What We Can Learn From the Rihanna-Brown Dispute

As Los Angeles police continue to investigate a reported domestic assault involving R&B singer Chris Brown and pop star Rihanna, the tabloid frenzy over the talented couple's relationship continues to build, with vocal fans taking sides and stoking rumors. Brown has issued a statement apologizing for "what transpired" and says he's seeking counseling. Meanwhile, Rihanna's father told People magazine this week that he hopes his daughter will someday speak out and "stand up for women all over the world."

Whatever the facts of the Brown case turn out to be, author Leslie Morgan Steiner says the coverage is a reminder that it's still not that easy for women to talk about domestic abuse and that this issue affects a far wider swath of the American public than most people think. She should know. Harvard-educated and a successful journalist, Steiner was assaulted more than 20 times before she finally told friends and got out of her abusive marriage. Eventually, she worked up the courage to research the issue and write about it in her soon-to-be released memoir, "Crazy Love" (St. Martin's). Steiner talked to NEWSWEEK's Patrice Wingert about the complex reasons women stay in violent relationships and why those who have been abused still struggle with feelings of shame and self-blame. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The media doesn't spotlight domestic violence very often, but these incidents are actually much more common than people think, aren't they?
Leslie Morgan Steiner: Much, much more common. It affects millions of people. What's different [about the Brown arrest and the reported domestic assault] is that it's playing out so publicly. Going through it privately is hard enough. But since denial is the most dangerous thing about domestic abuse, the fact that this happened in a public way will make it very hard for her to go back into that relationship.

You were a confident, successful, woman in your mid-20s when this happened to you. Did you see yourself as vulnerable at all?
No, I didn't. A lot of people assume that I must have had really low self-esteem at the time, but it wasn't that. In some ways, I was too confident. I had just graduated from Harvard, which some people thought was a big deal, and I had a great job at Seventeen magazine and a New York apartment and I was meeting men everywhere. I was on top of the world. When I met my future husband, he told me about his very abusive childhood, and I never really doubted that I could help him. I was very naive in that way. I didn't realize what kind of psychological problems this kind of history could create. He was my first love, and I threw myself into loving him unconditionally.

Research tells us that children who are abused often grow up to be abusers. And yet, when someone we love has a history of abuse, we don't expect that rage to be turned on us.
Yes, you totally got it. It never occurred to me, all the times he shared his very painful stories about how he was abused as a kid, that he would hurt me. I never felt fear. I only felt sympathy. I didn't understand that cycles of violence are passed from generation to generation, and I'd never known anyone who was abused. I thought it only happened to poor women with children and without options.

It seems that many women, the first time they get hit by a boyfriend or husband, search for reasons to explain it away, maybe because they can't believe that the guy they love could possibly be an abuser. Does that sound right to you?
Yes, it does, and this is something people don't understand. Abuse almost never happens on the first date. It happens after you're really enmeshed in the relationship, trapped even. It's common for these incidents of violence to occur after certain milestones of relationships have been reached, moving in together, getting married, being pregnant, leaving your job to stay home with the kids. That's when violence escalates, and all that makes it easier to deny, too.

It seems like you also kept believing that your love could rescue him, and that after so many people had let him down, you didn't want to do that, too?
That's true. Our culture encourages women to be the nurturer. I felt strong because of my love for him, and he bought into that, too. He thought I was strong enough to help him. But I didn't notice, until his friend pointed it out to me, that I had reached the point where my voice shook whenever [my husband] came into the room. When I realized that, it pierced through all my denial, and I had to confront the fact that I was afraid of my husband.

Women who tell their friends everything will often keep abuse a secret. Why?
I think it's just really hard to do. Those closest to you often see some signs of it. They see the bruises, and they see evidence that he's a really angry person. With most people, I would work to hide it … I also think I knew that the minute I told people, the jig would be up. I would have to leave the relationship, and I was not ready to do that.

Do you encourage other women to be more public about their own experiences with domestic violence?
I do. I grapple a lot with the media's policy of not releasing the names of the victims in these cases. By shielding the victim, they're sending the message that she should be ashamed of this, or that now she's this damaged woman. I understand why we do it, but I think it would be better if people were more matter-of-fact and open about it.

Did you ever blame yourself for what was happening?
I didn't blame myself for him being abusive, and I never felt like I deserved to be hit. But I blame myself for staying. It would have been easier if I had told people the first time it happened. But I didn't. By waiting until it had happened 20 or 30 times, I was afraid everyone would think I was pathetic that I let this go on for so long.

What lessons do you hope that other women will learn by reading your story?
I hope so much that other women won't ignore the red flags like I did. When he choked me during sex, I ignored it. His early possessiveness, I ignored it. I didn't realize that things would get much worse. Secondly, love can't fix a violent person. The only thing you can do is leave.

If I had read a book like this when I was in my 20s, I hope I would have realized much earlier how much danger I was in. I also hope women realize that being in a violent relationship is not their fault and they shouldn't be ashamed of getting help and recognizing it as domestic violence. Our society is amazing in the support we offer to domestic-violence victims. There is a national network of hotlines that extend all over the country and they're free, and there are lots of local domestic-abuse support groups. If you ask, there's abundant help. After I started telling people what had happened to me, no one ever said a single judgmental thing about my being in that relationship and staying.

When family and friends suspect something like this is going on, what should they do to help?
The first is to call a hotline. They will give you information and tell you what to do. Secondly, make yourself available to the victim, so she has someone to talk to about this. And thirdly, if the woman is not ready to leave, help her map out an escape plan in case she needs to leave in the middle of the night, so she knows in advance where she can go in the heat of the moment. Especially if she has children.