‘The most wonderful person I’d ever met’

Wendy Steiner writes about the strange case of Hedda Nussbaum and Joel Steinberg

  • Waverley Place by Susan Brownmiller
    Hamish Hamilton, 294 pp, £12.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 241 12804 8

Joel Steinberg, who maimed his lover Hedda Nussbaum and killed their illegally-adopted daughter Lisa, complained that Lisa was in the habit of staring at him. By the time his murder trial was over, he had been stared at by millions of people, for under a New York State experiment, television cameras were allowed into court to cover the People v. Steinberg.

Steinberg’s fear of staring – one of the ‘explanations’ offered in his defence – bears considering. His trial and the events surrounding it were provocations to the public gaze, punctuated as they were with visual images of immense power. The proliferation of these images indicates the desperation in our staring, our inability to come to grips with cases of this sort.

What sort of case was this? Child abuse? There are an estimated 100-130 child murders per year in New York State, each as cruel and depraved as Lisa Steinberg’s. Wife beating? Two thousand women each year die at the hands of husbands and lovers. Hedda Nussbaum was not damaged quite that much. The arresting aspect of this case was the seeming ordinariness of the Steinberg family. One cannot account for it with the distanced insight that deprivation begets violence, for this was a middle-class crime. Middle-class crime permits middle-class identification, and along with it the frisson of broken taboo and threatened class identity. This simultaneous recognition and denial are apparent in Susan Brownmiller’s comment that Steinberg was ‘a familiar type. I’ve gone out with men like this,’ whereas Nussbaum ‘looked like nothing human’.

How do we connect the good-looking Jewish lawyer from Greenwich Village with the inhuman wreckage he left of Hedda Nussbaum? Her face, with the nose squashed in, the lips split, the eyes unmatched, the hair a grey frizz with missing clumps, is the first unassimilable icon that this trial produced. Hedda’s battered face stared out from the cover of Newsweek, from the Metropolitan section of the New York Times, from every TV channel. New York, ‘so familiar with the flash of sensational trials’, the Times reported, ‘is transfixed by her beaten, defeated face’.

The facts did little to dispel the public’s bafflement. Hedda Nussbaum had been living with Joel Steinberg for 11 years at the time of their daughter’s death in November 1987. During those years she had risen to become, in her own words, the most successful editor in the children’s books division of Random House. She attributed her career advances to Steinberg’s coaching in self-assertiveness, but explained that she had lost her job because of him as well. He threw out manuscripts she brought home from the office. Her black eyes and broken bones could not have helped much at work, nor could the steady diet of cocaine Joel supplied, nor her tiredness when she was ‘punished’ by being forced to sleep on the floor or in the bath tub, nor the time missed through hospitalisation for a life-threatening ruptured spleen, the result of an especially bad episode of abuse. ‘I was extremely attached to him,’ Hedda explained. He was ‘the most wonderful person I’d ever met’.

At the time of Lisa’s death, Hedda’s nose had collapsed, her ribs were broken, she was anaemic and malnourished, and the gangrene in her leg would soon have killed her. The court saw a videotape of Hedda’s injuries made by police doctors – another of the appalling images in the case. The defence strenuously objected to the introduction of this evidence, claiming that the film would ‘inflame’ the jury against their client. The grainy video, like some hand-held piece of cinema vérité, was picked up in the TV coverage of the trial, becoming a video within a video. It was shown twice, along with still photos of the same injuries, and the jury’s reactions were filmed and reported in print. Perhaps these were the images seen by browsers at a TV shop window filmed for a documentary about the trial. The pictures bore deeper and deeper into the screen like Chinese boxes, all this ‘evidence’ explaining nothing but the blank meaninglessness of violence.

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