a legal standpoint, it’s hard to physically restrain somebody. They would have had to commit me to a hospital or something. But nobody intervened in a formal way, the way you would with an alcoholic or a drug addict, and I think that’s a very good idea going forward.

For people who haven’t been in your situation, it’s hard to comprehend it. How do you explain to people why you stayed with your ex-husband for so long?

Well, I say that’s why I had to write a whole book about it. If I could explain it in just a sentence—if you could identify what was the weak link in my self-esteem or my psychological makeup—then this would be very easy. I think it was a whole lot of different factors, and one of the factors is that our society raises girls and women to think that in some ways we’re really strong emotionally, and we can take that kind of abuse, and it’s sort of our obligation to help men in that specific way.

It’s almost as if some of the tenets of feminism create this dilemma by saying that if you’re truly a strong woman, you shouldn’t run away from a man or admit that a man is too powerful for you.

I wouldn’t exactly blame feminism because I think our culture, long before feminism, put that burden on women—that even though we may not be stronger physically, there’s this idea that we’re stronger emotionally and that we have to be nurturers and help men. I had that really bad. It was a twisted kind of confidence. I think that’s one reason why I didn’t run away at the first red flag, because I thought, I can take this. I want to go into his personal hell with him and try to help him find his way out. I had no idea how incredibly serious it was.

One thing that surprised me was how premeditated the abuse was—his making you leave your job so you’d be financially dependent, and moving you to Vermont where you’d be isolated. I always thought of domestic abuse as more spontaneous and chaotic.

I thought the same thing as you did. It was incredibly eye-opening how predictable batterers are. And I’m not sure that’s the same as premeditated. I don’t think that night when he met me on the subway he said to himself, “Aha! Here’s somebody I can gradually destroy and move away from New York City and beat at will.” I think it was unconscious, but also predictable.

Looking back, is there a specific incident that you think of as your most frightening moment with Conor?

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In some ways, the most frightening thing is that I wasn’t frightened when I should have been. The time he held his loaded gun to my head, I trusted that he wouldn’t get quite mad enough to pull the trigger. But the time when I didn’t have any denial anymore was that final beating. I’ve never been that scared in my whole life.

And you think he could have pulled the trigger?

Oh, I think he would have. I’m sure if I had stayed he would have killed me.

Let’s talk about Rihanna and Chris Brown. Were you surprised she didn’t leave him?

No. Not at all. Nothing she has done has surprised me. I think this story is going to continue to unfold as a very typical domestic-violence scenario. I’m grateful to Chris Brown and Rihanna because I think they’re showing the country and the world what domestic violence is like. They’re very typical victims. And they’re both so appealing. I feel very sorry for Chris Brown. He was abused by his stepfather as a kid and he tried to face that but not quite enough, and it’s an ugly, confusing situation that’s hard for both of them. And I think she will leave him eventually, but I think there will probably be more violence before then.

No small number of people have been defending Brown. Does that surprise you?

It makes me sad for Rihanna. And I guess for myself. I said in the book, one reason my divorce lawyer said I couldn’t fight my ex-husband in court is that maybe he would come across as the more sympathetic victim. The way Rihanna is kind of tough and is doing things like getting that gun tattooed on her, it reminds me a little of myself—our country doesn’t tend to like women who are tough in the way Rihanna is acting tough.

Since the recession began, there have been reports that domestic violence is on the rise. What do you think about the connection between increased anxiety about the economy and more domestic violence?

I don’t think a recession causes domestic violence. It’s kind of like how calls to domestic-violence hotlines are high the night of the Super Bowl—the Super Bowl doesn’t turn men into abusers. But a man who is already a batterer, he is probably going to abuse his partner more often in a stressful situation. So I don’t think it’s the number of people who are going up, I think it’s the frequency.

Do you know where Conor is today?

This is a funny thing to explain, but for me, the relationship really died that last night. I still care about him and wish him well in a vague way, but I really never think about him as a human, living person. I don’t have any details about what his life is like or exactly where he is. I’m not curious about him at all, and I don’t care in the slightest bit whether he knows about the book or reads the book. I feel really strongly that it’s my story, not his.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles, authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Will Doig is the Features Editor at The Daily Beast. He has written for New York, The Advocate, Out, Black Book and Highlights for Children.