Thirty Years Later, Can We Finally Forgive Hedda Nussbaum?

She was pilloried when her daughter died from her partner’s abuse. I followed the trial because I needed to know what happened when you finally spoke up.

Hedda Nussbaum testifies in Joel Steinberg’s murder trial.
Hedda Nussbaum testifies in Joel Steinberg’s murder trial in Manhattan Criminal Court as the court stenographer looks on in New York City, Dec. 2, 1988. Charles Wenzelberg/AP

Recently, my husband uncovered from his parents’ basement his beloved childhood collection of Charlie Brown books, most notably Charlie Brown’s Super Book of Questions and Answers. The book, whose cover features Snoopy sitting atop his signature red house, was instantly recognizable; it had also been a favorite of mine. I touched the well-worn pages and remembered begging my babysitter to read it to me. I turned to the copyright page. 1976! And then my gaze froze. There, in fine print, the book’s art director, designer, and typographer were listed. Also listed was the book’s editor: Hedda Nussbaum.

I knew that name. Nussbaum shot to national infamy in 1987 when she was charged, along with her live-in partner, Joel Steinberg, in the murder of their illegally adopted daughter, Lisa, age 6. On a fall night in 1987, Lisa was found unconscious in her family’s Greenwich Village home, the result of a severe blow to the head. Her father, Steinberg, claimed he had been out most of the evening. Nussbaum, who was at home with the girl, did not initially seek medical treatment. When she finally did call 911, her daughter was rushed to the hospital; she was pronounced dead three days later. Nussbaum—whose instant vilification was, in some ways, more extreme than the public reaction to Steinberg—claimed she was innocent in the girl’s death, that she was not a perpetrator but herself a victim of Steinberg’s physical abuse and mind control.

Thirty years ago this week, on Oct. 25, 1988, the Steinberg trial commenced, captivating the public’s attention and fixing our eyes on Hedda, who had agreed to testify against Steinberg; in exchange, the charges against her were dropped. Public fascination with the New York City murder trial, the first ever to be televised, was intense. And while there is no doubt that Steinberg became a much-despised villain, the media’s collective attention focused unstintingly on Hedda. It was one thing for a madman to harm a child. Violence by men, one could convincingly argue, is to be expected. But for a mother to stand by while it happened? That is something else. “How could any mother,” asked the cover of People magazine, “no matter how battered, fail to help her dying child?”

People was not the only publication to take the easy route of vilifying Nussbaum. In a December 1988 Washington Post column, headlined “When Weakness Becomes an Alibi,” Richard Cohen led with the question, “Why was Hedda Nussbaum given a walk?” Cohen goes on to assert that “it cannot be said … that she was not complicitous.” For some portion of the public, time has not abated their hatred of Nussbaum: If you go to YouTube and search for “Hedda Nussbaum,” one of the first videos that comes up is a CNN special from 2005. The first comment, posted one year ago, reads, “She is a murderer … This horrible woman deserved to go to jail for the rest of her life.”

I was in junior high in those years, a cheerleader and student-council representative living in a nice house in a Chicago suburb—a life that from all appearances had nothing to do with the depravity of the Steinberg-Nussbaum case. And yet it riveted me. Hedda’s bruised and battered face was everywhere—in the papers and news programs, and plastered on magazine covers. I was only 12 or 13, but I couldn’t look away from her beaten-up, smashed-in face, her nose broken and craggy, her wiry gray hair protruding from a bandana kerchief.

Like everyone else, I held Hedda in contempt. How could she have been so passive? How could she have allowed things to get that bad? How could she not have protected her daughter? My mother had a subscription to People, after all, and I looked at every picture and read every word. I understood that Hedda was not like other people who were usually associated with such crimes. For one thing, she was Jewish, like us. For another, she was an editor. An editor at Random House in New York City. The words themselves seemed coated with fairy dust, a dream of someone I might like to be someday.

But there was another reason the case held my attention. And that was because I too was living terrified in the face of a man’s inexplicable rage. In this case, my father’s. I too sometimes had bruises and marks that had to be explained. I too needed protection and wondered why nobody cared.

Parading her before the press, blaming her for the death of her daughter, whispering that it was really she, not the man who inflicted the violence, who was at fault—in all these ways, we used Nussbaum as a convenient scapegoat, a repository for our worst nightmares. Farah Fawcett had played a battered woman in the TV-movie sensation The Burning Bed just a few years earlier, but when it came to the plight of a real-life battered woman, perhaps it is not surprising that the woman designated for public flogging was not a leggy blonde. Aside from being a woman and a Jew, Hedda had something else working against her. A victim of long-term abuse, she suffered from trauma that so fractured her experience and memories that she had difficulty presenting a coherent account of her role in the events surrounding Lisa’s death. In the eye of a public with little understanding of (and even less sympathy for) the traumatized, this made her even more suspect.

Even 16 years after Lisa’s death, in a 2003 interview on Larry King Live, it took only a few minutes until Nussbaum’s putative culpability came front and center. When King asked Nussbaum—as any well-intentioned person would—why she didn’t “just take Lisa one day and go,” she provided the well-trodden answer of so many abused women: She tried. Multiple times. And, like millions of abused women, she was convinced, over and over, by equally “well-intentioned” people, to go back. “I never saw him hit her, by the way,” she added.

King: What do you mean? You never …

Nussbaum: I didn’t see him hit her.

King: When did he hit her? When you weren’t there or …

Nussbaum: Yes. Yes.

King: You’d be in another room? I mean …

Nussbaum: I’d be in another room or I’d be out of the house. I didn’t see him hit her.

King: You’d come home and you’d see her. You knew she was hit, right?

Nussbaum: There were some times that I did realize what must have happened, but by that point, I was just—I was out of it already.   

How can a mother know and not know? How can she see and not see? Nussbaum’s explanation—“I was out of it already”—may strike some as callow, if not outright criminal. And yet, there can be no doubt that her statement was an accurate description of her state of mind at the time—and that her inability to protect her daughter was rooted in the effects of living through chronic trauma. When she tells King she was “out of it,” she is speaking about dissociation, the inability to connect to one’s emotional or somatic reality.

An international expert on psychological trauma, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk (who, as it happens, was recently fired from the treatment center he founded after allegations of bullying, allegations he’s denied), was among the doctors who provided expert testimony at the Steinberg trial, explaining how the brain, in the face of ongoing psychological and physical torture, excretes chemicals that effectively numb our ability to respond, rendering us frozen. In court, van der Kolk compared Nussbaum’s case to that of Patty Hearst, the heiress who famously—and to most observers, incomprehensibly—pledged allegiance to the violent terrorists who kidnapped her and held her captive.

“When people submit to overwhelming power, as is true for most abused children, women trapped in domestic violence, and incarcerated men and women, they often survive with resigned compliance,” van der Kolk writes in his seminal work The Body Keeps the Score. When we are exposed to relentless psychological or physical violence, in other words, dissociating ourselves from our bodies, from what we are experiencing, is often our only recourse. As van der Kolk writes, “Trauma makes people feel like some body else or like no body.”

The worst thing that happened during my childhood happened in June 1984. I was 9, and I’d landed the lead in the annual fourth-grade play, which would take place on the last day of school. A couple of days before the play, my father flew into a rage. Maybe my mother undercooked the chicken, or maybe he’d had a bad day at work. I don’t remember the genesis of his rage on that particular day, only the familiar pattern: racing to my room, trying to lock the door, my father breaking the door open, knocking me down.

When it came time to change into my costume, I insisted to my teacher that I needed complete privacy since I was very modest. In truth, I couldn’t bear for her to see the purple-blue bruises all over my arms, and I had no good answer to give if I was asked where they came from. I can still remember the grim car ride home after the play, staring down at my sandals, unable to stop the tears rolling down my cheeks.

Why didn’t my mother leave him? That is something I couldn’t understand—not as a child, and not as the young woman I was becoming. My father must have understood the significance of my getting older because the physical violence—for a time—became less frequent, though it never disappeared completely.

By the time the Steinberg trial began in 1988, I was just starting my freshman year of high school. It wasn’t like it was always bad. My family’s Midwestern suburban split-level was nothing like the drug- and filth-infested squalor of the apartment Nussbaum and Steinberg shared. There was no shortage of birthday parties, sleepovers, family movie nights watching The Wizard of Oz, Passover Seders when my parents let us stay up past midnight. It wasn’t all bad. But it also wasn’t all good.

Sara Sherbill
The author in 1988. Sara Sherbill

The Steinberg trial dragged on for three months. I wished I wasn’t thinking about Hedda. I wanted to think about a boy named Adam and whether he would ask me to go with him to my school’s winter revue. The live trial footage was broadcast while I was at school, but I caught snippets of it on the nightly news, on the car radio, in the newspaper. The specter of a Jewish father killing his child was too close, too relevant to look away from.

I didn’t really understand all the issues surrounding the case—the difference between first-degree and second-degree, what separated homicide from manslaughter. And, anyway, how could you call it manslaughter when the victim was a 6-year-old girl? But I did understand how much this case mattered. I understood that how the jury saw Hedda would mean something important for what happened to women who went up against their abusers. For some people, following the case provided a voyeuristic thrill—a glimpse into the dark underbelly of one family’s life. But for me, there was nothing voyeuristic about it—I needed to know what would happen if you stopped being quiet, if you started saying out loud what’s been happening to you.

On Jan. 15, 1989, after more than a week of deliberation, the jury finally handed down its verdict. Steinberg was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 25 years in prison. I regarded the sentencing with a sense of rightness. See, the verdict seemed to suggest, the world isn’t such an inhumane place, after all. Sometimes justice is done.

Three years later, on a cold winter night in 1992, I awoke to the sound of my mother screaming. In the kitchen, I found her crouched in a corner while my father threw chairs at her head. Without thinking, I grabbed the car keys and drove to the police station. The police accompanied me home. By the time we arrived, my father had disappeared and my mother declined to press charges. When they asked if she planned to leave him, however, she said yes.

In 2004, Joel Steinberg was released from prison after serving two-thirds of his 25-year sentence. Remarkably, he showed little remorse. In an interview with New York magazine soon after his release, Steinberg told a reporter, “Of course I’m sorry my daughter’s dead. But the medical reports showed no ‘present’ or ‘historical’ fractures or wounds. That means no history of abuse. Got it?” Instead, he preferred to spend the interview bemoaning the abuse he received at the hands of the press. When the reporter pushed him—“Well, what happened that night, Joel?”—Steinberg erupted: “How do I know what happened? I wasn’t even there! Are you taking notes? … Have you read up on this?”

Nussbaum, meanwhile, in the years since Lisa’s death, has devoted herself to abuse victims’ advocacy, working for a number of years at a domestic violence shelter and helping to secure victims’ rights. Thirty years ago, many viewed her with suspicion, but as we have seen in the past year, the dynamics of power and abuse can shift in small but meaningful ways that transform how the abused, and the abusers, are viewed. As a social worker who specializes in counseling victims of domestic violence recently explained to me, there is increasing awareness of the necessity to move toward what those in the field call “trauma-informed care”—a way of relating to victims that acknowledges that “trauma is a normal response to an abnormal situation.”

In our public culture, too, we are learning incrementally to take trauma into account as we seek to understand behavior that seems unfathomable to those who have never experienced abuse. Women who were shamed into silence for decades and made to believe they were at fault—because they didn’t “just go” or because they didn’t “fight back”—are beginning to be listened to differently by a society finally willing to make room for their stories.

I wanted to make room for Hedda’s. I wanted to talk to her and hear what she had to say about everything that happened. Was she angry? Was she sad? What did she think about #MeToo? But I was not able to talk to Hedda, because she’s made herself impossible to find. Upon Steinberg’s release from prison in 2004, she made herself disappear—changed her name and seemingly left the New York area, where she’d lived all her life. When I reached out to someone who I thought might know how to get in touch with her, I was told that Hedda did not wish to discuss her life, past or present, with anybody for any reason. She had, this individual explained to me, already shared so much of her life on the record.

Part of that record was the memoir Nussbaum self-published in 2005. Surviving Intimate Terrorism details Nussbaum’s life with Steinberg from their first meeting through the trial and its aftermath. Reading about the early years of their relationship in 1970s New York City offers a startling glimpse of happier times—singing together in the car on the way to a friends’ house, going for long romantic walks after dinners out, Joel encouraging her to ask for a long-overdue promotion at work.

Speaking of work, Nussbaum’s book could have used a good editor. In its current form, the book has an almost childlike tone, the writing littered with exclamation marks, ALL CAPS, and 1950s lingo. (Of the night she and Steinberg met, she writes, “Yes, I believed someday my Prince WOULD come. Could this man with the dark curly hair, thick mustache and fire eyes be the one?”) Nevertheless, her love for her vocation comes through. “I’m not exaggerating when I say I LOVED being a juvenile book editor,” Nussbaum writes. “Guiding authors, line editing their work, checking illustrations … It was not just work; it was fun.” I recognized her description all too well. And that is because when I grew up, I too got a job at Random House—guiding authors, line-editing their work, checking illustrations. Like Hedda, I also couldn’t quite believe my good fortune; working at Random House was a dream come true, another thing Hedda and I had in common.

Charlie Brown’s Super Book of Questions and Answers opens with these lines: “Do you ever ask questions? Of course! Everyone does. Questions are easy to ask. But sometimes the answers are hard to find.”

Nussbaum had no good answers to the questions facing her, and so many of us hated her for it. In her lethal passivity, I saw the antithesis of who I wanted to be. In every violent confrontation my father started, I fought back. I would not be a victim. I would not be Hedda.

It is hard to have empathy. Even Nussbaum, early in her book, describes her own judgment of a neighbor who was being beaten by her alcoholic husband. One night, the police come. The woman packs a bag and leaves—only to return the next day. Of this incident, Nussbaum writes, “I absolutely couldn’t understand her. I remember saying to myself, If my husband ever hit me, even once, I’d be out in a minute, never again to return.

My mother did not leave my father that night the police came to our house. She did not leave him the following night or on any nights that followed. She did begin the process of filing for divorce, but once my father’s family heard about it, they descended into our lives and coaxed my mother into staying. He’ll change, they promised. You’ll see. Everything will be OK. But things were not OK. For years, my father continued to push her against walls, twist her arms till they burned, wake her up in the middle of the night to spit at her face.

By the time she finally left, after 40 years, I had a family of my own. On long walks through our hilly neighborhood, taking turns pushing the baby carriage, I would ask my mother over and over why she didn’t leave sooner, and over and over she would try to explain it to me: She couldn’t do it. In her mind, it was all her fault. But maybe I was asking the wrong question. As the scholar and activist Alisa Del Tufo has noted, “The question really shouldn’t be, why didn’t Hedda leave Joel? The question should be, why did Joel batter her? And why did the system let it go on?”

Toward the end of her book, Hedda shares a letter she wrote to her daughter one year after the little girl’s death, one in a series of letters she wrote as part of her psychiatric treatment.

How can I say I’m sorry, Lisa? If only I could undo what is done, but I cannot. If only I could be at 14 West 10th Street with today’s mind and turn back time … then I would see, I would hear, I would speak; I would save you.