Image courtesy of Leslie Morgan Steiner
By Saara Ahmed
This post is part of our series for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, a global solidarity campaign that runs every year from November 25 – December 10. During this year’s campaign, we have launched a video series to accompany our Guide to Interviewing Survivors of Sexual and Gender-based Violence.
Author Leslie Morgan Steiner shared her personal story of survival after being in Crazy Love with her first husband who continuously beat her and threatened her life. In her book and a TED talk, which now has over a million views, she breaks stereotypes and explores a question victims hear often, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Read a full bio on Leslie and be sure to check out the TED talk:
Saara: I’d personally like to thank you for sharing your story. As an advocate that has worked on community-based interventions in the South Asian community, I know how much the question of ‘why a victim doesn’t just leave?’ can hurt and prevent any constructive discussion.
As a survivor who has told her story – what transpired for you to be ready to share your story? How did you know you were ready to share it in such a public way?
Leslie: I was physically abused throughout my first marriage, when I was in my early 20s, right after graduating from Harvard College. I never thought of myself as a battered wife. Instead, I thought I was a smart, strong, independent woman in love with a deeply troubled man who was trying to overcome abuse he had suffered as a child at the hands of his stepfather. Even when my husband pushed me down stairs, threw boiling water at me, and held a loaded gun to my head, I still thought I could help him.
After I finally was strong enough – and lucky enough – to end the relationship, I began to wonder how and why I had stayed for so long with a man clearly intent upon destroying me. It took about five years to be able to speak openly about being an abuse victim, and another 10 to write about it. This exploration led to my memoir, Crazy Love, and my TED talk on why victims stay with abusive partners – but it took a long time to get here!
Saara: What can interviewers do to support survivors who might be sharing their story for the first time?
Leslie: The most supportive, comforting response is simply to listen, and to treat the victim as the authority on what she has suffered.
Saara: Would you say that sharing your story has been empowering? What advice do you have for those considering sharing their stories for a public audience?
Leslie: So few people understand the complicated, psychologically devastating dynamics of domestic violence, and not enough people understand that DV is a crime, an often lethal crime. I speak out about relationship violence as a way of expressing my gratitude to everyone who stood by me and helped in those dark times, and I also speak out because so few victims can – they have children to protect, cultural or financial ties to their abuser, or are afraid of retaliation.
And of course, tragically, many cannot speak out because their abusers killed them. For me, it has been healing to speak out, because it makes me feel less alone as a victim. But this isn’t the right path for everyone. Honor yourself; sometimes being honest with yourself, and remaining silent in front of others, is just as therapeutic as speaking in front of 1,000 people.
Saara Ahmed is an intern with the gender-based violence campaign at WITNESS. She has worked on prevention advocacy and community-based approaches to gender-based violence in the US and East Africa.