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A Child's Death, a Mother's Torment

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When 6-year-old Lisa Steinberg was cruelly beaten and left to die in her home in 1987, the nation mourned the loss of an innocent. Michele Launders, then 26, had no clue that the beguiling child whose picture was on the evening news was the daughter she had given up for adoption in 1981. Lisa, who had been illegally adopted, was found comatose in a squalid Manhattan apartment shared by lawyer Joel Steinberg, 47, and his battered lover, Hedda Nussbaum, 46, both of whom were initially accused of the chilling crime.

Stricken with guilt and despair upon learning Lisa’s true identity, Launders came forward to claim her little girl’s body and was a front-row observer a year later at the sensational 12-week trial, in which Hedda testified against Joel in return for her freedom. Steinberg was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and is currently serving his sentence at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N. Y.

Now 28, Launders has tried to overcome her aching loss. “It took me a year to get over the initial shock,” she says, “and another year to get over the trial.” At first she refused dozens of offers to tell her story. “It just hurt too much,” she says. Then last spring she signed a contract with Warner Books and collaborated with writer Penina Spiegel on I Wish You Didn’t Know My Name: The Story of Michele Launders and Her Daughter Lisa, an emotionally charged tale of a frightened unwed mother who turns to strangers for help to avoid wounding those she loves. “I hope that in some way my story can help other teenage mothers who find themselves in a similar situation,” says Launders. Her own mother was battered by an alcoholic husband who abandoned his family when Michele was 4. Launders and her older brother, John, grew up in Rockville Center, N.Y., where, after graduating from high school, she took evening college courses and clerked for her mother, an accountant. Launders, who is single, continues to live on Long Island (see profile, page 79). In this excerpt, taken from the book to be published this month, Michele talks for the first time about the events that led to her fateful decision to give Lisa up and the anguish she has suffered ever since.

The whole city watched with horror, as did I, when the story of Lisa Steinberg unfolded on Nov. 2, 1987. A little girl had been beaten into a coma. Reporters said her parents did it. They showed her picture: a sweet-faced little girl. I remember wondering how anyone could hit a child in anger.

On Wednesday, Nov. 4, Lisa was declared brain-dead. Her “adoptive” father, Joel Steinberg, was charged with attempted murder, assault and endangering the welfare of a child. His common-law wife, Hedda Nussbaum, similarly charged, was hospitalized. I saw her on television. Her face didn’t look like a face, it looked like a cauliflower. They said he beat her too. The next morning, I heard that Lisa had died, and I felt a pang of sorrow for the child. I never dreamed she was anything but a stranger.

They kept repeating the news footage of Steinberg and Nussbaum being brought into the police station. [I did not recognize Steinberg at first. He looked nothing like the man I had met six years earlier when I was 19, pregnant and planning to give my baby up for adoption.] This man was disheveled and unshaven. He was agitated, full of jerky eye movements. The man I met had been bigger, stronger, very much in control.

The next night I was entertaining two friends at my apartment when there was a knock on the door. The visitors introduced themselves: Detectives George Schurz and Nancy Patterson. Schurz, asked me if I had given birth to a baby girl on May 14, 1981. My heart was in my mouth. I could feel the blood pounding in my ears. He asked if I’d followed the Steinberg case in the papers. I nodded. He said, “We’re reasonably certain that Lisa Steinberg was your baby.”

Everything went blank. I couldn’t hear. I couldn’t speak. I looked at them, dumb, speechless. I was sinking down into a deep pit. My mind was creating its own images. My baby hurt. My baby abused. My baby dead! Today when I look at pictures of Lisa, I see a lot of her father, Kevin, in her, Kevin was tall, very good-looking—blond hair and an athlete’s body—and a star basketball player. Most star athletes are kind of showy. Kevin wasn’t. He was quiet, introverted even. He was six months younger than I, and a year behind me in school. We were both 17.

From the time I met Kevin I lost interest in anybody else. I’d never had a real boyfriend before. The most I’d done was a little kissing. Kevin and I were both from Catholic families. We had been taught that sex before marriage was wrong, and on some level we believed it. We put it off as long as we could, but one day we were alone in my house and went all the way.

I think it was Kevin’s first time too. He was sweet, but I can’t say I got much pleasure that first time. Afterward, though, lying there with Kevin holding me, I was very happy. I felt that we were even more committed to each other. The Church taught that what we were doing was a sin, but it felt very natural. I liked it and didn’t want to stop.

Gradually our lovemaking became more frequent. Neither one of us ever mentioned birth control. Sometimes Kevin had condoms with him and used them. Sometimes he didn’t. I would rather have died than ask why we weren’t using a condom. I don’t think I could have said that word aloud.

The fact that I could get pregnant never entered my mind. I knew that sex led to babies, but I never thought it would happen to me. Why? Because I was 18. Teenagers always think they’re invulnerable.

The summer of 1980 was bittersweet. Kevin and I were so in love, but in the fall he was going away to college in Maryland. I remember the day he left. We kissed one last time and I watched the car drive away. I walked home with tears streaming down my face. I had no idea that sometime in the last two weeks I had conceived a child.

It wasn’t until October that the fleeting thought I had missed a period crossed my mind. I came down with the flu, or so I thought. I felt listless, tired and slightly nauseous all the time. I know as much biology as the average person. But I really didn’t want to face the fact that I might be pregnant, so I ignored it.

The sickness got worse. It came in waves all day long. Every morning my mom would have a cup of tea waiting for me when I came out of the shower. It was part of our morning routine. I had to drink the tea or she’d know something was wrong. I forced it down, then I’d wait to see which bathroom she went into, upstairs or downstairs. Whichever one she was in, I’d be vomiting in the other.

No one looking at me could have guessed I was pregnant—even at term I barely gained 20 pounds. I thought of telling Kevin, but I dismissed that idea. It hadn’t been confirmed by a doctor, so what was the need to say anything? I’d missed a few periods, so what? I gave no thought to the new life growing in my womb.

After New Year’s 1981, I went to the drugstore to buy a home pregnancy test kit. I walked down the aisles, picking up everything else but what I had come for. Never mind. I’d come back when the store wasn’t so busy. By the time I actually succeeded in snagging a home pregnancy test we had a year’s supply of toothpaste.

I ran a bubble bath so I’d have an excuse to lock myself in the bathroom. I don’t even think anybody was home. The test turned color if you were pregnant and stayed clear if you weren’t. It turned pink. What was I going to do? I was panic-stricken. But, I was determined that no one was going to know. Not my mother, not a friend, nobody.

Every night I promised myself that in the morning, I’d do something. I didn’t have a family doctor. I had never had a gynecological exam. I had been in the office of an Ob-Gyn only once in my life, when a girlfriend had had an abortion. That doctor’s name was Michael Bergman.

The “if only’s” that have tormented me since November 1987 start here. If only I had gone somewhere else…For Dr. Michael Bergman would lead me directly to Joel Steinberg, who would steal my daughter from me and eventually kill her.

Michele was more than six months pregnant when she met Bergman, who appeared to have a legitimate medical practice in Manhattan and Hempstead, N. Y. He examined her and asked if she had informed anyone about her condition. His caring manner was a comfort to Michele, who was adamant about her wish not to reveal the truth to anyone.

Dr. Bergman instantly fell in with my desire for secrecy. I let him see how naive I was, how alone and desperate. Looking back, wouldn’t it have been appropriate for him to encourage me to confide in someone? Shouldn’t he have said, “Michele, this isn’t so bad. Your mom won’t have a heart attack. You really don’t have to go through this alone.” I can’t say exactly why I was so hell-bent on keeping it from my mom. Perhaps in part because she’d had enough problems in her life. And I was always the good one. I couldn’t stand to see the hurt on Mom’s face if she found out.

All I could think was, I’m pregnant and I’m more scared than I’ve ever been in my life. Dr. Bergman had calculated my due date. It was May 17th, Kevin’s birthday. He never asked if I wanted to give the baby up for adoption. He simply took it for granted. And suddenly, adoption seemed like the perfect solution.

Dr. Bergman told me he knew an excellent lawyer who would find the adoptive parents. They would pay for all my medical bills. I made only two requests: that the adoptive parents be Catholic and that they be a married couple. Dr. Bergman said that my wishes would be complied with. I was almost shaky with relief. This wonderful man was taking care of me. He even had a place for me to stay until the baby was born. He arranged for me to move in with his office receptionist, Ginny Liebrader. Ginny was very friendly and warm. My secret was safe.

I was planning to tell Kevin when I visited him on Valentine’s Day weekend. I spent the whole trip to Maryland rehearsing what I would say. Friday night there was a party. Everybody was drinking. I was nauseated. I dragged through the evening. Kevin wanted to make love, but I put him off. I thought it was something pregnant women shouldn’t do, it might hurt the baby. We fell asleep next to each other. Or at least he did. I just pretended to sleep.

I let Friday night go by. There was plenty of time. By Saturday evening I started thinking that maybe it would be best if Kevin didn’t know. He had a career and a future ahead of him. By telling him I could send it all down the drain.

Just before Michele left to visit Kevin, her mother, noticing her daughter’s rounded stomach, asked Michele if she was pregnant. Michele denied it and exited in a huff. Though she did not tell Kevin that weekend, she did break down and reveal the truth to her mother over the phone from Maryland.

I knew when I got home that I would be walking into the Wrath of Khan. Mom practically pulled me inside by the ear. She asked me a thousand questions. I kept saying, “I’ve got everything under control.” I could see she didn’t trust me. She didn’t think I had really taken care of things properly. But Mom knows better than to argue with me when my mind’s made up.

We cooked up a story for my family and friends, that I was studying to be a wholesale travel packager and since the course was being given in Suffolk County on the other end of Long Island, I would be staying with an aunt.

As much as I was apprehensive about living with Ginny for those last three months of my pregnancy, I was grateful I had her. By the end of my first week at Ginny’s house in Huntington, L.I., I sprouted this little pot belly and I felt the baby move for the first time. Perhaps only when I was safely away from those I knew was I free to be pregnant.

I felt closer to the baby now. I was sure it was a girl. I wondered what she would look like; what color hair she would have. I prayed she would have a happy life and that I was doing the right thing. I prayed that if and when she found out what I had done, she wouldn’t hate me.

Keeping the baby was wrong, but giving her away wasn’t right either. It hurt like hell. I’d put my hands on my stomach and talk to her, silently, trying to explain to her why I was doing it. I was going to do this difficult and painful thing so she could have a happy life. I hoped that she would never, ever, think I didn’t love her.

I wanted my baby to have everything, starting with a married mother and a father. I knew with absolute certainty that somewhere there was a couple who would one day—quite soon now—get a call that their daughter had been born.

Three weeks before the baby was due, Dr. Bergman said it was time to meet with the adoption lawyer. My mom and I met Joel Steinberg in a Greenwich Village restaurant right around the corner from the apartment where Lisa would live for six and a half years. At the time, I saw Steinberg as my savior. If I didn’t measure up, he wouldn’t take my case, so I had to please him.

Nobody ate but Steinberg. He ordered a hamburger and coleslaw. I was too tense to eat. Steinberg was a large man. I noticed that first, then his eyes: very intense, very intelligent eyes with almost a piercing quality as if he saw everything. He ate while he talked. The smell of the food from his breath made me nauseous.

Steinberg told us he’d handled more than 300 adoptions on Long Island alone, with never a problem. He asked questions and took notes on a legal pad, although he already seemed to know a surprising amount about me.

I broached the subject of wanting the baby to be brought up in a Catholic home. Steinberg said he had exactly such a couple in mind. The proposed adoptive father was a well-to-do attorney. They lived in Manhattan. They weren’t young, but their careers were well on track. Oh, how good that sounded. He didn’t say much about the woman. I got the idea she didn’t have to work and would be happy to stay home and care for the baby. That sounded nice.

Steinberg said, “There are costs you know. Filing fees. Five hundred dollars up front should handle it.” Steinberg told Mom to pass him the money in a napkin. Did that strike me as strange? No, not in New York City, where you don’t flash money around. I didn’t like Mr. Steinberg. Mom says he is a consummate con artist. I say he is Lucifer himself.

The meeting was over. Steinberg wiped his mouth, threw the napkin on the table, said his goodbyes and left. He didn’t pay the check. I did. He must have left thinking he was very clever. He’d gotten the information he wanted, he’d gotten a look at me; he’d divulged nothing.

The legal pad on which he took notes would eventually damn Steinberg. Almost seven years later it was found during a police search of his apartment after Lisa’s death. By then they knew that Lisa was not Nussbaum’s child, but they had no idea who her natural mother was. In bold letters at the top, written in Steinberg’s hand, was the name “Michele Launders.”

When the time came, I knew as much about giving birth as I did about astrophysics. I was alone in Ginny’s house when all this liquid came pouring out of me. I vaguely knew about water breaking, but nothing prepared me for this! My panties were soaked, my dress was wet. It was about six o’clock on a Wednesday night. No one was home. The contractions started. I had never felt anything like it. I called Dr. Bergman’s nurse, hardly able to speak for my panic. She told me to lie on the couch.

Ginny came home, tracked down Dr. Bergman and at 7:30 we drove to Manhattan. Some time during the night at the hospital they took prints of my thumb and forefinger. Those fingerprints would later prove that I was the mother of the murdered child. The night passed somehow. I don’t remember much of anything except pain and a terrible loneliness.

At 8:12 on the morning of May 14, Lisa was born. I heard Dr. Bergman say, “It’s a girl.” They were cutting the umbilical cord and my view was blocked. I saw her for about 20 seconds as the nurse carried her away. She was so beautiful. That brief glimpse is all I would have of my little girl.

The weeks after my baby was born were filled with sadness. Kevin and I both returned to Long Island at about the same time, he for summer break, I from giving birth to our baby. I called him and left a message with his parents. I called again that night. He still wasn’t home. I was sure that any minute the phone would ring and it would be Kevin telling me he was coming right over. My life would start again when I was back with him.

I didn’t find out for a week and a half that Kevin had a new girlfriend. I was destroyed. I lay on the couch and just cried hysterically—loud, uncontrollable sobs. If I had been empty inside before, now there was a great yawning hole where my heart had once been.

One night, five weeks after giving birth, Michele saw Kevin sitting alone at a local bar and invited him out for a walk and an explanation. Kevin told her he had lost interest in her on that Valentine’s Day weekend in Maryland. She had changed, he said, and was no longer the cheerful party girl he loved. With that, Michele exploded and bitterly recounted her agonizing ordeal.

I wanted him to feel a small part of the pain I was feeling. Kevin didn’t say much. He asked only one question, if it was a boy or a girl. He never expressed a word of sympathy. I thought telling Kevin would make me feel better. It didn’t.

With time, the anguish lessened, the pain of losing Kevin and my baby dulled. I guess I was trying to handle it as best I knew how, by moving very fast, working in the claims department of a mortgage company], socializing, drinking. I dated lots of people, but they were mostly friends, not boyfriends, nobody special. I just didn’t have the same feelings for anybody else that I had for Kevin.

From the moment my baby was born, I never stopped thinking about her. I would look in every baby stroller I passed and compare that child to mine. I never pictured anything bad happening to her. Still I was eaten up with guilt for what I had done. I had a recurring dream that one day there’d be a knock at my door, and I’d open it to see a young woman standing there. “I’m your daughter,” she’d say. “And I have one thing to ask you: Why did you give me away?”

There were times over the next six years when that dream brought a measure of hope, for painful as the meeting would be, it meant that Michele might one day be reunited with her daughter. She could never have foreseen that Friday night in November when New York City detectives would come bearing the news of Lisa’s death.

The detectives told me there had been no official adoption papers, which I hadn’t known until then. There was no strength in me, no feeling, except a kind of drilling horror. I gave my baby away to the people who had murdered her.

I spent much of that weekend hiding under a quilt in the little spare bedroom at my mother’s house, with one thought in my head: I killed my baby. On Sunday night I went outside and sat on the lawn, as far from the house as I could get. It was 20° and snowing. I didn’t feel a thing; the chill in my heart was far worse.

I shrieked out my anguish, my horror at what they had done. They betrayed me! The same man who was supposed to give my baby to a loving couple had killed her! I would never, ever forgive myself.

Michele ended her anguished weekend determined to come forward and claim the right to bury her daughter. There followed a frenzied day of meetings with authorities from the city’s Catholic Archdiocese, serpentine maneuvers to elude reporters and a heated marathon session between her own attorney and lawyers for Steinberg and Nussbaum before a judge at Manhattan’s Surrogate’s Court. During that session Michele contacted Kevin, who told the judge in private testimony that he was Lisa’s natural father. Shortly after midnight on Nov. 11, 1987, Michele won the right to lay her Utile girl to rest in the Launders family plot in a Catholic cemetery in Westchester, N.Y. Kevin did not come to the funeral.

Lisa had lived her whole short life in Greenwich Village. It wouldn’t be fair to take the funeral away from the people who had known her. I wanted the funeral to be a joint Jewish-Catholic service, to honor the religion Lisa had been raised in as well as the one she had been born into. From the first I planned to bring Lisa home to our cemetery [for burial].

The morning of the burial I put on my black suit. I moved like a robot. At the funeral home I remember walking up stairs jammed with people. They shrank back to the sides so I could pass. People were clawing at me, pulling at me.

“Bless you. We’re with you.”

“I was beaten too. I was abused.”

The funeral home was packed. Somehow I got to my seat at the front and there was the casket. White. Small. I was surprised at how tiny it was. But she was only a little girl. The coffin was surrounded by flowers, huge bouquets and single roses, expensive arrangements and simple offerings. A tall candle stood at her head, as did a crucifix. At the foot of her coffin an easel held the letters, notes and cards that had been left at the doorway of the apartment building where Lisa had lived.

All during the service, I wanted so badly to go to Lisa, but I sat in my seat until I felt I could walk the few short steps to the casket without breaking down. I waited until almost everyone was gone. The casket was closed. I would have liked it to be open. But knowing what the Steinbergs did to her, if I’d had the coffin opened, even privately, the image I’d carry with me would be one of everlasting horror.

I went up to her coffin. I knelt there, next to the dear body I had never cradled in my arms. I prayed for her soul. I prayed for forgiveness. There was a moment of hush as Lisa’s small coffin was borne out of the funeral home.

We followed the hearse out to Gate of Heaven Cemetery. The ground was frozen and slippery with ice in the biting cold. A cruel wind was blowing. I never felt it. I was thinking about Lisa, crying for her suffering, for the years we had lost.

The service was short, barely nine minutes long. The priest said the usual things they say about a young child who dies. God had called her back because her work was done. Or perhaps, the priest mused, He took her home to Him because He could no longer bear to see her suffering. Oh, how that hurt.

[On the second anniversary of her death last year, I visited the grave and] had a long talk with Lisa in my mind. I tried to explain to her that nobody in this world loves her more than I do. [As I knelt there I began to feel] she knew that. She is the only one I have to answer to. When I came to understand that, a weight lifted off my shoulders. I got a sign from her—nothing overt, nothing anybody could see—just a feeling inside myself. She said, “It’s okay. You can go forward. You can live.”

In one of the notes left at her grave, someone wrote, “Lisa is in the best playground of all. God’s playground.” I think it’s true. In my mind she’s 9 years old, and I imagine her skipping rope and playing hopscotch and doing all the things that 9-year-olds do. I know I’m not really seeing her, but the picture is so real in my mind that I watch her and I smile.