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Assume Nothing: new book details alleged abuse by former New York attorney general

Edward Helmore
·6-min read

Amid warnings that domestic abuse has spiked alarmingly during the pandemic, an account published on Tuesday of a year-long relationship between a women’s right’s activist and successful producer Tanya Selvaratnam and the former New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman, could hardly be more timely.

Selvaratnam went public with accusations of intimate violence against her former boyfriend in the New Yorker in May 2018. Three other women who had been involved with Schneiderman also came forward with disturbing accounts of subjugation.

The attorney general, who had established a political platform as a civil rights advocate, including suing the convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein, stepped down.

The New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, called for a special prosecutor to look into the allegations against Schneiderman, but after a six-month criminal investigation prosecutors concluded that while the accusations of abuse were credible, there were legal hurdles to bringing charges. Schneiderman has denied the allegations.

In Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence, Selvaratnam describes “a fairytale that became a nightmare” and recounts the relationship in the context of Schneiderman’s “entrapment, isolation, control, demeaning, and abuse”. The account makes for disturbing reading in which alleged physical abuse was but one instrument of subjugation.

Selvaratnam alleges that Schneiderman would “slap me until I agreed to call him ‘Master’ or ‘Daddy’”. He recounted his fantasies of finding me somewhere far away to be his slave, his “brown girl”.

The abuse, she said, increased to the point that Schneiderman spat on her and choked her. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was dealing with the kind of abuse that can go on between people in committed relationships: intimate violence.

“But I had convinced myself that he would be my partner, maybe for life. If I wanted to keep him, I felt I had to let him dominate me.” Scared to come forward with her story, Selvaratnam writes that Schneiderman threatened to kill her if they broke up.

In an interview with the Guardian on Tuesday, Selvaratnam, who is also the author of The Big Lie, an examination of the work-family conflict many women face, said she “wrote her way out of the darkness” of that relationship.

She described intimate partner violence (IPV) in committed relationships as the next wave of the #MeToo movement. In recent weeks, Evan Rachel Wood and FKA twigs have come forward with their own accounts of abuse within past relationships, while Justin Timberlake issued an apology to Britney Spears for “missteps” that he said contributed to “a system that condones misogyny and racism”.

In coming forward, Selvaratnam hopes to “shift the perception of what a victim looks like”.

“Even fierce women – strong and independent – get abused. And there are so many people who can’t get out of abusive relationships because they don’t have the support and resources to do so. The pandemic has heightened the urgency of a domestic violence crisis because victims have been in lockdown with their abusers.”

On average, one in four women and one in nine men experience intimate partner violence. A recent New England Journal of Medicine paper, A Pandemic within a Pandemic, warned of a surge in this type of violence, though calls to helplines had dropped by more than 50%.

“Experts in the field knew that rates of IPV had not decreased, but rather that victims were unable to safely connect with services,” the report warned.

According to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine and the United Nations entity UN Women, incidents of domestic violence have increased by as much as 300% in Hubei, China; 25% in Argentina, 30% in Cyprus, 33% in Singapore and 50% in Brazil during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Selvaratnam said it was important in her account to excavate why she had stayed in the relationship with Schneiderman as long as she did. “I had to explore how I got into the relationship in the first place,” she said. In part, she said, she discovered echoes of her parents’ relationship.

“I wasn’t prepared for my past to intersect with an abuser, and I wasn’t prepared for the grooming, gaslighting and manipulation.”

In her case, Selvaratnam said, her abuser was shielded by “powerful allies including his ex-wife, meditators, feminists. He fooled a lot of people, not just me. And a lot of people encouraged me to be in the relationship.”

Schneiderman was at the time rumored to steering toward a run for New York governor had Hillary Clinton, as anticipated, won the 2016 presidential election and the current governor, Cuomo, had received a call to serve in the administration. Neither scenario transpired.

Still, Selvaratnam said she was aware of the dangers she faced exposing a powerful politician, and was prepared to do so without the support of other women who, it would turn out, had been in the same predicament.

In the book, Selvaratnam recounts that she and Schneiderman were introduced in July 2016 at the Democratic national convention in Philadelphia where they exchanged phone numbers. He began emailing her with articles about his battles with Exxon and Trump. “Good fantasy reading before bed …” he wrote. He sent a photo with himself and the spiritual teacher Ram Dass.

At a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the candidate complimented Schneiderman on the work he was doing. At a second, Harvey Weinstein approached with offers of raising money. Bill Clinton, too, was seated nearby.

Five years on, Selvaratnam has developed a different impression of the “fairytale” she was seduced by. “The cults of personality that form around rich people, powerful people, talented people who are abusers are damaging to those who are in the cult and damaging to society. There’s a whole ecosystem and power-structure that needs to be dismantled so abusers are no longer shielded.”

Selvaratnam said that while accumulation of power was not her motive, she was “swept up in the spotlight that was around Eric but that also made it difficult to come forward. There were many people who hoped he’d save us. He had a public-facing feminism and spirituality, but privately he abused me.

“No powerful person who is an abuser is indispensable,” she states plainly, “and we now have Letitia James as state attorney general. I’m proud of that. It feels right. So I know I did the right thing, and that gives me strength.”

  • Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence by Tanya Selvaratnam was published on Tuesday, 23 February by Henry Holt.