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Crazy Love, Crazy Choices

Why on earth do women stay in abusive relationships?

Earlier this spring, when pop singer Rihanna went back to the man who allegedly beat her, the blogs were full of objections to blaming the “victim.” It just makes women feel bad to say, “Why doesn’t she leave?” feminist commentator Amanda Marcotte wrote in her blog. Indeed, she continues, “every time we ask that, we are engaging in batterer assistance ourselves.” Shouldn’t we be focusing on the abusers? Well, not exactly. Old-style feminism would say “the personal is the political,” as long-time columnist Katha Pollitt put it in her own tale of personal sexual betrayal, Learning To Drive: And Other Life Stories. A social movement that passed political judgment on a subject as intimate as domestic violence may be tough on the victim, but, as Pollitt concluded, “at least it offered a perspective.” The alternative, she warned, is that “These days anything is feminist as long as you ‘choose’ it … no matter how dangerous or silly or servile or self-destructive it is.”

Leslie Morgan Steiner’s new memoir about her four-year relationship with an abuser, Crazy Love, is a textbook illustration of just how dangerous and destructive such a choice can be. Steiner describes in detail her relationship with her ex-husband, who choked her, punched her, held a gun to her head, knocked her down the concrete steps, and regularly slapped her around for four years. The somewhat fictionalized memoir (Steiner says she changed some identifying details and combined some characters) follows earlier essays in which she chronicled her anorexia and financial dependence. In this latest episode of bad choices, her future husband gave her clear warning. Once when they were having sex, long before they got engaged, he choked her until she almost passed out and informed her that he “owned” her before he came. Still, she made herself available for the hurting. Since the relationship ends when he walks out of their apartment after three years of marriage, we never know if she would have left on her own.

In the press kit for Crazy Love, Steiner says it’s easy to see why she married someone who choked her on a regular basis. She was, she says, “kind, insecure and desperate for intimacy. … It is not difficult to understand why anyone … could become trapped in an intimate manipulative relationship.” She also relentlessly reminds the reader that she is a WASP of impeccable ancestry and therefore an improbable abuse victim. “All my family is blond,” Steiner writes. “I do not look the part.” Her abuser was blond, too. It was the first thing she noticed about him. She also acknowledges that she should have picked up on the warnings he littered behind him.

Steiner is wrong: It is difficult to understand why she stayed in this awful relationship, given that she was not risking starvation and had no children with her abuser. Which is why, no matter how many times Steiner and Marcotte and the others tell them not to, people keep asking the question. And it’s terribly important to do exactly that. Asking why women participate in destructive relationships is a mark of respect. The amazing thing is that, four decades after the birth of feminism, we are still arguing about it.

And so after reading this book, I find myself rooting around for my old-style feminism, Birkenstocks and all. The current love affair with understanding stops feminists from calling victims on taking responsibility for their own well-being. For centuries, Western culture has assumed that, no matter how “kind” they are, given adequate information, people can be trusted to look after themselves. Democracy itself rests on that assumption. The closest Steiner comes to a recognition of this principle is, tellingly, when she’s addressing another victim of domestic violence. “No one can treat you like this if you don’t let them,” she tells a woman whose male companion raises his fists to her on the street. It’s four months after Steiner’s own husband has walked out, and she can finally give a stranger the message she seems never to have applied to herself.

Crazy Love made me think again about Learning To Drive and the debate when it was published in 2007 over how a smart and independent feminist like Katha Pollitt got involved in a hurtful, unfaithful relationship. Infidelity is not the same as four years of beatings, but Pollitt does describe her ex as a “liar, a cheat, a maniac, manipulator and psychopath.”

Like Steiner, Pollitt also has an old-fashioned explanation. In her case, it’s an antique version of romantic love. Like Madame Bovary, Pollitt read too many novels and gave her heart to an old-fashioned “bounder.” The first things she noticed about her future betrayer were his “panama hat” and his “romantically long and threadbare overcoat.” She writes, “All he had to do was introduce himself, and half an hour later I was on fire: I was like a flame in fog.” At the time, Pollitt uncharacteristically forgot how this would end in a novel; Madame Bovary ends up lying on the floor, clutching a vial of rat poison.

Unlike Steiner in Crazy Love, Pollitt uses her very powerful mind to address how she, and many others, let herself become the victim of her Lothario’s relentless womanizing. “All my adult life,” she writes, “I had wanted to rescue women—but I had also felt superior to the ones I tried to help. … I had not taken my own advice either. The truth was I was … just like them.”

Still, she never really answers the question: Why do women’s self-destructive fantasies drown out the warnings that years of old-style feminism have alerted us to? As Pollitt puts it, when will women’s psychology catch up with their material conditions? Must we assume that they are natural, inevitable victims?

I refuse to accept this bleak assessment, the soft bigotry of low feminism. Michelle Goldberg’s new book The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World, is about the struggle to bring sexual self-determination to women who really were powerless. It includes the story of 11-year-old Anne, who got wind of her impending genital circumcision and walked 25 miles through the Kenyan bush at night to reach a Girls Rescue Center. Anne was not a columnist, or a blonde. But she heard a rumor of liberation and followed that rumor into the woods.

Another lesson: Women should be able to look after one another. At one point, in her effort to figure out what to do, Steiner researches abuse. An expert on domestic violence tells her that no man he’d ever studied had stopped being violent. No one he worked with in the field would ever say “this one is done. He’ll never abuse anyone again.” Four months after her husband nearly killed her, Steiner saw him kissing the hair of his new girlfriend at a party. She silently turned away. Will we be reading the girlfriend’s memoir next?