When Michele Launders, now 28, learned that Lisa Steinberg was her biological daughter and came forward to bury the murdered child, it was as if her own life had been silenced as well. “After the funeral I couldn’t feel anything for anyone.” she says. “I had to be alone. I was an emotional wreck and a horrible human being. Getting up in the morning was torture, but going to sleep was worse because of the nightmares. I would dream of what happened to Lisa the night she went into the coma”—she pauses, and her voice becomes as soft as a whisper—”of her being hit, then lying on the cold bathroom floor, alone and unattended…”
In November 1988, when Joel Steinberg went on trial for murder, a year after Lisa’s funeral, Launders appeared in the packed courtroom each day and sat directly behind him. “I could see the hairs on his neck,” she says, “and I thought, ‘If I could kill you. I would.’ ” During midday recesses Michele would lock herself in a rest room stall and sob, and at night, she says, “I’d be so angry I’d throw dishes, ashtrays, flower arrangements. It was getting messy and very expensive, so I started throwing pillows.”
Her age toward Hedda Nussbaum was no less intense. “Before Hedda testified.”” says Michele, “when I read about her injuries, I had a teeny, tiny fraction of empathy for her, but as soon as she walked into that courtroom, it was gone. I couldn’t believe she was getting away with it. All she wanted was for the charges to be dropped against her. I can’t even think about her now, I’ve come too far.”
The jury deliberated for eight days following the 12-week trial and reduced the charge of murder to manslaughter. Steinberg is now serving a maximum sentence of 8 1/3 to 25 years. Launders says it is not enough. Neither the conviction nor sessions with psychologists relieved her suffering. “Therapy was a waste,” she says. “I couldn’t talk to friends; how could I open up to strangers?”
From the day Michele gave up her baby, says her mother, Anita, who agreed with her daughter’s adoption decision, “I watched her diminish from a caring, concerned, sensitive human. At first she became a workaholic, she partied too hard, drank too much. She had this whole facade of ‘you can’t hurt me.’ We had terrible arguments.”
Though headstrong and combative, the two remain very close. Anita has had to come to terms with being shut out when Michele learned she was pregnant. “Here she was 18 years old and going off into the wild blue yonder without coming to me,” says Anita. “She’d ask me about a color of lipstick or nail polish, but when it came to this problem, she didn’t seek my advice. It was devastating.”
In 1986 Anita remarried and moved to New Jersey, where she was living the night Lisa was found in a coma. “I clicked on the news and was rolling my hair when I saw a picture,” she recalls. “I dropped the rollers and sat there frozen. “My God,’ I thought, ‘that looks just like Michele.’ They had the same pout.” She called Michele, who promptly declared her mother nuts and suggested she go to bed. “The night she decided to claim Lisa’s body,” says Anita, “I saw the old Michele standing up tall, and I was so proud. Now I’d like her to get back into the mainstream.”
Today Michele seems headed in that direction. “The pain is always there,” she says. “My heart weighs a ton, but it is something I can deal with now.” Bored with her job as an insurance claims adjuster, Michele resigned earlier this year and is currently receiving financial support from her mother. She spends part of her week baby-sitting her 5-month-old godson. Since the trial she has developed close ties to Graceann Smigiel and her daughter Nicole, whose son Travis, now 4, was also illegally adopted by Steinberg. On the night Lisa fell into a coma, Travis (called Mitchell by Steinberg) was found tied to a chair wearing a urine-soaked diaper and clutching a bottle of soured milk. He has since been returned to his natural mother and grandmother on Long Island. Michele visits them often. When she proudly reveals that young Travis has already mastered a two-wheel bicycle, she glows as if she were his own mother.
Launders volunteers at a local hospital, reads to groups at a nearby library and is considering working with unwed mothers or the National Child Abuse Association. Every few weeks she visits Lisa’s grave, where she installed a granite footstone that reads: GOD’S ANGEL-ELIZABETH “LISA” LAUNDERS, BELOVED DAUGHTER OF KEVIN AND MICHELE 1981-1987. She has saved the hundreds of letters and Mass cards, 10 Bibles and 30 rosaries sent by strangers at the time of Lisa’s death, and photographs of her daughter found in the Steinberg brownstone are now lovingly framed in Michele’s one-bedroom apartment.
She does not envision having more children of her own: “I’m not emotionally stable enough now, and I think it would be a slap in the face to Lisa.” As for marriage, Launders says, “I’m not ruling out the possibility, but at the moment I’m too independent and not really looking.” Lisa’s father, Kevin, whose last name Launders has consistently refused to reveal, remains single and lives not far from Michele, though they do not see each other. “He’s like a kid who never grew up or doesn”t want to,” she says. “I have a lot of regrets, but the fact that I didn’t tell him I was pregnant is not one of them. It would not have made any difference.”
Recently she has started dating again. If she feels a friendship may bloom, she is candid about her past; otherwise she keeps yesterday’s sorrows to herself. “I’m less afraid to face each new morning now,” she says. “Lisa gives me strength. Life is getting better. I live from month to month, but it used to be minute to minute, so I think that shows promise.”