‘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.

A year before Hedda lost her job, Steinberg acquired Lisa through a medical friend who had access to unwanted babies. When Lisa later appeared at school with bumps and bruises, she had learned to blame them on other children, on rollerskating falls, on her infant brother, another illegal adoptee. A few teachers and neighbours filed complaints, a few friends made gingerly offers to help, a few officials went through ineffectual motions. The beatings escalated.

On 1 November 1987, Lisa, then six, went to ask her father whether he was taking her to dinner. Hedda reported hearing bangs, and then Joel came in with Lisa unconscious in his arms. ‘What happened?’ Hedda asked. ‘What does it matter what happened?’ he answered. Joel put Lisa down on the bathroom floor and went out to have dinner with a client. Hedda did nothing to help Lisa, apparently believing that Joel’s ‘powers’ would revive their daughter when he came home, and afraid to call a doctor lest Joel find her untrusting and disloyal. When Joel returned, he refused to help Lisa because he did not want the girl to wake up until he and Hedda were ‘relating’. They smoked some freebase to relate. When they looked in on Lisa in the morning, 11 hours after Joel hit her, she was not breathing. Hedda called an ambulance and Lisa was declared brain dead at the hospital, where she died three days later. Joel was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in the first degree.

During the trial, the prosecution introduced a home video of Lisa shot several months before her death. The movie shows her happily dancing at a family party, a small bruise visible on her cheek. BBC 1’s Inside Story ends its coverage of the case with this image of the little dancing girl, the jury foreman insisting on remembering Lisa this way, a beautiful child not here to dance again.

In the courtroom, eerily, Lisa’s image returned. Behind Acting Justice Harold Rothwax rose a huge painting of a woman in flowing, pinkish robes – a figure of Justice perhaps – with two girls, identically dressed, in motion on the stairs below her. One of them dances just over the judge’s elbow throughout the televised proceedings. She is a reminder of the ideals and values that the court protects, though the kitschness of the picture might lead us to doubt the realism and efficacy of legal remedy.

The painting of the dancing girl would not be part of the record without the television cameras, which transformed the courtroom – for better or worse – into a set. One imagines the Steinberg proceedings in competition with On Trial telecast daily at 4 p.m. and The People’s Court at 4.30. The trial went out in place of afternoon game shows and soap operas on the major networks. CBS reported that ratings soared during the 21 hours of Hedda Nussbaum’s testimony. It was ‘compelling human drama that touched on important issues, and we brought it live,’ said a CBS official. Despite ‘grossly explicit evidence’, the issues in the trial were no more shocking than in the soaps, ‘but they were real.’ A commentator filled in a break in the trial by pointing out how striking Hedda’s damaged appearance was, and what an effect it must be having on the jury. ‘A trial is very much a theatrical production,’ his colleague said knowingly.

Reality or theatre, the Steinberg courtroom held the promise of justice and reason, a controlled space opposed to the chaos of the corridor outside it. Whereas the courtroom contained only one TV camera, the corridor was jammed with equipment and reporters. There was a ‘circus-like’ atmosphere, a ‘media free-for-all’. Before the trial began, Judge Rothwax had imposed a gag order forbidding lawyers to discuss the case with the press, because ‘corridor press conferences outside the courtroom endangers, demeans and cheapens [sic] the judicial process.’ New York newspapers and TV stations immediately appealed the order on the grounds that it violated Fourth Amendment guarantees of a free press. The gag order was lifted a week later.

The defence lawyers took full advantage of the ‘alternate hearing’ in the corridor. Unlike the district attorneys who studiously passed through the corridor without comment, defence counsels Ira London and Adrian DiLuzio joked and postured before the cameras, showed off their expensive suits and coifs, and broadcast views of the case that were inadmissible in the courtroom. Most egregiously, London announced to the media that his client was sure to be convicted, because the judge had deprived him of a fair trial by admitting Hedda’s videotape and testimony of her beatings. ‘Several trial lawyers ... said they strongly believed that Mr London’s concession was primarily aimed at the jury,’ reported the New York Times, ‘even though its members have been repeatedly warned by the judge not to watch television or read newspaper reports of the trial.’ According to Ronald Sullivan, the Times reporter who covered the trial, London had ‘mastered the art of television interviews, allowing him to get his version of events on the local news, which the unsequestered jurors might watch even though the judge says they can’t’.

The defence lawyers’ light-hearted antics before the TV cameras were meant to suggest a similar charm and boyishness in Steinberg, as if by some magic displacement the successful, personable London could stand in for his disbarred, homicidal client. London told interviewers that this was his conscious strategy, for in the event of an acquittal it was important that the public be able to accept the court’s judgment, seeing his client as a person rather than a monster. This humanising by proxy was also directed at the jury, who heard nothing from the impassive figure of Joel Steinberg, but had access to his vocal representative both in court and after hours on TV.

Thus, the Steinberg trial was really two trials: a legal proceeding and a ‘propaganda war’. But because the jury was not sequestered and the court was invaded by TV, these trials coalesced. Press coverage, of course, is routine in trials, but the print medium and artists’ sketches are easily distinguished from the trial itself. When tired jurors surreptitiously watch TV news that includes video clips of the trial, clips from videos shown in the trial, and clips of lawyers’ comments made in interviews outside the courtroom, it is surely not easy for them to distinguish trial from coverage, to screen out impermissible evidence.

The defence certainly understood this ambiguity. Just before the jury were sent off to deliberate, DiLuzio asked that the jury be sequestered, and suggested that a failure to do so might invalidate the trial. Acting Justice Rothwax, barely controlling his fury, denied the motion. The judge and legal experts explained the utility of televised proceedings: the people have a right to know; whether they see good or bad lawyers and judges, they will still learn how the law serves them; and cases like the Steinberg trial provide insight into important social problems. If the jury obey instructions, the outcome will be unaffected by the media.

We might add that by forcing trials on the public consciousness, the legal establishment makes it harder for the public to duck responsibility for the law. But still, the kind of knowledge that comes out of such media events is problematic. The images stay with us: the involuntary shift of Steinberg’s eye when the jury announced their verdict of manslaughter in the first degree; the face of London plastered over the papers as people asked whether this might be the case that sent his career over the top; and the distasteful comic-book antics of lawyer DiLuzio trying to depict Hedda Nussbaum as her daughter’s killer. ‘Pow!’ he exclaimed. ‘Whomp!’ he said, as he pretended to hit a child. ‘Bam!’ he shouted. Like Shakespeare’s Jack Cade, we might retort, ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers.’ Are these images, or any of the pictures the trial leaves us gaping at, what we need to know?

And is it not disturbing to watch how the images keep displacing one another? The dancing Lisa of the video succumbs to the dancing maiden of civic kitsch. The shots of the tense ex-lawyer Steinberg give way to the feature photos of his irrepressible defender London. Even the battered mask of Hedda Nussbaum is now yielding to the power of another image: the calm, undamaged face of Susan Brownmiller, whose Waverley Place is the first of the seven-figure publishing ventures to emerge from the Steinberg killing. From advertisements, PR promotions, and the back of her dust-jacket, Brownmiller stares out at us, a middle-class New York sphinx possessed, no doubt, of some moral insight that the book will share. This is the final image in my series, but not because the sequence stops here.

A month before Steinberg was convicted, Glenn Collins reported in the New York Times that publishers had already spent over a million dollars in advances for books on the Steinberg and Beth Myerson cases. ‘So large is the number of authors and potential authors at the trial,’ Collins stated, ‘that they have created their own social circle.’ Stephen Rubin of Bantam books observed that ‘the media have become part of the story,’ and Collins explained the ‘self-feeding phenomenon’ of the Steinberg Book craze – how a reviewer of Brownmiller’s book herself received two book-offers to write about the case.

There is no shock-value remaining in stories of media vampirism: Norman Mailer used it up with The Executioner’s Song. Neither is there much mileage left in the documentary/fiction form he realised so brilliantly, for Mailer’s book is a lesson in the limits of our ability to tell fiction from fact. Brownmiller, in contrast, warns us that it is a novel she has written, and that she knows the difference between fact and fiction. The distinction for her seems to lie in a few altered names and some invented dialogue, but the small divergences from the record have no discernible justification: Waverley Place is impoverished both as a factual and as an imaginative account. The focus of the novel is the mentality of the injured lover Judith. Her parents verbally abuse and devalue her as she grows up, discouraging her from going to college or having any career other than marriage. She tries out the singles’ scene in Manhattan, but has absorbed none of the feminism that usually accompanies it. At times, the book implies that Judith’s passivity can be traced to her unraised consciousness, an appallingly crude tautology. Judith is an incompetent substitute teacher, an incompetent writer, an incompetent judge of behaviour. After an early beating by Joel she muses: ‘He didn’t mean to bang my head against the wall ... This is a man who cares so deeply, who feels so much pain.’

Though there is little to applaud in Judith, the novel engages in surprisingly little overt criticism of her. Brownmiller excludes the incriminating events of the evening of the killing: Hedda’s failure to call for help when Joel went out for dinner and to insist on help when he returned. It is Hedda’s part in shaping her destructive life that is at issue, not the immediate problem of who caused Lisa’s death.

In focusing on the Hedda figure, Brownmiller replicates the shift in public interest from the issue of child abuse to that of Hedda’s responsibility. The DA’s office refused to prosecute Hedda because ‘our investigation revealed that Miss Nussabaum was so physically and mentally incapacitated on the night of the murder that she was not criminally responsible for Lisa’s death.’ However, the decision also strengthened the prosecution’s case by allowing Hedda to testify against Joel – which has led many people to question its reliability. The jury reportedly split evenly as to whether Joel or Hedda was the real culprit, with middle-class jurors holding Joel responsible and working-class jurors blaming Hedda. Three jurors began deliberations convinced that Hedda had actually perpetrated the murder. The public was equally divided. Gloria Steinem summarised the spread of opinion among American women: ‘Either you allow yourself to realise that it could have been you, or you’re so invested in making sure it couldn’t have been you that you reject the victim.’ Experts in battered women talk about brainwashing techniques and the desperate difficulty women have extricating themselves from violent relationships, whereas Brownmiller takes a very hard line in interviews, claiming that Hedda brought her troubles on herself, that she might have felt it was worthwhile to gain a man by submitting to his violence, and was thereby directly responsible for her child’s death. ‘The feminist movement says: “If you are equal, then you must take equal responsibility.” ’ All the information thrown up by the trial and the media has done nothing to resolve this debate.

Hedda, one expert said, ‘crossed the line, and we all know that we have the capacity to cross that line, too.’ The image of stepping over the line evokes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. With it, Hedda becomes a Kurtz-figure, a person who, with the best intentions, ends up inexplicably indulging her worst self, while we become the audience, Marlowe, drawn closer and closer to ‘the horror’ that Hedda represents. The Lisa Steinberg killing is another instance of our bafflement at transgression. The only novelty in the case is the mind-numbing repetition and substitution of visual images. Only the most grotesque commercial insensitivity could offer up Susan Brownmiller’s unperturbed image as an intelligible answer to the wreckage of Hedda Nussbaum’s face and body. The public’s right to know has been served, but after such knowledge, what understanding? There is only the delusion of remedy or the realism of forgetting.