A Public Official, My Private Trauma

The author, Tanya Selvaratnam. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times
The author, Tanya Selvaratnam. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

Early in our relationship, he told me that he could tap my phone and have me followed. I knew he had the power to do this. His power was a thread that ran throughout our relationship.

We met in July 2016 at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. I had been involved in the arts and social justice causes for more than 20 years, but producing election-related videos in 2016 was my first step into electoral politics. He approached me and was surprised I didn’t know who he was. I told him I lived in New York. He said, “Then I’m your lawyer”.

His name was Eric Schneiderman, and he was the New York State attorney general.

By August, we were spending weekends together. Soon after, we were living together. He didn’t want me out of his sight, and I was falling in love. I admired him, especially after the election, when he was celebrated as part of the opposition to the president.

One night, while we were making love, he slapped me on the face. It was as if he was testing me to see how far he could go. I could see his hand approach my cheek, tap, tap again, then slam. I was stunned. A man who had been praised for his advocacy for women and the vulnerable had just hit me.

Over time, the slaps got harder and were accompanied by demands. He would slap me until I agreed to a three-way (something I never did). He would slap me until I agreed to call him “master” or “daddy”. He called me his “property” and recounted fantasies of bringing me from somewhere far away to be his “brown slave”. He would hurl spit into my mouth and mash his lips against mine or put his hands around my throat so that it was hard for me to breathe. He sometimes looked as if he were possessed. I felt as though I had vertigo. I was scared. But when I said stop, when I jumped out of bed, he made me feel as if I wasn’t meeting his needs, that I was boring and not sexually liberated.

This wasn’t just cruel or weird sex — it was one element in a larger dynamic of power and control. He belittled my looks, the way I dressed, my hair. Six years ago, I had surgery to remove two tumors, leaving three scars that run down my torso, from above my heart to the top of my pelvic bone. He would tell me to see his plastic surgeon to get rid of the scars and to get work done on my breasts. He would tell me to get in shape. He planned to run for governor and maybe even president. He made me think that if I was going to join him on his political ride, I would have to change how I looked.

I tried for more than a year. I told myself I could compartmentalize the violence. So long as it happened only one day out of seven, I could dissociate myself from it. But I began to see myself through his eyes, to believe that his behavior was acceptable and that my consent was not important.

I longed for his affirmation and affection. When we had those moments, I was happy, dancing around the apartment as he played his favorite songs for me. But sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of him staggering around the apartment drunk. Other times, I was woken up by his hands squeezing me, when he would say things like “My bad, bad girl, Daddy’s going to rape you”.

His criticism and his efforts to control me escalated. On many occasions, he said he would have to kill me if we broke up. I found excuses to stay in my own apartment or go out of town. I opened up to a few trusted friends. One urged me to speak with a domestic violence expert, who confirmed what I, at some level, already knew: I was in an abusive relationship. Eric’s behavior mapped with a pattern: entrap, isolate, demean, control, abuse. The expert and I discussed possible avenues for protecting myself — an ethics complaint, a civil claim, going to the police. But my abuser was the top law enforcement officer in the state. I felt that he would be tipped off immediately and that he would crush me.

With the expert’s guidance, I distanced myself from him. “It seems like you’ve been avoiding me”, Eric told me. Without drama, we agreed by phone to break up.

Four days later, the Harvey Weinstein story broke in The New York Times. I felt a wave crash around me. The #MeToo reckoning had begun. On Oct. 10, when The New Yorker published its own Weinstein report, Eric emailed me: “I think we should talk. I want to continue to support your good work”. I don’t think the timing was a coincidence.

I kept my story to myself, but I wondered if he had done similar things to his previous girlfriends. He had told me that he used to date “shark women”, predators who wanted him for his stature, and that I was different. For a long time, I thought the abuse was specific to me. But reading the stories of powerful men engaging in a pattern of abuse, I began to think that maybe I had not been alone. A few weeks later, in conversation with a friend, I discovered that he had abused another woman years before me. I agonized about whether to speak out. If I wasn’t his first victim, I wouldn’t be his last.

I spoke with a lawyer. Even then, it took me months of deliberation to decide to come forward. At the time, I was reading “When Women Were Birds” by Terry Tempest Williams: “To withhold words is power. But to share our words with others, openly and honestly, is also power”. I began to feel I had to do something.

Eventually, I spoke with Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow at The New Yorker. I anticipated that I would be perceived as an opportunist or part of a conspiracy. I anticipated that I would be blamed for not leaving sooner. And I worried about my career: If people began to think of me as a victim, would they still hire me? Three of my close friends told me to keep quiet because Eric’s work was so important to the progressive cause. “We need him”, one said. (After the article came out, they supported me, but the earlier comments stung.)

I wondered if he would come after me. I deleted my social media accounts, removed my name from the buzzer list at my building and mailbox. I got a throwaway phone and made plans to leave the country for a few weeks.

Still, I continued to hear from him as the stories of other powerful men came to light. In February, the weekend after domestic violence allegations against Rob Porter, a White House official, became public, he wrote: “Sorry to bother you. But I need to speak with you about a sensitive matter. When is a good time to speak?” In April, when claims of sexual assault by Eric Greitens, the governor of Missouri, were made public, I got an email from him again, insisting that he had to talk to me.

In May, The New Yorker published its report on Eric Schneiderman, and his swift resignation shocked me. (In a statement provided to the Times by his lawyer, he denies assaulting, abusing or intimidating me.)

The months since then have not been easy. I’ve dealt with rebukes from friends, family and strangers telling me I should have shut up or that it was my fault. I have woken up in the middle of the night feeling fear, and I have lost some of my privacy. I felt the shame of going through the abuse, and then I felt the shame that comes from publicly exposing intimate details of my life.

I have been working hard to understand how I — someone who wrote a book about women’s health and produced films celebrating strong women — allowed myself to stay with a man who was physically abusive. As a child, I saw my father hit my mother, and I ran to stand between them. I remember my mother making up stories to explain away her bruises.

What I experienced as an adult felt different. It took me a while to understand that my own experience was also abuse, and that intimate violence is disturbingly common. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 10 million people are physically abused by a partner every year in the United States.

As I opened up to friends, they told me their own stories — independent and accomplished women who were also slapped and spat at without their consent during sex. One friend told me her ex-husband would push her hard against a wall in front of their children, and another spoke of a boyfriend who had broken her rib.

What I’ve realized is that I accepted the violence for many reasons. Like many abusers, Eric was loving before he became violent. He also had a peaceful side, meditating and surrounding himself with spiritual teachers. I thought that he could get better, and that I was going to help him. I even felt sorry for him. So many people were putting pressure on him to save the world, I would tell myself.

Ultimately, I take responsibility for staying, but doing so took a deep toll. I have a long bridge to cross before I can be in an intimate relationship again. I didn’t understand until after the relationship ended how physiological the impact is — the shaking and shuddering that happens suddenly, when I feel trapped, when I feel mocked. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress are a real and common reaction to abuse. Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I hear his voice in my head belittling me. Still, while I regret getting into the relationship, I don’t regret coming forward.

Over the last year, many powerful perpetrators have been exposed. But there are less obvious ones out there. They don’t look or act sleazy. They might even claim to be feminists. Behind them, there are usually enablers who benefit from being around their power.

But we’ve learned this past year that our words can chip away at violence, and can challenge the way society conditions us to accept it. Recently, I have been reading Naomi Alderman’s novel “The Power”, about a future society in which women discover hidden physical abilities, which includes this passage: “A dozen women turned into a hundred. A hundred turned into a thousand. The police retreated. The women shouted; some made placards. They understood their strength, all at once”.

We’ve learned that we are not alone. We understand our strength, all at once.

Tanya Selvaratnam, an artist, writer and producer, is the author of The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism and the Reality of the Biological Clock.

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