Tanya Selvaratnam hesitated before coming forward with allegations of abuse against former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in a 2018 New Yorker story. Schneiderman had built his career, in part, by advocating for women. He was one of Harvey Weinstein’s fiercest opponents and sued Weinstein’s company to get restitution for survivors. And unlike many of the prominent men felled by the #MeToo movement in late 2017, Schneiderman’s abuse of Selvaratnam hadn’t taken place in a work context but rather while they were in a relationship.
Selvaratnam did eventually tell Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer that Schneiderman hit her during sex without her permission and called her his “slave,” a sexual fantasy with disturbing racial overtones, and three other women accused him of sexual misconduct in the same article. (In a statement after the investigation was published, Schneiderman said, “In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity. I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in nonconsensual sex, which is a line I would not cross.”)
Now Selvarantham is expanding on her experiences in a book in the hope that others will be able to recognize the signs of grooming and abuse in intimate partnerships. She spoke to TIME about why it’s so hard to expose domestic violence, the psychology of the people who enable abusers and why we’re beginning to see another wave of #MeToo.
You write about having this impulse to understand and even sympathize with an abuser. Where do we draw that line between empathy and punishment?
On a personal level, when I talk about the empathy that I felt for Eric Schneiderman, abusers are very good at making you feel sorry for them, making you feel like they need you. It’s part of their manipulation, and you are made to feel like you are harming them if you leave them.
I feel that we have to chip away at conditioning from the time that we are born to normalize violence. I’ve been very grateful for FKA Twigs and Evan Rachel Wood speaking out, especially recently. They were in a different stage of life than I was. I am embarrassed that I was a fully grown, independent woman when it happened to me I wasn’t prepared for when my path intersected with an abuser. And my hope is that the book helps prepare others for when that might happen to them.
In the cases of Evan Rachel Wood and FKA Twigs, the men they accused of abuse—Marilyn Manson and Shia LaBeouf—had both demonstrated volatile and misogynist behavior before. In your case, Eric Schneiderman was an avowed feminist. You wrote, “His advocacy was a form of atonement but also deflection.” Do you think we, the public, react differently to when someone who has demonstrated violent behavior before is exposed versus someone who supports women in public but abuses them in private?
The common thread between these abusers is the cult of personality that forms around powerful people, around rich people, and how those cults of personality are damaging society. I wasn’t prepared for the grooming, gaslighting, and manipulation that I experienced at the hands of Eric Schneiderman, and part of what drew me to him was that he was a champion of women. He was worshiped as a progressive advocate, and also he was a meditator. I thought, “How amazing. A politician who also meditates.” And he surrounded himself with spiritual teachers who provided a shield for him. What my experience highlights is that perpetrators are of all stripes. They can be liberal, progressive heroes; they can be misogynist rock stars.
I was thinking a lot about the film Promising Young Woman when I was reading your book. I don’t know if you’ve seen it?
I’m hesitating to see it, because I know it will make me upset.
The reason I bring it up is because the movie makes a point, which I think every woman already knows, that the guys who pretend to be nice guys, feminists, nerdy guys, harmless guys, but are predators are in some ways even scarier than the outward-facing jerks.
What was overwhelming for me in fall of 2017, when the #MeToo movement took off, was that my story was unfolding in real time as I was watching these perpetrators being outed. And the fact that my abuser was the top law enforcement officer in New York State, and that he was an ally of the #MeToo movement made the cognitive dissonance even more disturbing. One of the scariest aspects was coming forward against a hero of the #MeToo movement.
[Because there were] supposed feminists that didn’t want their friends who they knew were abusers to be outed. It’s loyalty over conscience. The phenomenon is very clear: their power is entwined with the abuser’s power. There were many women who tried to discourage me from coming forward, and there were many women who tried to discredit the New Yorker story, and also me, personally, behind the scenes, when I did come forward. I know their names. I will not say them publicly, because I don’t want them coming after me.
So many of the men who have been accused of workplace harassment and assault, like Weinstein, hired prominent feminist lawyers.
Well, in the case of Shia LaBeouf both and Marilyn Manson, they had female enablers all around them. And I feel like we are on the cusp of another wave of MeToo, and this next wave will allow us to do a deeper dive into the abuse that happens in committed relationships. Because when I came forward, part of what made the situation different was that I was in a committed relationship with Eric Schneiderman. To have FKA Twigs and Evan Rachel come forward, and films like Promising Young Woman come out, I do feel like—I think it’s a necessary next wave, but I feel like this is the year.
When I talk about how there’s a civil war between feminists and patriarchs, and those on the side of the feminists are not only women, and those on the side of patriarchs are not only men, we all need to fight for a world that’s safer for women and men, and that make victims feel more supported to share their stories.
Do you think abusers are capable of reform? Are they capable of learning empathy?
Well, I believe in a combination of criminal justice and restorative justice. And restorative justice is crucial to chipping away at patriarchal violence. I do believe that abusers are capable of learning, but they have to put in the work. And I think requiring perpetrators to go through a restorative justice process and to go through an un-brainwashing that has resulted in them being abusive people is very important
I believe that perpetrators need to do two things; they need to acknowledge the harm that they have inflicted, and they need to experience repercussions. But in most cases, neither happens. It is quite remarkable that Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein went to jail. But that was after how many dozens of women had been harmed by them? And I think of my own situation, how many more might there have been if I hadn’t come forward?
You wrote about how you submitted yourself to journalistic investigation with the New Yorker story but didn’t feel you could trust the police process because your abuser was the attorney general. Since, we’ve had another national reckoning with trust in the police, and many women, particularly women of color, don’t feel they can trust that process.
We’ve seen how hard it is for the public and the media to elevate stories of Black and brown victims. When we say, “Believe women,” we need to say, “Believe Black women. Believe brown women.”
And this also reminds me of the racism in my situation because I was the only dark-skinned woman in my story; the other ones were white. And Eric Schneiderman customized his abuse with each victim, and I go into that in some of the book. He said he wanted me to get plastic surgery for the scars on my torso from cancer surgery and get a boob job. But he also referred to me as a slave, and that he was my master. It’s incredibly embarrassing for me to talk about it right now, because I feel so far away from that. But the fact that he pretended to be not only an ally of women, but also an ally of immigrants and marginalized communities, while treating his intimate partner like that—talk about cognitive dissonance.
You write that sharing your abuse with your mother was difficult because your father physically abused your mother. She was clearly triggered by your story, and at times she asked you not to share it publicly. That strained your relationship. How is your relationship with your mother now?
When I was a child, witnessing my mother experience horrific domestic violence, I wondered why she didn’t leave. And I stood up to my father — I stood in between them so he wouldn’t hit her; I called the divorce lawyer. But then as an adult when I experienced it myself, it gave me a window into what she went through and an understanding of the trauma that must have set in on a cellular level for her.
I also felt disheartened that she didn’t have a support network that I did after I experienced abuse. She stayed with my father for decades and she did not have people supporting her getting out of the relationship, whereas with the few friends that I opened up to about my situation, for the most part told me immediately to get out and get help. And I did get help.
But there’s the quote that A.M. Homes gave for the book: “Even those who outwardly seem so strong have ancient fractures points of entry, where we are susceptible to the debilitating darkness of others.” The fractures of my father fractured me, and it took my experiencing abuse to understand my mother. I hope that the book helps others have difficult conversations with their parents about abuse.
You write that writing the book took you to a dark place. Are you in a more optimistic place now?
I’m excited for our first Black Indian Vice-President in Kamala Harris. And she’s Tamil, like me, which is very exciting. This is a total digression, but it is actually all related. It’s going to take a lot to unravel the abusive dictators around the world. They won’t cede power. I didn’t watch the impeachment hearings because I knew what the outcome would be. And we saw that the majority of Republican senators voted for white supremacy and violent patriarchy. And it’s not that they don’t have a conscience; it’s that they have a selective conscience.
And that’s related to my book, how people have selective conscience when the abuser is one of their own, because for the abuser that they know to be outed means that they have to cede some of their own power, too. And that’s going to take a long time to unravel and unpack that. There’s a massive un-brainwashing that needs to happen.
An unexpected outcome was that New York State got its first female and Black attorney general in Letitia James. Many of the #MeToo stories, where they involve people in the echelons of power, it resulted in those abusers being dethroned. And then those that are dethroned get replaced by people who are not abusive, and in many situations, by women.