A Survival Story

By Leslie Morgan Steiner

I’m going to tell you a story of survival. And I’m going to ask you to put new ideas and images in your mind about what it means to love someone. And about what we are teaching the children in our lives about romance and relationships.

My survival story does not involve a plane crash or a shark attack or being kidnapped in South America, although those are all fascinating, revealing survival stories. Instead I found my life threatened by the last person on earth you would think to be a danger — my husband, a man I thought loved me, a man I actually knew loved me, a man I was sure was my soul mate here on earth.

Abusive love can ensnare anyone, man or woman. Abuse can be lethal — over 500 men kill their girlfriends, wives, or former partners in this country every year. Anyone can be a victim and anyone can be an abuser. Data show they come from every race, religion, income or education level, and that abuse occurs in every community, including privileged beach homes along the Atlantic Ocean. 

Behind closed doors, it’s always worse than you imagine. It’s also far more common: One in three women will be abused in their lifetimes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 15 million children are abused every year. That means that in your school, your neighborhood, your church or synagogue, shopping at Citarella, getting a coffee at Starbucks, or lying on the beach, you pass by victims and abusers, every single day.

As you think about my story, imagine this: How would you react in the same situation? If you found yourself, once it was too late, inside a psychological trap disguised as love? Would you choose yourself — or the person you thought you loved more than life itself? 

I met Conor on the New York City subway when I was 22. I’d just graduated from Harvard and had my first job as an editor at Seventeen magazine. At first, I thought Conor was perfect for me. Smart, handsome, funny, self-deprecating, loving. He told me I was the prettiest girl he’d ever dated, and he loved that I was smart and dedicated to helping teenage girls navigate adolescence. He told me I’d be a great writer one day. Even more poignantly, he said I’d be a great mother, which, trust me, the other 20-something men I was dating in Manhattan did not tell me. 

He’d had a hard life, overcoming terrible child abuse, but he’d managed to find his way to an Ivy League college and a job on Wall Street. We fell in love and made plans to get married. It all happened very quickly.

Then he choked me five days before our wedding. I thought it was jitters, cold feet, the kind of nerves people say all men experience when making a commitment. Then Conor began buying guns. He held them, loaded with hollow-point bullets, to my head at night during our fights. He threw food at me, pulled the key out of the car ignition as I drove down the highway, pushed me down the stairs of our house. I lied to everyone about what he did to me. If you had confronted me, I would have told you I wasn’t a battered wife. I was a strong, smart woman in love with a troubled man. This abuse lasted for four years, until one dark night when I faced that choice — me or the man I loved.

The only reason I am here today is that I chose me. Conor is gone from my life; it’s been over 25 years since I’ve seen him, and he lives in another country now. I’m still here. I remarried, had three children, and created a violence-free life. But I wouldn’t be here without the people who work at the South Fork’s domestic violence agency, the Retreat, and people like you, reading this article right now, who want to help victims of abuse break the cycle and rebuild our lives. 

Like the two police officers who came after the final sadistic beating, and who calmly told me they’d find me dead on my own living room floor if I gave Conor another chance. The locksmith who canceled his other appointments to change my locks. The Legal Aid advocate who helped me in family court. The savvy lawyer who convinced me to pay Conor a lump sum to get divorced, because then Conor would be convinced he’d beaten me forever. The therapist who told me none of this was my fault. My mother, who hated Conor when what I felt was far more complicated than hate. 

Thank you all, for helping me and so many others break the vicious cycle of abuse.

Leslie Morgan Steiner, the author of “Crazy Love,” a memoir, lives in Washington, D.C., and East Hampton. She will tell her story at All Against Abuse, the Retreat’s annual fund-raiser at the Muses in Southampton on June 9 from 6:30 to 11 p.m.