Johnson, a novelist (In the Night Cafe, 1989, etc.) and journalist, presents a deeply disturbing account of the much...


WHAT LISA KNEW: The Truths and Lies of the Steinberg Case

Johnson, a novelist (In the Night Cafe, 1989, etc.) and journalist, presents a deeply disturbing account of the much publicized Steinberg case. On Nov. 1, 1987, police officers and paramedics summoned to a Greenwich Village apartment found a six-year-old girl, covered with bruises, who'd suffered from brain damage from which she would never recover. Lisa--and her 16-month-old ""brother"" found tethered to a crib--were illegally acquired, and never adopted, by lawyer Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum, a former children's book editor who was herself so visibly beaten that ""she looked like an old person in a young body."" Both ""parents"" were charged with murder, but in the public's eye Nussbaum was also a victim, a battered woman under the sway of a monster. Johnson makes the case that what happened can't be so easily explained away, and that Nussbaum is more culpable than we've judged her (charges against her were dismissed). The couple had freebased cocaine since 1980. The relationship between them was sadomasochistic rather than strictly abusive, Johnson suggests, and Nussbaum may have felt a degree of sexual jealousy toward her daughter, who had supplanted her as the center of Steinberg's world. And then there is the murky role of Michael and Shayna Green, alleged child pornographers whom Steinberg insists held a cultish hold over the family, What emerges here is not a clear sense of what happened, but a portrait of a chaotic world in which a child's well-being was of little consequence next to the obsessive needs of her self-appointed parents. Although Johnson marshals exhaustive and well-presented detail, she keeps coming back to one thing: the pain of Lisa's short life--and by implication, the pain of the 4,000 or so less-written-about children who die as a result of abuse each year. The result here is a genuine horror story, one that will leave readers moved and shaken.

Pub Date: April 26, 1990


Page Count: -

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1990