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How she went public with abuse allegations against New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman
May 6th, 2019
Tanya Selvaratnam got the news around 7 p.m. on May 7, 2018, while at a dinner party. It came in the form of a text message from David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, saying: The story is up. Selvaratnam immediately turned to her friend Julia Chaplin. “I think I need to leave,” she said.
Selvaratnam — a 47-year-old author, film producer and actor — knew the story was coming, but she wasn’t sure exactly when. She’d been bracing herself for days. She’d taken her name off her mailbox, packed her things and left her large, stately apartment building on the Lower East Side, relocating temporarily to the loft of Catherine Gund, a friend and collaborator. She’d scrubbed her social media accounts, put an auto away message on her email and purchased a burner phone. She’d bought a ticket to London; getting out of the country, she figured, might be the best thing to do. All day, Selvaratnam had been wondering whether she should go to the dinner party that night — a benefit for Yaddo, an artist’s retreat in Upstate New York — at a private Chelsea social club surrounded by her professional peers. Chaplin had convinced her not to let the possibility of the story’s publication upend her plans.
Selvaratnam’s phone buzzed again and again — and then seemed to explode with alerts and notifications. At any moment, she felt sure, other people at the party would see the news. She had decided to share something intimate, and incredibly painful, with the world — and, with that decision, risked the chance that the people around her might never look at her the same way again. Now that it was online, she needed to get out of there, back to Gund’s house, where she felt safer.
Selvaratnam wasn’t yet ready to read the piece, so Chaplin, a journalist and designer who had been a friend of Selvaratnam’s for over 20 years, offered to do it for her. Chaplin quickly reported back that Selvaratnam had no reason to hide or be ashamed. Chaplin knew Selvaratnam as a characteristically poised and strong person, but that night, “she was really nervous,” Chaplin recalls. She wasn’t exactly freaking out — Selvaratnam doesn’t freak out, Chaplin says — “but she was as close as she goes.”
It wasn’t until hours later, after she had left the party and was back at her friend’s house, that Selvaratnam finally worked up the courage to read the article, which was headlined: “Four Women Accuse New York’s Attorney General of Physical Abuse.” The investigation, by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow, detailed allegations of physical and verbal abuse against Eric Schneiderman made by Selvaratnam and another former romantic partner, Michelle Manning Barish, along with two other women who hadn’t been named. Selvaratnam had shared some of the most traumatic details of her life: that over the course of their relationship, Schneiderman, fueled by alcohol, had hit her, spit at her and choked her non-consensually during sex, and that it was part of a pattern of emotional abuse that she said included criticizing her looks and threatening to kill her if they broke up.
Waves of emotion washed over her: The pain of seeing her personal trauma reported in a news piece. The shock of recognition from the other women’s accounts. The wish, however belated, that she hadn’t used her name, or that more people had gone on the record, leaving her less exposed. Gratitude to the reporters for doing the story justice. Then, something else: The realization that, while she felt incredibly exposed and vulnerable, she was one of countless women who’d survived abuse within a relationship. Over email and text, messages were pouring in from friends and strangers, thanking her for her courage and saying that they’d been through similar experiences.
It’s been a year since Selvaratnam went public, and the intervening months have been both painful and empowering. In the immediate wake of the story and Schneiderman’s resignation, Selvaratnam traveled and took solace in her friends and work. But her experiences have stayed with her — in terrifying nightmares, in trembling that arrives unbidden, in the shame that comes from being in an abusive relationship and having that made public. She didn’t have to tell her story. “I could’ve just gone on with my life,” she says. “But the trauma and the guilt I would have felt would have been psychologically worse.”
The stories of sexual harassment and assault that have come out over the past year and a half represent the best of what journalism can do: hold powerful people to account for their abuses of authority. They are a critical repositioning of the voices we choose to listen to and value. But their focus — perhaps by necessity — is primarily on the misdeeds of men. We rarely see what happens after the news cycle is over, or consider the full stories of the survivors, who come forward at huge personal and professional risk — after deciding it’s worth the possibility that they might forever be known as a footnote in someone else’s story.
It’s not a choice any woman expects to have to make. Selvaratnam didn’t. When she first met Eric Schneiderman at the Democratic National Convention in July 2016, she found a lot to like. He was a politician with a seemingly bright future. Like her, he spoke Mandarin. He was interested in meditation and Buddhist philosophy, and he cared about many of the same progressive causes that were important to her.
Selvaratnam was a force in her own right. Born in Sri Lanka, she emigrated with her mother as a baby, joining her father in Southern California. “My parents tried their best, but they had an incredibly unhappy marriage, so I witnessed a lot of domestic violence when I was a kid,” she says on a rainy day in April. “That took a big toll on me. Looking back, I can’t believe what we had to watch.” Introverted by nature and fiercely intelligent, she found solace in her studies. She attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and later got undergraduate and master’s degrees in Chinese from Harvard University. As a producer of theater productions and films, she built a career collaborating with big-name artists like Carrie Mae Weems and Laurie Anderson; she also acted in experimental theater productions that toured the world.
In 2008, she got married and tried to start a family. Three pregnancies ended in miscarriages. As she started infertility treatments, her doctors discovered that she had cancer, which was removed during surgery. Her marriage dissolved, and these experiences became the subject of her first book, “The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock,” a nonfiction account that marshals reporting and research to argue for better access to fertility education and against the common line that there’s always time to have a baby later in life.
She met Schneiderman “at a time in my life where I was open to meeting somebody,” she says. He made an effort, coming to her neighborhood for lunch and calling regularly when she was out of town. By the time they spent Labor Day weekend together, she was hooked. Not long after, though, she began to experience dramatic swings in their relationship. Schneiderman could be romantic and loving, everything she was looking for in a partner. “I kept hoping that that adoring, appreciative hero was the one that was the dominant” side of him, she says. “And he was, for a while.”
According to Selvaratnam, he was also increasingly moody — getting angry with her for working at the dining room table or on the couch, as though she was bothering him just by taking up space. Alcohol intensified the bouts of darkness, she says. When Schneiderman drank, he became unhinged, criticizing her appearance and telling her she needed to see a plastic surgeon about the scars from her cancer surgery. He began slapping her across the face with increasing force and frequency while they were having sex, choking her, and calling her his “brown slave.”
Selvaratnam thought she recognized and understood domestic violence: She’d seen it growing up and was sure that it would never happen to her. When it started, she found it disorienting. It was taking place in the context of their sexual relationship and didn’t look like what she’d seen before. She speaks of the abuse in general terms, but it’s clear she’s describing a dynamic she’s familiar with: “It often happens in the flash of an eye,” she says. “They aren’t asking for your consent. There’s no agreement being struck. They make you think their behavior is okay, and if you don’t agree, you’re depriving them of their needs. That was very much my experience.”
Intimate partner violence “is a very confusing subset of domestic violence because it’s dark. You’re naked. They make it seem like it’s a game. They make it seem like they need it to get off,” Selvaratnam says. “And I can’t tell you how many women have told me they’d been in that situation. There’s no question about whether or not you’re feeling any pleasure. It’s really about breaking the woman down.”
The abuse seemed to worsen after Donald Trump was elected, she says, as Schneiderman began burnishing his reputation as one of the president-elect’s primary antagonists. “I was seeing behind the scenes that it was kind of smoke and mirrors, his ability to actually take down the president,” she recalls. “I was disillusioned on many levels — with him as a person and as a politician.” The trauma of the Trump era felt both personal and political. “People would literally be coming up to him and saying: Save us,” she says. “I witnessed this time and time again. In the back of my mind, I’d think, Do they have any idea what he does to me at home?”
In September 2017, Selvaratnam was in Los Angeles, filming an interview with the actress Nicole Kidman for Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year Awards (an event Selvaratnam video-produced). Earlier in the year, Kidman had co-starred alongside Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley in “Big Little Lies,” an HBO series in which Kidman plays a wealthy, outwardly privileged woman who’s the victim of intimate partner violence at the hands of her husband. The show’s depictions of domestic violence were difficult for many to watch — as were the therapy sessions, in which Kidman’s character struggles with her own feelings of complicity and denial.
That day, during the interview, something strange happened: As soon as Kidman said the words “domestic violence,” Selvaratnam felt her phone buzz. The caller ID said “UNKNOWN” — a sign that it was Schneiderman. “It was a terrifying moment,” Selvaratnam says. “It was also incredibly crystallizing.” The universe has sent me this sign, she remembers thinking.
The universe had already sent some major signs by that point: Her friends had started to comment that she seemed withdrawn and thinner than usual. They took note when Schneiderman made disparaging comments about Selvaratnam and demanded she go home early during her birthday celebration. She had begun, tentatively, to let friends in on her private hell.
“I started to piece together that no matter how much he said that he was depressed, and times are turbulent, and he was going to get help, it was actually an endless spiral,” Selvaratnam says. She met with Jennifer Friedman, a lawyer with years of experience helping domestic violence survivors. Selvaratnam found reasons to be out of town, a way of distancing herself from the relationship, and finally, on Oct. 1, after a little more than a year together, Schneiderman called and said that it seemed like she was avoiding him. “I said, ‘I just need time,’ ” she remembers. They agreed to end their relationship.
Four days later, the accusations of sexual abuse against producer Harvey Weinstein broke in the New York Times. When the story came out, Selvaratnam was in the Glamour office; the news felt stomach-churning. A few days after that, the New Yorker published Farrow’s lengthy, damning investigation in which several women accused Weinstein of assault. That same day, Schneiderman emailed Selvaratnam. “I think we should talk,” he wrote. “I want to continue to support your good work.”
Selvaratnam replied: “I continue to feel that communication doesn’t work for either one of us. I hope you will respect my wishes.”
A few weeks later, she went with a friend to his apartment to pick up her things. Selvaratnam still thought she was alone in having suffered from his abuse, and that the pressures of the Trump win had been, in part, to blame. But the friend who escorted her, Jennifer Gonnerman, a staff writer at the New Yorker, said she bet there were other women with similar experiences. Within 24 hours, Gonnerman texted to say she’d heard from a mutual friend of another of Schneiderman’s exes that he had abused her, too.
Selvaratnam didn’t plan to come forward at first. “She was pretty clear about not wanting to go public about it,” Julia Chaplin says. Her first concern was protecting herself. “I was genuinely scared,” Selvaratnam says. “I had had enough friends who have dated powerful men who still live in mortal fear of them. You cannot anticipate how far someone will go, or when they will stop — especially if they’re an addict.”
But the knowledge of what he’d done, and what she feared he might do to other women, weighed on her. She connected with the lawyer Robbie Kaplan — who in January 2018 co-founded the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund to provide resources to women who have been sexually harassed in the workplace — to discuss her options. Selvaratnam wondered if something could be done privately, negotiated through legal representatives, to make sure that Schneiderman wouldn’t hurt anyone else. But the legal system is still lagging far behind the broader culture when it comes to sexual violence; she realized her legal options were extremely limited, at best. She felt certain that whatever the lawyers could negotiate wouldn’t compel him to step aside or get help.
Still, she was deeply torn. Initially she thought she just wanted to get out and move on; it was easier to contemplate as a private trauma, rather than one she’d share with the whole world. “Several of her good friends were urging her not to go public,” says her therapist, Buddhist author and psychologist Mark Epstein. “They were like, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re going to bring a lot of stuff onto yourself, and to what end?’ I was sort of in that camp. As her therapist, I’m reluctant to be too prescriptive for what she should do, although I did say [to] get out of the relationship. When she asked what I thought [about her coming forward], I said, ‘I think you should take care of yourself more than submitting yourself to the press.’ ” But, he says, “when she found out that it wasn’t just her — what other people had experienced with him — she felt like it was her responsibility.”
Selvaratnam traveled to Portland, Ore., where she holed up in a house she owns, writing down what happened. She has always been a prodigious note taker; now, she went through the contemporaneous notes she’d written during her relationship with Schneiderman and compiled them into one account. She read her notes and weighed what it would mean to share it with reporters. When she came back, she’d decided she felt ready to start having a discussion about taking her story public. Cindi Leive, the former editor in chief of Glamour magazine, connected Selvaratnam with the New Yorker’s David Remnick. Their discussions began as off-the-record phone calls and in-person meetings. “We had many conversations, and I didn’t want to unduly push her because this is a decision she had to make,” Remnick says. His interactions with Selvaratnam throughout the process made a deep impression on him. “I admire her more than I can say. She is an extremely impressive person and has had to endure a lot — to come forward like that and then to be so unfailingly patient with the process that is journalism. It was not easy.”
In February 2018, she met with another of Schneiderman’s exes after being connected by a mutual friend. (Selvaratnam is spotty with the details because the woman hasn’t shared her account publicly.) “I was very nervous,” she says. “I had no idea how it would go. But as soon as we met, I felt connected to her, and it was one of those earth-shattering moments, where you hear somebody tell your story. Except it’s theirs.”
“That was the moment when I felt like I had to figure out what to do,” she says. “I was convinced that no one should have the memories that either of us had.”
It took time for the investigation to begin in earnest. On her birthday, in March, she gave the New Yorker her first on-the-record interview. “I felt like I was risking everything,” she says, “but I also knew that my conscience would not have felt right if I didn’t.”
No one should have the memories that either of us had,” Selvaratnam says of meeting another of Schneiderman’s exes.
The day after the story broke, Selvaratnam stayed in her room at her friend’s house, reading the notes she’d received. Some were from women she’d known for years; some were from ones she admired from afar. Many were from complete strangers. Not all were from women. They identified themselves as survivors, shared their own private stories of abuse, told her they were proud of her for speaking out:
As a survivor, I have some sense of how insane and surreal the experience is …
I couldn’t even share the details with my friends because I was so ashamed by what I would need to admit to having been treated …
I wanted to add my voice to the choir thanking you for your tremendous bravery …
Her friends rallied around her. “She was very strong,” says artist Hank Willis Thomas, a frequent collaborator of Selvaratnam’s. Her boss at a new multi-arts center where she was about to start working called to let her know they were still on; another organization she’d worked with sent flowers. Interview requests poured in, too, but she had decided long in advance not to answer them. “She was very clearly not vindictive,” Gund says. Schneiderman, denying he had abused or harassed anyone, had resigned three hours after the story broke; she didn’t want to do anything to seem like she was reveling in it.
A few days later, Selvaratnam flew to London, where she felt like no one would care about the story, or her role in it. She focused on grounding herself in the things that comforted and sustained her: She went to a wedding, visited members of her family, wandered around museums and bookstores. While she was there, she sent an email to the people who had reached out to her:
Your notes of support have sustained me over the last week. I am sorry not to respond to each note individually.
Before the story ran, I moved out of my apartment, and I am now out of the country, in a place where I feel safe.
I am sorry I didn’t tell most of my friends and collaborators what was going on. I am sorry they had to find out through the article.
Every day over the last many months, I asked myself, “Am I doing the right thing?”
And I told myself, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be ashamed. Don’t be impatient.”
I am partially relieved that I don’t have to keep this secret any more. …
If you write back to this email, please forgive me for not responding.
I am overwhelmed, but I am well, free, and looking forward to the future.
Peace and love,
When she got back, she immediately flew to Mexico to meet Chaplin. She finally returned to New York in June to start a job producing performances and live events. Yet she was still thinking about all the people she’d heard from who had been in similar situations but hadn’t been able to speak out — and from the women she hadn’t heard from, who were experiencing abuse in that moment or would go through it in the future. When she searched for books online about intimate partner violence, she didn’t find much. The more she thought about it, the more she wondered if she should write something to help other survivors.
She broached the idea with her close friend and literary agent, Meg Thompson. Initially, Thompson hesitated. “I was able to separate being a literary agent from being a friend, and I was sort of like, ‘I’m concerned for your safety,’ ” she says. “I was the one maybe saying that the most. I had been through something similar, and I just didn’t want her to get hurt in any way.”
But as Selvaratnam talked with friends who’d also experienced abuse, she became convinced that a book was necessary. “None of us were talking about it with each other, because it’s so embarrassing,” she says. “It’s humiliating. It’s disgusting. That’s what I want people to get more educated about. It’s not the kind of thing that they prepare you for.” Thompson shared Selvaratnam’s written account of what happened to her with several trusted editors, and Libby Burton, a senior editor at Henry Holt, bought the book before it went to auction.
Toward the end of last year, Selvaratnam went back to Portland to outline her project — a combination of reporting and research about intimate partner violence along with personal narrative about her own experiences. The book’s blueprint is “the most brilliant and ambitious, high-level outlining I’ve ever seen an author do of a book,” Burton says. It relied heavily on the notes she took during the relationship and included the quotes she planned to use, which characters would be involved and plans on narration — it was just short of a first draft. “It was amazing,” says Burton.
But it also came at a serious personal cost. In Portland, Selvaratnam went through her nearly 300 pages of notes. She was pushing herself forward, throwing herself into her work, and thinking, “I’m in a good place. I can do this. Let me see what’s there,” she recalls. But, she says, “The experience came back in a very palpable way. I felt like I had been hit by a cannonball.”
For two weeks, she isolated herself, sinking into a depression. Then, she did something uncharacteristic: She sent an email to six of her closest friends, asking for help.
I’ve been very very very down to be honest. The past 2 years finally caught up with me. But I think just admitting this is good.
“It’s the first time, ever since I’ve known Tanya, that I’ve heard her admit that she’s not doing well,” Chaplin recalls. “She never, ever says that.”
The very act of writing the book has meant reliving those terrible experiences, Selvaratnam says, but she believes it has been worth it. “Every time I’m writing a chapter it brings me to a very dark place,” she says. “The stories are dark. But every time I finish a chapter, I feel excited, too, because I think it will help.”
In many ways, says Burton, Selvaratnam had better resources than other survivors of domestic violence: a strong group of friends, a supportive professional network, contacts in the media world, people who could connect her to domestic violence experts to help her navigate the process. “But what I’ve seen unfold is that, even when you have this support system in place, it’s still terrible, and life-altering, and it makes me think that there are so many women” — Burton pauses, then apologizes for choking up — “who don’t have a support system of professionals. I can’t even begin to comprehend how challenging it would be to navigate a situation like this if you don’t have [that]. It makes me feel immense, deep sympathy for women who have gone through this.”
By coming forward, Weems says, Selvaratnam “has challenged herself to take on something quite extraordinary and unexpected in terms of social justice, not only for herself, but for others. It’s a huge step forward for her.” There have been bigger changes since she and the other women came forward, too: After Schneiderman’s resignation, New York voters elected Letitia James, the first black attorney general and the first woman elected to that role in the state. This spring, lawmakers in Albany announced they were moving forward with legislation against sexual violence that they say was directly inspired by Schneiderman’s accusers. (Through a spokesperson, Schneiderman declined to comment on the record for this story. He denied the allegations when the New Yorker story first published, saying, “In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity. I have not assaulted anyone.” After a special prosecutor assigned to investigate announced in November that no charges would be filed against him, Schneiderman issued a statement saying that he had been in rehab and recognized that the “decision not to prosecute does not mean I have done nothing wrong.” He apologized to his accusers, adding, “I accept full responsibility for my conduct in my relationships with my accusers, and for the impact it had on them.”)
Selvaratnam doesn’t regret coming forward, she tells me. She says she regrets only one thing: “getting into the relationship in the first place.” And then, in her clear-eyed, matter-of-fact way, she adds: “But I feel like, somehow, the universe meant for me to be in that position. To end the cycle.”
Read this at The Washington Post.