Why Love Can Turn Violent

Leslie Morgan Steiner would seem to have it all worked out. She has degrees from Ivy League schools, a long stint under her belt as a columnist for the Washington Post and a bestselling anthology, Mommy Wars, which took on the feminine work— life balance myth by embracing the fact that most women’s jobs and lives will never be perfect. But her successful present belies a haunting past: In her new memoir, Crazy Love, Steiner reveals how she fell in love with and married a man who beat her regularly and nearly killed her. TIME spoke to Steiner about why she decided to write about the most painful period in her life, what lessons she hopes readers can draw from her experience and why she thinks people should defend Chris Brown.

Why did you choose to reveal your secret now? Similar to Mommy Wars, this memoir allowed me to dig deeply into a very personal issue. It allowed me to answer a series of why’s and find out things for myself. Honestly, I really wanted to understand why I had been vulnerable to a man like my first husband and why I had ignored so many red flags. It’s an incredible thing to take something bad that happened to you and turn it into something good. Writing Crazy Lovewas that for me.

You mentioned that sharing this story is either one of the stupidest or bravest things you’ve ever done. Which is it? And why the vacillation? Well, Both. Stupid because of how vulnerable sharing this story makes me feel. Stupid because I worked so hard to put this behind me. Stupid because it is painful and upsetting to talk about this period in my life. Why bring such a dark period into my wonderful, happy present day life? And brave because it is hard and painful for anyone to talk honestly about a terrible relationship.

How does this memoir complement, if at all, a discussion on working mothers? It’s all about balance. And the hallmark of both Mommy Wars and Crazy Love is candor. You have to push yourself to be very honest. Even about things you don’t like about yourself. In a nutshell, the reason I wrote Mommy Wars is because I got so tired of women saying, “My life is so perfect. Everything is perfect” when no — it actually is not. Candor is so valuable. With domestic violence, candor is the total answer; it is a syndrome that is made worse by its bedrock — secrecy.

Many females insist that the buck would stop for them after their first brush with any type of abuse. How do you handle the consistent parade of questions on why you stayed? It’s nothing I can explain in a sentence. Instead of asking “Why did she stay,” the far more troubling question is “Why on earth would a man abuse the person who loves him the most?” What amazes me is that almost every person whom I talk to asks me a question that turns my stomach: “how does your ex-husband feel about your writing this book?” And I will tell you, if I had been raped twenty years ago by a stranger and decided that in order to heal, I had to write about it, no one would ask me why I had come forward. A lot of people told me to publish Crazy Love anonymously. If I did, I would be saying I am ashamed. Society promulgates the notion that victims should feel damaged. I tried to ignore the voice in my head telling me that I was.

For years, you wrote and edited for Seventeen magazine. How has your relationship to young women shaped this memoir? Being a teenage girl is one of the most profound times in a female’s life. And I think in some ways it is a more transformational time than male puberty. That’s why I love the Twilight series. It’s all about a girl discovering her immense power of a being a woman. I have always been fascinated by the issues that women grapple with. And I think it’s a very interesting time to be a woman, especially in this country. Our roles are changing so rapidly.

You spend a good portion of time talking about that transformational time in your life — your battles with anorexia and substance addictions. How much of your relationship with your ex-husband do you attribute to your teenage years? A lot, but I think the answer is more complicated. The easy, pop-psychology answer would be to chalk my abuse up to self-esteem issues. But because at an early age I had overcome anorexia and faced head-on a tendency toward addiction, I was overly confident. I had gone to Harvard, I had solved all these really big problems. I wasn’t out to solve world hunger, but I thought I could take on the problems in my own universe. I was blind to my own vulnerabilities — blind to the fact that I was human.

Much like the discourse surrounding The Mommy Wars there is a lot of finger pointing at women when it comes to domestic violence. What do you make of this seductive empathy for abusive men?The bottom line is simple. No one ever has the right to hit you. Nobody. What gets murky is that our culture is filled with the mythology that women are taught to nurture men, accommodate their weaknesses, and overlook their failures — that women are much more intuitive emotionally, so they should help men unearth their childhood traumas. I think a lot of that is why I get sucked into this savior fantasy. I thought it was my role as a woman to help my ex-husband. Women think they can take on anything and that we’re supposed to. We live in a patriarchical society that puts women in a lot of impossible situations.

It’s timely that Crazy Love is released right after Chris Brown and Rihanna’s relationship has seized the public’s attention. What can we learn from the torrent of headlines? It’s a strange blessing that this story has played out because there needs to be a spotlight shed on domestic violence. They’re giving the country a great education about what domestic violence is really like because neither of them fit many of the stereotypes people hold on domestic violence. I have a lot of sympathy for both Chris Brown and Rihanna and in some ways people are right to defend Chris Brown. He’s not a demon; he’s a troubled man who needs help, but Rihanna should not go back to him. She is the last person who can help him. The only thing you can do to help him is to leave. It is good that our country is so publicly engaged and trying in our own awkward and fumbly way to understand the craziness of it all.