In early 2018, a friend called me to say that I ought to speak with a colleague of hers, a filmmaker and writer named Tanya Selvaratnam. During our first conversation, Selvaratnam told me that she had recently been in an abusive relationship with the New York attorney general at the time, Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat who had publicly fashioned himself as a champion of women’s rights. She sent me a manuscript that extensively detailed the physical and verbal abuse that she had suffered at his hands, and wondered whether I would consider publishing it. This was in the thick of a great deal of #MeToo reporting at The New Yorker, the Times, and other publications. We talked many times, by phone and at a café downtown, and agreed that the best path forward would be for her to speak with New Yorker reporters, who would then work to see if there was evidence of similar behavior by Schneiderman with other women.
Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow were assigned to the story, and their investigative piece was published online on May 7, 2018. Their reporting, which relied on multiple sources, made plain the dimensions of Schneiderman’s abuse and hypocrisy. As Selvaratnam and three other women described in detail, Schneiderman, often while drunk, demeaned them in bed, hit them, even used racist invective, at one point calling Selvaratnam his “brown slave.” Selvaratnam told the reporters that he had threatened to harm, and even kill, her if she ever broke up with or betrayed him. Within hours of the piece’s publication, Schneiderman resigned.
Selvaratnam, who was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in California, has just published a memoir called “Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence.” The book, which tells the story of her life, describes her father’s abuse of her mother and her relationship with Schneiderman. The following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, took place as accusations of sexual harassment were being levied against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Selvaratnam told me that she had noted that if Schneiderman were still the state’s attorney general he would likely be tasked with investigating the accusations against Cuomo.
Tanya, we are talking just as a third source has come forward to say that the governor of New York is guilty, in some way or another, of sexual harassment. I wonder what your reaction to this story is.
My reaction is that there needs to be an independent investigation before jumping to conclusions. I believe in due process and in establishing the veracity of the allegations and the credibility of the accusers. What is remarkable about these stories is that there are multiple women sharing eerily similar experiences independently of one another. What they’re describing are experiences that most women will have in their lives, a diminishing of women’s worth and of men in power crossing lines that they think they can cross because they are powerful and entitled.
And what is remarkable about this moment, when you have multiple women coming forward to speak out against the governor, is that I feel like there are likely to be many more with stories like this. I think what we’ll also discover is that it’s probably a pattern of behavior that people have known about for some time. But because it was considered acceptable behavior in the workplace and acceptable by the top politician in New York State, people didn’t recognize it as not O.K.
There are many friends that I’ve been having conversations with, and they have run the gamut. We’re Black and brown. We were saying, “Gosh, if we had been the ones with stories like these, would we be getting as much airtime?” That’s a pessimistic way to look at it, but also a realistic way to look at it. The other conversations I’m having is that we all have so many stories like this, of a man touching us inappropriately or speaking with us suggestively, and just kind of, like, brushing it off and moving on. It’s important to delineate between types of harm. I mean, harm is harm, but there are types of harm.
When you say types of harm, how would you classify that? What is being discussed about Cuomo, as opposed to what happened to you and what happened in the Harvey Weinstein case? How do you delineate those things?
In the Cuomo case, the allegations are about inappropriate touching, sexual harassment in the workplace, diminishing of female employees’ worth.
In my case, it was serial, intimate violence in a committed relationship, and that is one of the harder forms of harm to talk about, because there are typically only two witnesses. I remember the conversations that you and I had early on, which was that it would be “he said, she said,” but then, through the process of journalism, it became, “he said, she said, she said, she said, she said.” Intimate violence is so difficult to talk about, and there’s been more of a veil of silence around it. But I feel like that dam is breaking with the stories of Evan Rachel Wood and FKA Twigs. And I hope that my book sparks more people to share their stories, so that we take the shame and the stigma out of it.
Now, in the case of Harvey Weinstein, he was a sexual predator who preyed on women who needed him for their careers. So it is a combination. It’s intimate violence but not in committed relationships, the rapes and the attempted rapes.
I just read a column in the Times by Michelle Goldberg, who expresses a concern that the high watermark of #MeToo was in 2018, 2019, and that somehow attention has shifted to other political issues in a way that might undermine the concerns of women and men about issues surrounding #MeToo. Do you agree with her?
I feel we are actually at the next wave of #MeToo. The first wave of #MeToo, which was concurrent with the unfolding of my story in real time, was very much about the Harvey Weinstein story—sexual predators, largely in the workplace. It was Les Moonves, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, et cetera. There weren’t many stories about intimate violence in committed relationships. And I feel like that is the next wave that is happening. I feel it starting to crash around me.
You say you feel it, but where do you see it?
It took Evan Rachel Wood many years for her to name her abuser. She had alluded to it, vaguely, many years ago, and I know how hard it was for her to go on the record. Her coming forward—FKA Twigs coming forward, and naming their abusers—it’s very important to be specific and candid, to share the micro-details, as humiliating as they may be.
Could you describe the process of coming out from under such a secret?
Coming forward is a personal decision. People should not be compelled to come forward. When I first was out of the relationship with Eric Schneiderman, I thought I would move on. I was very fortunate to have my friends and my colleagues and work that I could throw myself into. I didn’t want to get caught up in the maelstrom of coming forward. Also, I thought the abuse was specific to me, and there were a number of reasons why I thought that. One was that he customized the abuse so much to me. It was like a drip, drip, drip of escalating abuse. Also, the national spotlight was on him at the time, and there was an increase in his drinking and drug consumption—I just thought the abuse was emerging with me.
You recently shared with me a note from someone who wrote to you after your book came out.
Since my book has come out, I’ve started to receive many notes again, from people sharing their stories of intimate abuse. Some of their stories are past. Some of them are sadly current, and they’re asking for advice and help. In one note, a woman reached out saying that she had dated Eric Schneiderman forty years ago. She read my book and she was shocked by the similarities of what she experienced. One difference was that she had to have surgery for an injury that he caused.
And that’s when I started crying. My heart broke. You know, it’s overwhelming when I receive notes from women. And that was one of three that I’ve received in the past year and a half from other previous girlfriends of his. What it shows is that the pattern of abusive behavior typically doesn’t arise out of nowhere. It isn’t caused by the victim. It’s patriarchy that we’re conditioned to normalize from the time that we’re born. And it’s a collective project to chip away at it, because our psyches and the well-being of our society are at stake.
If Cuomo is guilty of sexual harassment, what should become of him politically?
Well, depending on the facts, appropriate action should be taken. And I believe in repercussions that fit the allegations, should they be proved. I also believe in redemption and in restorative justice. I believe that, if an abuser acknowledges the harm that they have committed and does the hard work to root out their abusive behavior, then we can give them a second chance. But, in most cases, the abuser doesn’t do any of that. In fact, the abuser tends to deny that they abused, and they do that typical thing, which is, you know, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It’s a terrible form of deflection. “I’m sorry if you feel harmed by my actions.” It puts the onus on the victim.
One of your anxieties about going public had to do with your family. In the book, you describe how your father abused your mother. You were concerned about talking about that, but also how your family would react to your going public.
The domestic abuse that I witnessed between my parents, with my father beating my mother, is an essential part of my trajectory. And, in writing the book, I was able to write my way out of the darkness, and also to excavate the factors within myself that I needed to heal. Interviewers get criticized for asking a woman, “Why did she stay?” But, for me, it was important to ask myself that question so that I could understand how I got entangled in an abusive relationship in the first place.