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Tanya Selvaratnam on Intimate Violence, Eric Schneiderman, and How Powerful Men Protect Their Own—Even When They Hate Each Other

One May afternoon two years ago, I was visiting a friend in Brooklyn when she received a call from Tanya Selvaratnam, a feminist activist and producer in New York. Selvaratnam was nervous. Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer interviewed her for a story about her ex-boyfriend, Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York State, and at the time perceived as a hero for his antagonism to Donald Trump. Now Selvaratnam had told the reporters that Schneiderman was physically abusive in their relationship. The story was dropping that evening.

Selvaratnam and my friend, Gypset author Julia Chaplin, discussed whether they should go to a Yaddo event they were planning to attend that evening, and she asked to speak with me. “You talked me off the ledge,” she says. “You told me to go about my life, and that I didn’t need to hide.” Selvaratnam went to the event, but more importantly she’s now written a book, Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence, about her experience with Schneiderman, who resigned three hours after the New Yorker published its story. I spoke with her about the book, power structures, and her thoughts on the alleged sexual harassment in Andrew Cuomo’s office.

Vanity Fair: It’s funny to recall the conversation we had that day. Ultimately, the dinner was uneventful, right?

Tanya Selvaratnam: My phone was blowing up with people trying to call and text me, but it was on silent, and on my lap under the dinner table. So even though there was a lot of breaking news about the New Yorker story, I was the only one who knew what was happening. 

And what was your state of mind at that point?

That I had done what I needed to do, and that the story was going to speak for itself. Then I went to Catherine Gund’s house. I had arranged to move to her house the weekend before the story came out because I didn’t want to be alone in my apartment when it did.

And then Scheiderman quickly resigned.

I felt relief because I didn’t know how the story would land. And I had prepared myself for possible outcomes. One of which was that I would be unsafe. That he would still be in power, and that he would come after me. And that the enablers around him would come after me too.

In what way would they come after you? What would that have looked like?

Well, I know a number of people who have dated very powerful men and continue to live in mortal fear of them. And I believe that you can’t anticipate what resources a powerful person will use to destroy you when they feel their power being taken away. So if he snapped, I thought I could be in danger. 

I’m glad that didn’t happen. What did you think of the press that came out afterward?

There were many tangential stories that happened, some of which were teachable moments, talking about how the abuse that Eric Schneiderman inflicted on his victims was classic domestic violence, and how he twisted the language of consensual relationships to justify his harm without consent. There were articles about how his behavior was a violation of the guiding principles of BDSM, which is that even when inflicting harm on each other, you have consent from each other. And in his case, he was slapping women, choking them, spitting on them out of nowhere. And in many cases, triggering terrible memories of past abuse that the women had experienced or witnessed. And that was the situation for me, because I had witnessed horrific domestic violence when I was a child.

How long do you believe Eric was abusing women?

I was approached by two women who had also been abused by him—one who was almost a decade before me, and one who was abused by him after the New Yorker story came out. And they had been introduced by a mutual friend who vouched for his innocence. And in just the last few weeks, I’ve been approached by two other women who had also been abused by him. One who dated him 40 years ago, and another who dated him 14 years ago.

And what do you say to them?

I respond to them because I’m moved by their reaching out, but I also feel overwhelmed that his pattern of abusive behavior had been going on for a long time and nobody had warned me about it. Because the memories that I have are memories that no one should have. And I feel an even stronger sense that I did the right thing by coming forward.

How do you feel about the media covering the Cuomo allegations, the way they’ve come out in a drip-drip of stories?

I feel the media has been largely irresponsible in how they’ve covered it. With my story…I decided to participate in an investigation to show a pattern. Then when the New Yorker story landed, it was like a surgical strike because it was so airtight. We haven’t had that with the Cuomo allegations.

Are there similarities between the Schneiderman and Cuomo stories?

Eric Schneiderman was committing intimate violence in committed relationships. With Cuomo, the discussion is about sexual and workplace harassment…. All of these allegations are very different in nature, but it highlights how power and money corrupt and enable the abuse. And how all these men have damaging information about each other, how they all hate each other, and they protect each other. And it shows how their dealings with each other are inherently compromised. If Eric was not forced to resign by my coming forward, he would have been the one in charge of the Cuomo allegations.

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