Tanya Selvaratnam sees the timing of her memoir’s publication as serendipitous.
“Assume Nothing: A Story Of Intimate Violence,” which comes out Tuesday, explores the intimate partner violence that the activist, filmmaker, actor and author experienced during her yearlong relationship with former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. In recent weeks, two other major stories of intimate partner violence have received national attention: FKA Twigs has spoken out about her abusive relationship with Shia LaBeouf, and Evan Rachel Wood has spoken out about the abuse she experienced at the hands of Marilyn Manson.
Selvaratnam believes these stories, as well as her own, speak to how the next wave of the Me Too movement, which kicked off with revelations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in 2017, will focus on “intimate violence in committed relationships.” Her memoir explores the ways in which she became entrapped in her abusive relationship, and the steps she ultimately took to extricate herself and share her story publicly.
Part of her story will be familiar to those who followed The New Yorker’s reporting in 2018. Selvaratnam met Schneiderman during the Democratic National Convention in 2016, and it felt like “kismet,” she had said. Soon, the fairy-tale romance turned darker and led to racist verbal abuse, constant belittling, isolation and physical violence.
“Over the course of about a year, I had been broken down by the slapping, spitting and choking that he had inflicted on me during sex, never with my consent, and by his gaslighting, which had destroyed my self-esteem,” Selvaratnam writes.
Other things are new. In the book, Selvaratnam reveals that she connected with two other alleged victims of Schneiderman’s while she was working on her memoir — including one woman who told Selvaratnam that she had been involved with Schneiderman and abused by him after The New Yorker piece dropped. This ignited her first bout of true “rage” toward Schneiderman, she wrote.
Selvaratnam wants her story to help others avoid similar experiences, telling HuffPost that she feels immensely lucky that she had a support network that allowed her to come forward as safely as possible and continue to work and thrive after doing so. She was also able to get some small sense of justice — her abuser resigned within three hours of The New Yorker story going live, and was ultimately replaced by a Black woman.
“Some people were discouraging me from coming forward because they saw Eric as doing important work,” she said. “But I knew that there would be a better person who is not an abuser to replace him. And, in fact, we got our first female and Black attorney general, Letitia James. That was not an intended outcome, but it’s one that made me happy.”
“Assume Nothing” is, of course, about Selvaratnam, but it’s also about the ways in which intimate partner violence is a “national emergency” that affects millions of people every year.
“A victim looks like all of us,” Selvaratnam writes in the introduction. “The cycle of violence that permeates every aspect of our lives is an existential and, in many cases, mortal threat to our shared humanity.”
HuffPost spoke with Selvaratnam about the next iterations of the Me Too movement, collective healing and why she saw her choice to publicly tell her story as something that was, ultimately, “inevitable.”
Why did you decide that this was the book you needed to write?
I was inspired to write the book when so many people reached out, sharing their own stories of intimate partner violence and wondering, why aren’t we talking about these experiences with each other? Why is there so much stigma and shame around intimate violence in committed relationships? Writing it was a way of helping me understand the stages that I went through to get entangled in an abusive relationship. And I wanted to provide [readers] with resources to spot, stop and prevent intimate partner violence.
What was it like to revisit this abusive relationship and sort of excavate your pain during the writing process?
“Excavated” is exactly the right word. I was excavating not only my memories of abuse as an adult by Eric Schneiderman, but I was also excavating my memories of childhood and witnessing horrific domestic violence. It was healing for me to explore more what my mother went through. I say in the book, I wrote my way out of the darkness.
The book is your story, but it also contains a lot of research about intimate partner violence. Was there anything that you learned throughout the process of researching for the book that surprised you or landed with you in a way maybe you didn’t expect it to?
Yes — 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men have experienced some form of sexual violence during their lifetime. And of that number, about 11 million women and 5 million men experienced such violence before they were 18 years old. That really saddened me. I have many dream readers, but [one group of people I hope read the book] are high school students, because we’re conditioned to normalize violence and abuse from the time we’re born. The other set of statistics that really disturbed me were about how intimate partner violence disproportionately, disproportionately impacts women of color and Indigenous women. Those statistics are devastating.
“Devastating” is the perfect word.
And the other thing [is] the economic cost. I think about VP [Kamala] Harris’ amazing opinion piece in The Washington Post about the exodus of women from the workforce and how it’s a national emergency that demands a national solution. Intertwined with that is the alarming rise of domestic violence during the pandemic, which is also a national emergency. [People] were in lockdown with their abusers and had fewer options to get away and to seek help. The psychological and physiological repercussions are enormous. Trauma sets in at a cellular level. And whether abuse lasts for a few minutes or many years, it creates scars that are markers of time before and after.
Is there anything that you feel like people who haven’t experienced this kind of trauma firsthand commonly misunderstand about the reality of being in an abusive relationship?
Well, I’ve been grateful for Evan Rachel Wood and FKA Twigs sharing their stories of intimate partner violence. I am stunned that these stories are coming out so soon to when my book is coming out. What resonated for me [about their stories] is that we were at different life stages when we were abused. We are separated by generation but united by trauma. And by coming forward, we shift the perception of what a victim looks like. Even fierce women get abused. A victim looks like all of us.
The other thing people don’t understand is that perpetrators are of all stripes. And one of the scarier parts about my coming forward is that my abuser was considered a progressive hero and a champion of the Me Too movement. Marilyn Manson and Shia LaBeouf, they were known as troubled people. They were known as misogynists. But Eric was the top law enforcement officer in the state of New York. He was leading the bulwark of Democratic attorneys general around the country against the former administration. And he was publicly a feminist.
Do you feel like your abuser’s feminist politics were a conscious or unconscious cover for his private abuses?
He, like so many abusers, is a bifurcated individual. So on the one hand, the abuser truly wants to espouse feminism. But on the other hand, their conditioning is such that their private behaviors are the opposite of feminist. There’s so many common threads between the tactics of abusers. I wasn’t prepared for when my path intersected with [Schneiderman’s]. I wasn’t prepared for the gaslighting, humiliation and manipulation. Evan Rachel Wood wasn’t prepared. FKA Twigs wasn’t prepared. The other victims of Eric Schneiderman weren’t prepared.
One of my hopes with the book is to prepare people. These are common threads. It starts out as a fairy tale. [Abusers] make you feel like they need you, and that you are their everything, but then the darkness starts to seep in. And at that point, they’ve broken you down so much that you get entangled. So the way I structured the book is the first half is walking the reader through the stages I went through: the fairy tale, entrapment, the isolation, the controlling behavior, the coercive control. And then the script gets flipped when I speak with a friend who knew I was going through a hard time, and then she asked me a question: “Does he hit you?” It was those four words because she’s like my sister and I wasn’t going to lie to her. I said yes. And it was like the scales fell off of my eyes.
So then the second half of the book is about my getting out of [the abusive relationship], and then having more agency over my body, over my story. I also feel like I’m my strongest self ever, just the power of knowing that I will never tolerate abuse again in any context.
Talk to me a little bit about your decision to come forward to The New Yorker. What was that process like?
When I first got out of the relationship, I had no intention of coming forward. I thought the abuse was specific to me. I was focused on my recovery. I threw myself into my work and reconnected with my friends. But then when I discovered that there had been a girlfriend almost a decade before me who had an eerily similar story, I knew that there must be others.
And what was overwhelming about my experience was that it was unfolding in real time with the beginning of the Me Too movement. I remember the day that Ronan Farrow’s [first] story about Harvey Weinstein came out in The New Yorker. Eric reached out to me, and this was less than two weeks after we parted ways, saying that he wanted to “continue to support my good work.” And then about a month later, when I found out about the previous girlfriend who had been abused, [I was] introduced to Robbie Kaplan. And this was before Robbie became the co-founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. So there was just like an incredible synchronicity of events, but I still wasn’t ready to come forward because I didn’t want to find myself caught up in the maelstrom of being so public. Once I put my story out there, I wouldn’t be able to take it back. And I worried about the impact it might have on my career and my reputation. Then when I sat down and I wrote out my experience, I realized that my coming forward was inevitable.
Why do you say “inevitable”?
Because Eric was so public and so vocal about being an ally of the Me Too movement. And because I knew if he had abused previous girlfriends, he would abuse future girlfriends. I wanted to prevent that from happening, but I didn’t know how I would go about it. And as I write in the book, I did explore various options: an ethics complaint, a civil claim, going to law enforcement. But what made my situation fraught was that my abuser was the top law enforcement officer in New York state. So I felt like I would be in danger. And because of the courageous Me Too reporting that was happening at that time, I felt that having a journalistic investigation take place would be my best option.
And that’s when I connected with [journalists] David Remnick and Jane Mayer. When I submitted to the process of journalism, I felt that I was in very good hands, but I also knew the story was then out of my hands and I wouldn’t be able to control how it unfolded and how it landed. There are so many perpetrators waiting to be outed. I know these stories because I know some of the victims live in mortal fear of these guys, but I felt strongly that by being strategic and having a community around me — the lawyers, journalists, my friends — I felt that I would ultimately be OK. And if I wasn’t going to be OK, then I was going to leave the country.
What was it like when the story finally dropped in May 2018?
It landed in the evening. I was at a dinner. I’d been given a heads-up by David Remnick earlier in the day that the story was going to run, but I didn’t know what time. And I made the decision to go out and proceed with my life as usual. During the dinner, I had my phone under the table and it was blowing up with messages and people calling, but nobody else was looking at their phones. So I was in a room for two hours with nobody knowing what was going on.
I ended up leaving early [with my friend Julia] and going to my friend Catherine’s place, where I was hiding out. And so Julia, Catherine and I were just sitting around a dining table. I didn’t read the story. It just felt good to have that sisterhood around me. And then when [Schneiderman] resigned within three hours of the story coming out, it was after that moment that I did read the piece.
Do you feel like you got some sense of peace or justice from coming forward?
I had been on a trajectory for many years of dealing with multiple miscarriages, infertility, cancer, divorce and then abuse. Writing the book helped me understand that trajectory and also helped me move beyond it so that now I can truly live my best life. And I hope that the book helps other people live their best lives, too. The book is a call to action to chip away at the patriarchy that normalizes violence. We have to make peace more exciting than violence.
How do you think we can start to do that?
It needs to start from the beginning with how we are conditioned to treat each other from the time we’re born: the way that parents bring up their children, the way that teachers educate their students, healthy manhood programs, girlhood empowerment programs. Then on a legislative level, there needs to be improved laws for addressing domestic violence. And there needs to be repercussions for abusers. And on the governmental level, there needs to be more funding to address domestic violence and provide organizations with the financial support that they desperately need. Each victim is unique and there are organizations that address the needs of specific communities.
You write in the book that if we hadn’t had Trump and specifically white women’s complicity in electing him, we might not have had this mass reckoning. And now we’re under the Biden administration, and there’s a lot of exhaustion, especially because of COVID-19. How do we continue to keep energy behind Me Too?
I was inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s powerful statement about her experience with sexual assault and the trauma that was triggered during the Capitol siege and her dismay about the congressman who told her to move on, which is a tactic of abusers so that they can abuse again. I feel that America is getting out of an abusive relationship. And I think on Jan. 20, the stage was set for healing to begin. When I woke up on Jan. 20, I turned on the television to watch inauguration coverage and I burst into tears and I also started shaking. And in speaking with friends, I realized I was not alone.
You know, my book is not a political statement. It is a book about intimate violence. But it’s important to acknowledge the trauma that was triggered for so many victims and survivors of abuse because of the harmful actions of the former administration on vulnerable communities, and because of the number of perpetrators that have risen to the top with impunity and without accountability.
Do you feel like we are entering the next wave of the Me Too movement?
Yes. I feel like we are at the cusp of the next wave of the Me Too movement. This next wave is about intimate violence in committed relationships, as you’ve seen with Evan Rachel Wood and FKA Twigs and with my story.
I think the wave after that should be about the enablers because abusers don’t get away with abuse without enablers around them. And, sadly, many of those enablers are women. The enabler’s power is intertwined with the abuser’s power or the abuser is their conduit to power. There were many powerful, supposedly feminist women who were trying to discredit me and The New Yorker story after it came out.
When we talk about consequences for abusers, the concept of restorative justice is often brought up. What would that look like?
I believe that restorative justice and law enforcement can work in tandem with each other. Domestic violence is the No. 1 reason for calls to 911. But calling law enforcement and getting entangled in the legal system can be a step that many victims don’t want to take, and it’s especially fraught for people of color. And the resources that are allocated toward domestic violence for law enforcement are tiny. I believe that what needs to happen is domestic violence training for law enforcement. And also law enforcement needs to incorporate restorative justice. We’re seeing that already with opioid addiction and arrests, where instead of taking an addict to jail, the addict is enrolled in a program to deal with addiction.
I believe that people are capable of redemption, but an abuser needs to acknowledge the harm that they have inflicted and they need to do the work to root out their abusive behavior. And most perpetrators don’t do either.
You say in the book that while you were writing it, you heard from a couple women who had had abusive experiences with Eric. What was it like to connect with those women?
I was sad to hear about their experiences because no one should have memories like the ones we do, but hearing from them also was affirmation for me that I had done the right thing. And in one case, as she told me, she finally got the counseling that she had been needing for years after reading the story in The New Yorker.
One of the women you talk about in the book said she had been involved with Eric Schneiderman even after The New Yorker piece came out. Is that right?
Yes. And that’s stuff that’s going to shock people because none of this stuff has been in the public eye. And I hope that it gets him disbarred. When I received the email from the woman who had had an abusive encounter with Eric long after The New Yorker story came out, that was the first time that I felt rage at him.
Because my story was unfolding simultaneously with the Me Too movement beginning, I was in recovery mode and then I went into survival mode. And then I went into writing mode. I was literally working on the final chapter of the book when I heard from that woman. Because I had excavated so much pain through the writing of it, I was able to be open to feeling anger finally.
Toward the end of the book, you beautifully quote a poem by Muriel Rukeyser in which she writes, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Do you feel like your story has split the world open?
I think mine is one of many stories that can split the world open. And the last line of the book is, “Let’s split the world open together.”
So this is a collective project.
It is a collective project.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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