An Open Letter to Rihanna

Dear Rihanna,

As I write this, the tabloids and TV news channels are obsessing about your relationship with Chris Brown. They want to know why you two reconciled, how many attacks you may have hidden before the one that made headlines in February, and what you’ll do if he’s tried and goes to jail. Reporters go on and on about battered women and their maddening tendency to forgive the men who hurt them, not realizing their words blame the victim. I know how that must feel. They could be talking about me.

When I was in my early twenties, I fell in love with a “perfect on paper” guy (Ivy League degree, big Wall Street job) who beat me and degraded me in ways I never could have imagined. I did not leave him the first time. Or the second time. It wasn’t until four years after our wedding day that I finally staggered out of our marriage as unrecognizable to myself as you must have found your own bruised, swollen face to be. So I’m not going to tell you or anyone else to leave someone you love and expect that will solve all of your problems. I know from experience that leaving is easy. The tough part is figuring out how to pick up the pieces of yourself and make a new life.

I was 22 when I met my abusive lover. I’d just graduated from Harvard and had landed a great job at Seventeen magazine in New York. He was funny, self-deprecating and scrappy in a way I adored. One night he told me that he’d been abused as a child. I listened and I loved him, confident that I could be the one to help. A few of my friends tried to warn me off dating a man with a temper and a rocky past, but I didn’t listen. I thought I could handle it.

Then, on our island honeymoon, he attacked me twice while I was driving the rental car. I had gotten lost looking for a barn where we were supposed to ride horses; his reaction was to punch me so viciously that my head hit the side window. A few days later he threw the cold remains of a Big Mac at me while I drove on the highway. At first I excused each attack. He was stressed, I told myself. But eventually the abuse became routine. He pushed me down the stairs, poured coffee grounds on my head and once pulled the keys out of the ignition as I went careening down the highway at 55 miles per hour.

All the while, I kept his assaults a secret. It never occurred to me that someone outside our relationship would understand; I was sure they would blame me for provoking him or think I’d blurred the line between a heated argument and abuse. I did not know then that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 2 million women are injured by their husbands or boyfriends each year. Three of those women die every day.

It wasn’t until my ex-husband almost killed me that I realized we weren’t just an ordinary couple with some problems. Six months earlier I’d given him an ultimatum that if he hit me again, I’d leave. To celebrate such a long happy stretch—and our anniversary—we planned a trip to Paris. The night before we left, he attacked me. It was as if he’d been saving up six months’ worth of anger; his beating was that brutal. My denial broke; for the first time I was scared, terrified actually. Neighbors heard and intervened. The police came. And I left my marriage.

I made a list of all of the people I had to tell. At the top was my mother. I was so scared to disappoint her, but her response was to give me a gift: a gold ring in the shape of a butterfly. I couldn’t think of what I had to celebrate, but I got her point immediately: cocoon, butterfly, new life. I knew I was being transformed into something more beautiful in her eyes. And each time I went to the police station or to court to file another restraining order, my mother’s present reminded me that while I may have felt like damaged goods, I wasn’t.

I left my marriage broke and broken—physically, emotionally, financially and socially. It took me years to pay off our debts, to enter a room with an easy, confident smile, to fall in love again and trust that the man I loved would not raise a finger to me, ever. But I did. My message to any woman who’s been betrayed is this: You have another life waiting for you. You may be isolated, but you’re not alone. I hope to welcome you into a very exclusive girls’ club. One filled with wise, wise women whose experience with abusive love rests deep in the past.

Looking at my life now—my quiet, kind husband, our three kids, a satisfying career, a beautiful home—you’d never guess that I spent my twenties hiding cuts, bruises and a broken heart. At 22, before the beatings started, I thought I was merely lucky—lucky to have my degree, my job, my cute apartment, my boyfriend. But I don’t place my faith in luck anymore. Some of us take our lessons in love straight up. Everything I have now I earned with hard work and hard lessons, plus a stubborn faith that I deserved, despite everything, to live happily ever after. We all do.

With love and support,

Leslie Morgan Steiner

Author of the new book Crazy Love, a memoir of her abusive relationship