Tanya Selvaratnam, ASSUME NOTHING

Tanya Selvaratnam, ASSUME NOTHING

“I wrote my way out of the darkness.” Tanya Selvaratnam talks with Zibby about the intimate partner violence she suffered in a past abusive relationship. She shares the experience of coming forward with her story, and details what’s next as she moves past this chapter and onto future projects.”


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tanya. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Tanya Selvaratnam: Thank you so much, Zibby. I’m excited. Finally!

Zibby: I know, right? I feel like this one took a while to get scheduled and done and everything else. Your memoir, Assume Nothing: A Memoir of Intimate Violence, wow, this is quite a story. It’s amazing you shared it. It must have been — let’s back up because I have a zillion questions. Can you please tell listeners what your memoir is about?

Tanya: Assume Nothing, it’s A Story of Intimate Violence. It’s about my own experience with abuse and delves into, also, the trappings of my childhood witnessing domestic violence as a child and incorporates many other people’s stories too. A big catalyst for my writing the book was having dozens of people reach out to me after my story became public in The New Yorker, which is about the abusive relationship that I was in with the former New York State Attorney General, the top law enforcement officer in New York, Eric Schneiderman, whose name I don’t even want to say right now. What also inspired me to write the book was when I started from hearing from other women that he abused.

Zibby: In the book, you mention how when you went to The New Yorker, if it had been only you, that would’ve been one trajectory. Yet other people came out of the woodwork very quickly.

Tanya: Within about two weeks of Jane Mayer beginning the investigation. Then the twist in the book, which I won’t give away too much about, is that after The New Yorker story came out, I heard from more women. There were those who participated in The New Yorker investigation. Then there were women who appeared afterwards that the public does not know about yet, but they will when the book lands.

Zibby: You told this story in such an interesting way because what you’re really doing is answering the question, how can this happen? How does this happen? Even in the way you structured the chapters with being ensnared and entrapped and the power struggles, what happens along the way really informs the reader as to how someone as bright as you or as all these other women has something like this happen to them, in way. The way you structured the book, tell me about your decision to do it that way.

Tanya: I wanted to walk the reader through the stages that one goes through and ends up entangled in an abusive relationship and also to provide resources so that people can spot, stop, and prevent intimate violence from happening in their own lives and to their loved ones. I collaborated with Jennifer Friedman, an attorney at Sanctuary for Families, on appendix. There’s the narrative part of the book, but then there’s also the resources part of the book. It was very important for me that there be takeaways from the book and that it not just be my story, but that it is really the story of millions of people, women and men. It was very important for me to dive into the reporting and the research and the psychology around intimate partner violence, which is so stigmatized. Even with the advent of Me Too and Time’s Up, there is still so much shame associated with acknowledging that one’s a victim when the reality is that a victim looks like all of us.

Zibby: Very true. You did a really good job. You also made it feel like you’re watching a movie, a thriller, almost. There was an immediacy to the writing that really drew me in right away. It’s a story. It’s a reflection on different things. Of course, you bring in all sorts of different facts. It’s also a narrative. Here we are at this convention. Here we are on this trip. Here we are in bed with you. It’s just a lot. It’s really vivid immediacy to the writing. I didn’t say that very well, but I hope I conveyed what I thought.

Tanya: You just made me so happy to hear you talk about the book. One of my favorite compliments is when people tell me that it reads like a thriller. I didn’t intend to write a thriller. I captured the facts as they happened. When I went back and looked over my notes as I was writing the book, I was in disbelief at what had happened. That just shows how ensnared somebody can become and how the narrative really can become a rollercoaster and get away from you. It was very important for me to capture that rollercoaster. Especially as the extraction from the relationship and then the reporting of the investigation took over, I had to submit to the process of journalism. I realized that the narrative was completely out of my hands in my personal life and that it was taking on ramifications that were much bigger than myself and my personal narrative because, again, it is so prevalent and it is so common, intimate partner violence. I’m glad that you said it reads like a movie. I don’t know if you know, but it’s being turned into —

Zibby: — I didn’t know that. I’m sorry. I should’ve researched better. I usually do.

Tanya: No, it’s fine. It hasn’t been announced publicly. It will be prior to publication. It has been optioned by ABC Signature, Disney Television, Joanna Coles executive producing. We’re in the process. I’m nervous about the book coming out and having details that haven’t been reported publicly and even those that have already been reported publicly being out there because they’re difficult. They’re difficult details about my life and myself and what other people experience. I am hopeful that it helps other people. With a television adaptation, it’ll reach even more people.

Zibby: For sure. Congratulations on that. That’s exciting.

Tanya: Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Awesome. Now I can’t wait to watch that too. At least I’ll have one night tucked away from some viewing enjoyment. Not enjoyment. A lot of it is hard to take in a way. It’s emotional going through this with you. You can feel what you went through. Even the first scene where the abuse happens for the first time, can I read a little passage? I don’t have to.

Tanya: Sure.

Zibby: You said, “When he first slapped me in the face after we started making love, it happened in the blink of an eye. No man had ever done that to me. He seemed to be testing me. I didn’t know what to do. I tried to make sense of it. Before that point, we had gotten to know each other over the course of about six weeks, and I thought of him as mediator, someone who espoused spirituality, and who fought on behalf of vulnerable people. At that moment, I became aware that he could inflict great harm on people. Over time, the slaps got harder and began to be accompanied by demands.” Then you go into all this other stuff. Then you say, “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was dealing with one kind of abuse that can go on between people in committed relationships, intimate violence, but I had convinced myself that he would be my partner, maybe for life. If I wanted to keep him, I felt I had to let him dominate me. I tolerated the situation because it was disorienting and so disconnected from the person he presented as in public.” Tell me your thoughts on that passage. Tell me how you felt writing it, what it was like going through it.

Tanya: It is very emotional to have somebody else read it. I narrated the audiobook myself. That took me by surprise, how much it affected me. I wrote the book that I had to and the story that reflected what I experienced. When I read the audiobook in real time and now hearing you read it, it brings me back to that moment which is so vivid in my mind and which I know is a vivid memory for many, many women. What we know now, more about trauma and intimate partner violence, is that those scars never go away. Those memories never go away. The focus has to be on healing and recovery and knowing that you’re not alone and you’re not crazy. Also, I was born with an innate sense of joy. For me, it’s just been very, very important to seek out opportunities to be surrounded by joy and by love and by people who have my back, which is what got me through it. I feel very, very fortunate to have that support network. I just wish that for everyone else who goes through this type of insidious experience, is to find that support.

Zibby: I’m really sorry you had to go through it. I’m sorry that you saw domestic violence as a child. You wrote about that a lot. One thing that struck me is when you said something like, my father hit my mother in the living room, not in the bedroom. Tell me about that. How did it feel like — now you’re seeing some glimmers of what you saw at home. I’m sorry, I feel like I cannot make a coherent sentence today. I hope you know what I’m trying to ask.

Tanya: I do, yes.

Zibby: What was that like contrasting the two experiences?

Tanya: Growing up as a child, when I witnessed domestic violence, I wondered why my mother just didn’t leave. I tried to get her to leave, but she did not have the support network that I was able to have as an adult when I tried to leave. Also, she tolerated the abuse for decades. My father, like so many abusers, was a bifurcated individual. He is now passed. He’s deceased. I see how abusers are very much the trappings of their own conditioning. They can be these charismatic, even warm people in certain circumstances but when it comes to their intimate relationships, take out their aggression and anxiety and also their need for power, their need to dominate. Another important part of the book is really taking a look at the enablers. I feel like that is an underexplored area. Behind every perpetrator, there is usually an enabler. That enabler often, sadly, is a woman. It’s really devastating. In my case when I was a child, with my father, it was family members telling my mother to be silent and stay with him.

With Eric Schneiderman, he had a whole network of enablers, many of them women because he was their conduit to power. This was a man that people were counting on to take on forty-five. I don’t say the name of the former president. At least, I say it as little as I can. They were really counting on him to take on forty-five. I just happened to be with him when his ascent was happening as the biggest bulwark against forty-five because he had jurisdiction over his charities and businesses in the state of New York and also because he was the attorney general of New York State. There was a whole power structure in New York State that was built around this kind of patriarchy. One of the outcomes that I was especially proud of and that was private satisfaction for me was that by coming forward, really solely for the aim of protecting other women and also being aware of the women he had abused before me and that he might abuse after me if I didn’t come forward, there was an unexpected outcome which is that New York State politics changed. We got the first female and African American attorney general of New York State . That was a power dynamic that was not on track to being changed. There was no real challenge to Eric Schneiderman and the male patriarchy of New York State government. I just feel like we’re on this track to, I hope, transition to more women in power, more women making decisions. That was a very interesting, unexpected outcome for me.

Zibby: Wow. You never know what speaking out is going to do. Men in power and abuse of the power in so many ways, whether it’s sexual or intimate violence with their spouse, there’s so many examples. It’s like the laugh track getting old. As soon as you get to a certain position in power, men seem to falter and fall into this trap of just behaving however they want. Not all men. Of course, there are many men who don’t, but it’s just example after example these days. What on earth? As a mother even, how do we raise our kids to make sure this doesn’t happen and to make sure it doesn’t happen to them for daughters and everything? What can we do to stop this?

Tanya: I feel that there’s a civil war going on between feminists and patriarchs. So many of the battles that are happening on the governmental level is really about that, agency over women’s bodies, providing support for women so that they can be mothers, caregivers, and workers too. So much is happening. We’re seeing these conversations bubble up a lot now because we have a new administration. I feel this civil war between feminists and patriarchs is necessary. Those on the side of the patriarchs are not only men. Those on the side of the feminists are not only women. I think it’s very important to recognize that there are male allies, as I mention in the book, that are doing the training that needs to happen, like A Call to Men with Tony Porter and Ted Bunch and amazing activists who are saying, we really need to look at the way we condition behaviors into boys from the time we’re born. Also, women can condition girls from a young age not to accept abuse. We are conditioned to feel that if a boy teases us, he likes us. It begins in the playground. It begins in school. These are eons of conditioning that we have to dismantle. I see a lot of hope moving forward with awareness. That awareness comes through more education, more public awareness, through legislation, accountability.

Zibby: Do you ever regret in any way coming forward with your story?

Tanya: I don’t really have the option to regret it. I regret getting into the relationship, but I don’t regret coming forward.

Zibby: Were there any personal relationships that were affected negatively by the fact that you came out? Was there anyone in your family who didn’t want it being known or anything like that? Was there one particular fight or hard conversation to have when you had said you’re going to do anyway or anything like that?

Tanya: There were many hard conversations. The conversations that supported my coming forward were far more substantive, tangible, and sensible and rational than the debates I had with people who were encouraging me not to do anything, both family members and friends who just told me to get on with my life. For me, my conscience was guiding me more than logic.

Zibby: What about your relationship with men now?

Tanya: I had never been in an abusive relationship before. There was a point where I really needed to focus on my healing and recovery because the PTSD is very real. You never know when it’s going to get triggered. It can be triggered by situations where you just feel like you’re being mocked or belittled. I mention a situation in the book where I was dealing with what I consider an abusive relationship with a coworker who happened to be a woman. She was abusing not just me, but other women at this job. I just want to point that out. The abuse doesn’t just happen in intimate relationships. It obviously happens in the workplace. It obviously doesn’t just happen between men and women. It can happen between men and men, women and women. As far as my relationships have been now, I am very fortunate to have amazing male friends and to have positive male energy around me. Because we’ve been in the middle of a pandemic, obviously it’s very hard to meet people. The men that I have met since then have been wonderful, have been great. Also, I know now how to — I know what I won’t put up with. I know the kind of man I want. There’s the scene in the book, if you remember, where a friend gives me a visit to a medium. I had never been to a medium before. That was wild. She told me to make different lists. She said that it was my grandfather who was a meticulous notetaker, which I also am, which is where my books and my writings come from. I’m an intrepid notetaker and have been from the time I was a child. She said that my grandfather was telling me to make lists. One of the lists that he wanted me to make was the kind of man that I would wish for the person I loved the most. When I wrote down all of those qualities, it’s somebody who makes — this is for everybody. Somebody who makes you feel good about yourself, somebody who lets you be who you are.

Zibby: Yes. I’m very lucky. I’m in my second marriage. I have found those qualities in my husband now. It’s amazing.

Tanya: I love that. Thank him for me.

Zibby: I hope you find that too. It’s amazing what it can do when someone sees all of you and supports .

Tanya: Yes, who sees, who listens.

Zibby: It’s really nice. Anyway, so what is coming next? You have this movie now, that’s so exciting, the book. Are you still writing? Do you have another project in mind? What can we expect?

Tanya: I have a lot of writing. As I said, I’m always writing. I have running notes, which is how my first book came about, The Big Lie, which is about my experiences trying to become a mother and wanting to destigmatize miscarriage and infertility. When I was having those experiences, I was just taking notes. Then the notes eventually take a shape where I realize, oh, this is becoming more than just me taking notes. I have running notes for five books that I want to write. After I finish the book tour and the press around Assume Nothing, then I really want to dive in and go back to Portland, Oregon. Right now, I’m in New York City. I have a place in Portland, Oregon, where very close friends from college and high school live. The trees in Portland are magical and so inspiring. I think part of what makes Portland a great city for writers — and, of course, one of the greatest bookstores in the world, Powell’s, is there. I want to go back to Portland and start working on these other books that I have ideas for. I really want to write a book about Sri Lanka. I’ve wanted to write one about my birth country for a very long time. I know the approach I want to take. One of my favorite books is Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. I write in the book about Sonali Deraniyagala’s book, Wave, her memoir which is one of the most stunning books about grief I’ve ever read, about her losing three generations of her family in the tsunami which really helped me just keep my head up and keep putting one foot in front of the other. I really want to write a book about Sri Lanka.

Then I am cowriting the memoir of a psychic, Frank Andrews, who has been a friend for twenty-five, twenty-seven years and had read my first book. He read the manuscript for this book and has asked me to cowrite his memoir. He has incredible stories. It’s like a love letter to New York. He’s been a psychic for almost sixty years. I’m calling it The Psychic of Mulberry Street, so planning to work on that. Then I am a film producer. I produce all kinds of films. I’ve been working on a series that’s going to accompany the history of The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song. The series of short videos that I’m directing and producing to accompany this documentary series on PBS will happen. That has been amazing. I wake up every morning listening to gospel music, which if you haven’t done, I highly recommend it. Just put on some Tasha Cobbs Leonard and John Legend and Fred Hammond and Erica Campbell and Yolanda Adams. To see Yolanda Adams singing at, finally, the first ever national COVID memorial for all those who have lost their lives the night before the inauguration was a deeply moving experience for me. Then I’m curious how you felt on the morning of the inauguration. I woke up, turned on the television to watch the news, which I hadn’t done in a long time. I’ve actually been avoiding watching the news for the last few years. I immediately burst into tears of relief and joy. Also, I felt triggered. I’ve been writing a piece about this, an essay that I’m going to hopefully get placed. I’ve been writing about how I really feel America has been getting out of an abusive relationship.

Zibby: Interesting. That sounds like a great essay.

Tanya: That’s what I’m working on, more films and more writing.

Zibby: I can’t wait to read more of your books. I have to go back now and read your prior work. I didn’t even talk to you today about your cancer and all the scars on your body that you talk about and healing from that. I’m hoping that this whole experience of writing has been healing in so many ways for you on some level, that it’s helped you move on and close a chapter and be able to confine it to the pages of a book so you can pursue all these amazing other projects that you have in mind.

Tanya: I’m very grateful that I am a writer. I’m grateful that my writing finds homes. In the book, I say I wrote my way out of the darkness. I wish that for everyone, whatever outlet you can find. I like to say — this is my silly mantra. When life throws you lemons, make art.

Zibby: Love it. Do you have any parting advice for aspiring authors?

Tanya: So much. Three big things. One, just be aware of what’s happening around you. Keep looking up. Take notes. Takes notes of things that strike you because you never know when those notes might become a book. Also, for me what really helps is I take photographs because photographs trigger memories. So much of what I’m able to capture in a book in vivid detail is because I have taken notes and those notes can be supported with visuals. Take photographs. Another thing that really helps me, I meditate. I believe that anyone can meditate, but not everyone wants to meditate, so whatever you can do for yourself to take time out and not be stimulated by anything but your own being and your own stillness. It’s during meditation that so many of my ideas come to me. Also, so many memories come back to me. Oh, and there’s a fourth thing. If you’re a dreamer — I’ve always been a big daydreamer and a night dreamer. My dreams are very narrative and bizarrely cohesive. Pay attention to your dreams.

Zibby: Love it. Wow. Tanya, thank you. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for sharing your story. Thanks for speaking out and using your life to help other people. It’s really awesome.

Tanya: Thank you so much, Zibby. You’re my first interview for the book.

Zibby: No way! Amazing. It’ll be your best too. Congratulations on the book and its finding its home and all the rest of it.

Tanya: Thank you for all your advocacy for writers and readers and the platform that you provide. It’s so beautiful.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m trying. Have a great day.

Tanya: Thank you. Bye.

Zibby: Take care, Tanya. Buh-bye.

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