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Hearing and Healing Hedda Nussbaum - A Reflection on Mark 5:21-43

by Liz Leibold McCloskey

Liz Leibold McCloskey is a trail preparation assistant for the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan district attorney’s office. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 15, 1989. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Lisa Steinberg lay near death on the cold tile floor in the bathroom of her adopted parents’ Greenwich Village apartment. Hedda Nussbaum waited helplessly for the man she believed could heal Lisa to come and lay his hands on her. Joel Steinberg, Nussbaum’s lover and batterer for 12 years, had already laid his hands on Lisa on the evening of November 1, 1987, when he dealt the blow that would kill the six-year-old girl. Nussbaum’s request to Steinberg, like Jairus’s to Jesus in Mark 5:23, was that her daughter be healed. "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." Finally, 13 hours after Steinberg allegedly beat Lisa, he gave Nussbaum permission to call for help. She dialed 911, but it was too late, and the little girl died.

The Gospel account of the death and resurrection of Jairus’s daughter frames the story about a hemorrhaging woman who, like Nussbaum, sought healing from a man she believed had special powers. Although some commentators claim that the encounter with the hemorrhaging woman simply occupies an interlude in the story of Jairus’s daughter, her healing points to the faith necessary for new life. Understanding Lisa’s death and the battering of Nussbaum through the lens of Mark 5 can provide a new hope for all battered women.

On his way to heal Jairus’s daughter, Jesus was interrupted by a suffering woman in the crowd who touched his garment. She believed that she could break the cycle of physical torment and be made well simply by tapping the resource of Jesus’ power. Despite the urgency of Jairus’s plea, Jesus stopped immediately and inquired, "Who touched my garments?" Receptive to the particular touch of a bleeding and hurting woman, Jesus used the feminine pronoun in his question. But Jesus’ disciples exclaimed impatiently, "You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say ‘Who touched me?’"

The disciples’ impatient and incredulous tone is echoed in the contemporary attitude toward women who stay in abusive relationships. Many of us assume that we are not responsible for healing battered women. How can we possibly be expected to discern who they are, to recognize that they need help, when so many battered women seemingly ignore or refuse assistance? The question "Why does she stay?" receives more attention than "How have we failed to respond adequately to her touch?"

Fascination with the Steinberg murder trial centered more on the question of how Nussbaum could have remained with her abuser than on why Steinberg believed he had a right to shatter the lives of his adopted child and his lover. Because many women have absorbed the ethos of male dominance and female dependence, they do not believe in themselves enough to recognize injustice and leave a violent situation. When a woman begins to tell a story of abuse, she is reaching out for help and healing.

When Jesus was touched by the hemorrhaging woman, he responded to her touch and gave her the opportunity to tell her story "in fear and trembling." After listening to "the whole truth," Jesus affirmed the woman, saying: "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."

Even as Jesus spoke, Jairus’s people came to report the death of his daughter. Because a woman needed healing, a little girl did not live. Jesus told the people, "Do not fear, only believe." He went to the little girl and, amid disbelieving laughter from those mourning her death, said to the child, "Tal’itha cu’mi," which means, "Little girl, I say to you, arise." She immediately arose and the people were amazed.

Jesus’ response to the hemorrhaging woman and his miraculous resurrection of the little girl provide a model for a religious response to domestic violence. As more and more abused women tell their stories, we must respond with the gospel mandate to care for the suffering and to proclaim a resurrection image, a new household of freedom and justice.

Nussbaum testified that she had once called her father and asked him to come and get her. When Steinberg arrived home, he found her packing her bags. Discovering that she had called her father, he knocked her down and then forced her to take an ice-cold bath. When Nussbaum’s father arrived, Steinberg asked him to take Lisa to the store. Upon his return, Nussbaum told her father that everything was fine and that she did not need any help. This pattern repeats itself over and over again in the tragic lives of battered women.

Nussbaum testified that she sought medical attention many times in her 12 years with Steinberg. In addition to being beaten, Nussbaum was burned, forced to take ice-cold baths and denied food, and her sexual organs were beaten with a broomstick. She suffered a ruptured spleen along with many other serious injuries. Nussbaum informed hospital personnel that her boyfriend had hit her, but she asked doctors not to put that on the record because, as she explained at the trial, she wanted to protect Steinberg. Many women do not report abuse out of loyalty to their men, or fear of the beating they will receive if their men find out.

The medical community needs to be more responsible for women like Nussbaum who are obviously in abusive situations. They must not only be able to detect signs of domestic abuse, but be ready to refer the abused to social services. This type of training is beginning to occur, yet the traditional myths that the woman is to blame or that domestic violence is a private issue still prevail. A number of years ago, a study at Yale-New Haven Hospital found that one out of four battered women left the hospital with such diagnoses as "neurotic," "hysterical," "hypochondriac," or "a well-known patient with multiple vague complaints."

Left unsupported, battered women often begin to believe that they have done something to deserve punishment. Nussbaum admitted that she had seen Steinberg as godlike and had believed that her emotional problems had caused all the stress in their apartment. Only after Nussbaum told her story to supportive listeners did she begin to understand the injustice and absurdity of that belief.

Police and legal responses, although improving, also reflect archaic stereotypes about domestic violence. Anglo-American law has traditionally granted men a legitimate right to beat their wives "when necessary." Because women were the property of the master of the house, men had a natural right and duty to maintain control and dominance. An 1824 Mississippi case voiced the lawful authority of men moderately to chastise their wives. The "Rule of Thumb" known from English common law, however, limited the weapon to a size no wider than one’s thumb.

Some police officers, although now mandated in some states to make arrests when responding to domestic disputes, still refuse to take, these situations as seriously as other assault calls. I have been told by many women with whom I’ve worked at the New Haven Project for Battered Women and at the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in Manhattan that the police have refused to make an arrest and simply walked the abusive man around the block to calm him down.

Once an arrest is made, the prosecution of a domestic crime is difficult because the legal profession has traditionally viewed it as something to be settled between a husband and wife. A woman may also feel guilty for helping to prosecute a man who continues to profess his love for her. Both these problems are reflected in a question I once heard a judge ask a battered woman, as he denied her a restraining order on her husband: "You don’t really want me to kick him out of his home, do you?" Until our cultural values about intimate relationships are consistent with the new laws regarding violence against women, we will continue to generate mixed signals about the need for justice in the home.

Women become more and more reluctant to report beatings, especially to a male pastor, when they believe the violence stems from their failure to be a perfect girlfriend, wife or mother. Nussbaum fully believed that Steinberg was a better parent and a better person than she was; thus her cry for help throughout her years with Steinberg was often barely audible.

Like Jesus, we must learn to recognize when a woman is in need of healing. When a woman continually blames herself for violence or abuse in her home, we should be able to recognize that she is touching the hem of our garment, desperate for help. Jesus stopped in the middle of a crowd on his way to an urgent mission to ask "Who touched me?" As soon as someone cared enough to ask that question, the woman felt free to come before Jesus and the crowd to tell her story. The truth flowed naturally and easily. She was instantly healed.

For Nussbaum it took the death of her daughter to provoke any interest in her story. Testifying in November before a crowded courtroom and on live TV about Steinberg’s abuse proved cathartic for her and eye-opening for others. Waiting in line in the Manhattan Criminal Court building to hear Nussbaum testifying, a woman told me about her own sister-in-law’s abusive situation. This woman was beginning to realize, through Nussbaum’s testimony, that she needed to reach out to her sister-in-law and help her to love herself enough to leave. Watching Nussbaum tell her story, I was amazed at the courage, strength and composure she had gained from a supportive audience. With each day she testified, she grew more and more sure of herself, of the injustice she endured, and of the tragedy of Lisa’s death.

The tragedy of Lisa’s death did not have to happen. Nussbaum could have saved Lisa’s life had she not believed so deeply in Steinberg’s right to control her. If she had had an opportunity to tell her story earlier, she might have had faith enough in herself to leave him and take Lisa with her. Nussbaum’s powerful and moving testimony, and her renewed faith in herself, cannot bring Lisa back to life. Yet her testimony and healing can keep Lisa alive in our collective conscience as a renewed sign of the need to attend to healing and wholeness in our personal. social and political structures.


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