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When your abuser is a powerful politician | World News,The Indian Express

May 18, 11:08 / Mənbə: Indianexpress.com

When film producer and activist Tanya Selvaratnam decided to come forward with allegations of physical abuse against her ex-boyfriend, Eric Schneiderman, a former New York attorney general, she felt as if everything was stacked against her.

It was 2018, and at the time, Schneiderman was widely perceived as a feminist hero for going after Harvey Weinstein and advocating for domestic abuse victims. Who would believe that, at the end of the day, he would go home, get drunk and slap his girlfriend?

As the top law enforcement officer of New York state, he was also powerful. When they were dating, he would often remind her that if he wanted to, he could use his position to tap her phone and track her down. Several times, he told her that if they broke up, he would have to kill her.

“I explored filing an ethics complaint, a civil claim; I explored filing a police report,” she said in a recent interview with The New York Times. “But all those legal pathways lead to him.”

Selvaratnam went on the record with her story anyway. In March 2018, The New Yorker published her allegations alongside those of three other women who also claimed to have been abused by Schneiderman.

The day the article was scheduled to be published, Selvaratnam had packed up her apartment and moved into a friend’s place so that no one could find her. She even made plans to flee the country.

But just three hours after The New Yorker had published its investigation, Schneiderman resigned. And two weeks ago in late April, after an investigation into Schneiderman’s conduct by the Attorney Grievance Committee for the 1st Judicial Department in New York, a court suspended his law license for a year. In that court filing, he admitted to the allegations against him.

In her recently published memoir, “Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence,” Selvaratnam describes her relationship with Schneiderman in granular detail in an attempt to shine a light on the many different facets of intimate partner violence, which is one of the biggest threats American women face today.

Her book takes readers from the “fairy tale” phase of their relationship all the way through to a point when she was second-guessing herself. Selvaratnam recalls the ways in which Schneiderman emotionally abused her; he constantly criticized the way she looked and told her to get plastic surgery to cover up her scars from her cancer treatment. Because he was vegetarian, he disapproved of her eating meat in his presence. He would isolate her from her friends, not letting her talk on the phone with them or spend time with them, even on her birthday.

And she describes how, when they were having sex, he would slap her and call her his “slave” — all without her consent.

“As time went by, the slaps during sex got harder and the emotional and verbal abuse more frequent,” she writes.

Roughly 1 in 3 women in the U.S. has experienced physical violence, sexual violence or stalking by an intimate partner in her lifetime, according to a CDC report, published in 2017. That number is far higher for women of color, and it surged further during the pandemic. And because abuse within the context of a consensual, intimate relationship is often shrouded in secrecy and hidden behind closed doors, experts believe it is likely that there are far more instances that go unreported.

Selvaratnam sat down with In Her Words to discuss her relationship and the resources available for others in abusive settings. The conversation was hosted by Sakhi for South Asian Women, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting domestic violence survivors, and has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: Give us the broad arc of how your relationship with Eric Schneiderman unfolded.

A: We met in 2016 in Philadelphia at the Democratic National Convention. When we started speaking, it was quite a nerdy flirtation — we discussed how we had both studied at Harvard and had both studied Chinese. And then he asked if I knew who he was, and I didn’t. He asked where I live. I said, “New York,” and he said, “Then I’m your lawyer.” That was the fairy tale period, and it felt too good to be true.

But then the darkness started to seep in. The things that he had found appealing and intriguing about me in the early days suddenly became the opposite. Like my Sri Lankan-ness, my foreignness — suddenly, he would belittle me in ways that were flat-out racist, criticizing my hair, saying that it looked too “wild,” calling me his “slave.”

It was only when a friend — who sensed that things were not right with me — asked me, “Does he hit you?” that I knew I had to get out. And she connected me with a domestic violence expert who helped me understand that what I had gone through was classic domestic violence.

Q: You describe in the book some of the ways he psychologically controlled you — he told you to wear heels, he wanted your hair done up or blown straight, he controlled what you ate. In those moments, did you feel that what he was doing was wrong?

A: There were times when I recognized the harm that he was causing, and there were other times that I didn’t. Some of the ways in which he tried to control me seemed less harmful — asking me to dress a certain way, asking me to do my hair a certain way. He wanted me to look like “first lady material.” The other ways, like wanting me to get a boob job, wanting me to get my scars removed through plastic surgery — those seemed more harmful. But abusers are very skilled at customizing the abuse to their prey.

It’s hard to recognize it while you’re in it because — as one domestic violence expert described it to me — you need to be unbrainwashed. For me, the forms of verbal abuse were as stinging as the slaps. And it’s hard to get that type of abuse out of your head. It’s something that I struggle with to this day, though less and less. When somebody makes you feel so bad about yourself and makes you feel like you can’t move without committing a transgression, it’s a very hard conditioning to shake.

Abuse is not only physical, it’s also financial, verbal, legal, digital and emotional.

Q: Why did you decide to take your story to the media?

A: I wanted to do what was most strategic to achieving my goal, which was to warn other women about him. And also, I felt strongly that an abuser should not be the attorney general of New York state. I explored many legal pathways to achieving that result. I explored filing an ethics complaint, a civil claim; I explored filing a police report, but because my abuser was the top law enforcement officer in New York state, all those legal pathways lead to him. So ultimately, I decided on the court of public opinion.

Q: Were you nervous about your safety after breaking up with him and coming forward?

A: I was scared that he would come after me; he could deploy very high-level resources to come after me. And so my safety plan included drifting, getting out of the relationship as quietly as possible, and not letting him know what I was thinking. There was no anger, there was no argument, no conflict, I just started drifting. And my safety plan also included making sure that when I did get my things from his place, that I went with a friend, when I was sure he wasn’t going to be there, and that I got out as quickly as possible. There were many times over the few months after the relationship ended when he would reach out to me. He wanted to get together with me, he wanted to talk to me, and he would grow increasingly agitated if I didn’t respond right away. That would trigger really debilitating shaking in me, but I was very grateful that I had a domestic violence expert I could reach out to and say, “How do I deal with this?”

Q: Were you surprised when he resigned?

A: I had no idea how the story was going to land. And I had prepared myself for multiple outcomes. I prepared myself for the story not to land well. I was supposed to be out of the country when the story landed, but then they accelerated its publication because there were leaks about the investigation. I had already moved out of my apartment and into a friend’s place so nobody knew where I was. I had also made a decision, before the story came out, not to do any follow-up press because I thought, let the story speak for itself. But I was shocked when he did resign. I felt my shoulders go down.

Q: And what’s going through your mind now that he has been disbarred for a year?

A: I am grateful to the investigators for having sent a strong message that egregious personal misconduct does impact one’s ability to fulfill their duties. How do I feel about the one-year suspension, which also includes monitored mental health counseling? That is not enough to root out his abusive behavior or anyone’s abusive behavior, but it is a step in the right direction. Also, the ruling was based on the facts of that particular investigation, which involved three victims. But since The New Yorker story came out, I heard from two more previous victims, and since my book has come out, I’ve heard from another two previous victims. For now, I’m just grateful that it’s done and I don’t have to think about it.

Q: In your book, you write that you witnessed your father abusing your mother when you were a child. Tell us more about that.

A: In my mother’s case, she endured domestic violence for decades. And I feel relatively — fortunate is not the right word, but, you know, I suffered it for about a year. I had a community of friends and colleagues who supported me in getting out of it and then in coming forward. My mother did not have that support network.

My mother’s story is my story, too — it’s so linked. I was a child who witnessed domestic violence and then found myself in the really shocking position of being a victim myself, which I never, ever thought would happen to me.

More people have to share their stories of experiencing violence, so that we take the shame and the stigma out of them. The outpouring of notes I’ve received from people — strangers and friends — who have also experienced intimate partner violence has been at times overwhelming but moving and very sad because this violence is so pervasive. But by sharing our stories, we can chip away at that conditioning that results in us being born into trauma and that trauma being passed down from generation to generation.

Q: You recently did another interview with The New Yorker, and you mentioned that we are in a second wave of the #MeToo movement. Could you elaborate on that?

A: There are three parts to this second wave. Part one is exposing intimate violence in committed relationships. Many of the #MeToo stories were about workplace harassment and sexual assault but exposing intimate violence in committed relationships is the next step. And we’ve seen that in the last few months, with FKA Twigs and Evan Rachel Wood. The violence that starts at home in these committed relationships often translates into violence committed by these perpetrators outside the home. Many of the mass shootings are committed by perpetrators of domestic violence.

Part two is calling out the enablers, because abusers don’t get away with abuse without enablers around them. And in my situation, there were so many powerful enablers, many of them were white feminists — they are very prominent, they are very public — but they were trying to discredit me behind the scenes, and they were trying to discredit the reporting of The New Yorker, which was airtight. But their power was wrapped up in Eric’s power. I don’t feel anger at them because their actions don’t surprise me. But I do feel like we need to expose them.

And part three is encouraging bystanders to be upstanders. Like, what can you do if you sense that your loved one is in an abusive relationship? It is everyone’s responsibility to stand up for the dignity and safety of everyone else, and not just watch. And if you’re a friend, reach out to your loved one who you might think is in an abusive relationship and be an upstander for them.

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