When Hedda Nussbaum was a young, single woman living with a roommate in a New York City brownstone, she heard a ruckus outside her building one night and peered out the window to see a neighbor in her bathrobe, refusing to go back inside until the police arrived.

The woman's husband, known to be a heavy drinker, turned out to be abusive. "The next day," Nussbaum recalls, "I was absolutely shocked to find that she came back. I remember saying, 'If my husband ever hit me, even once, I'd be out that door and never come back.' And that's what everybody thinks, until it happens to you."

It is incongruous that Nussbaum would herself become the iconic face of domestic violence, a woman who—years after her notorious case—many still find hard to understand or absolve. In 1989 her long-term partner, Joel Steinberg, was convicted of manslaughter after beating their illegally adopted 6-year-old daughter into a coma; another illegally adopted toddler, found tethered to his crib, was returned to his birth mother. Prosecutors dropped the original murder charges against Nussbaum, her body a testament to years of severe abuse. Today, after spending a lot of time in therapy and working in the domestic violence field, Nussbaum has some clarity about the way Steinberg seized control of her.

It would be wonderful if Nussbaum was an anomaly, but her experience is all too common. "When a woman's assailant is an intimate partner or ex-partner, the injury rate is around 52 percent; and when the assailant is a stranger, the rate is about 20 percent, according to our research," says Ron Acierno, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. "So if someone's going to beat the crap out of you, odds are, you'll be better off if it's a stranger." These guys do not come with warning labels, but Nussbaum now thinks she can spot an abusive man, or at least a controlling man with a capacity for abuse.

Nussbaum's List of Red Flags:
  1. He pushes too far, too fast, planning your future together right away.
  2. He hates his mother and is nasty to her.
  3. He wants your undivided attention.
  4. He must always be in charge.
  5. He always has to win.
  6. He breaks promises all the time.
  7. He can't take criticism and always justifies his actions.
  8. He blames someone else for anything that goes wrong.
  9. He's jealous of your close friends, family members, and all other men.
  10. He always asks you where you went and whom you saw.
  11. He has extreme highs and lows that are unpredictable.
  12. He has a mean temper.
  13. He often says you don't know what you're talking about.
  14. He makes you feel like you're not good enough.
  15. He withdraws his love or approval as punishment.
  16. He pushes you to do things that make you feel uneasy, like taking the day off from work or even breaking the law.

From the August 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.


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