A 'Fairy Tale' Fractures: The Dark Side of Dating New York's Top Prosecutor and How His Accuser Healed Herself

Tanya Selvaratnam talks to PEOPLE about her frightening relationship with Eric Schneiderman and her new memoir, Assume Nothing

Tanya Selvaratnam
Tanya Selvaratnam. Photo: KK Ottesen

Tanya Selvaratnam says she was "ripe for the breaking" when, in 2016, she met Eric Schneiderman.

It was at the Democratic National Convention and the pair soon entered a relationship that grew more and more serious — and, says Selvaratnam, more violent.

"I wasn't prepared for when my path intersected with an abuser. I wasn't prepared for the grooming, gaslighting and manipulation," she says.

When they first got together, it was "like a fairy tale."

Two years later, the physical abuse Selvaratnam and three other women allegedly suffered at the hands of New York's attorney general — which, according to their accounts, was often fueled by drugs and alcohol and regularly occurred in bed — was recounted in a New Yorker exposé.

Schneiderman was then the state's top prosecutor and had pursued Harvey Weinstein in the wake of the voluminous allegations against the movie mogul.

He resigned that same day the New Yorker article was published.

"While these allegations are unrelated to my professional conduct or the operations of the office, they will effectively prevent me from leading the office's work at this critical time," he said then. A spokesperson told the magazine at the time that, contrary to two of his accusers, he had not threatened them.

"In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity," Schneiderman told The New Yorker for its story in 2018. "I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in nonconsensual sex, which is a line I would not cross."

But that November, in a statement after a special investigation led by Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas resulted in no criminal charges, Schneiderman said:

"I recognize that District Attorney Singas' decision not to prosecute does not mean I have done nothing wrong. I accept full responsibility for my conduct in my relationships with my accusers, and for the impact it had on them. After spending time in a rehab facility, I am committed to a lifelong path of recovery and making amends to those I have harmed."

But Selvaratnam says she came to believe that he was not truthful about his behavior with other women.

And for all that she herself experienced, it was only after Selvaratnam heard of another, later abuse allegation when Schneiderman's alleged abuse of an additional woman came out that she finally experienced "rage," she says.

While writing her new memoir, Selvaratnam says she concluded that Schneiderman's violent behavior hadn't changed despite his statement that he was seeking help.

"The fact that he had abused a woman after the New Yorker story came out was the first time that I felt angry at him," she says in an interview about Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence, which published on Tuesday. (The memoir will be adapted into a series by ABC Signature/Disney Television, with Joanna Coles executive producing.)

"Because up until that point, even when Eric and I had parted ways, I didn't feel anger," continues Selvaratnam, an actress, activist and producer. "I was so focused on myself, and my healing and recovery, and not focused on him. I was putting myself back together."

Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence by Tanya Selvaratnam

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Eric Schneiderman. Andrew Burton/Getty

In her book, Selvaratnam, 49, recounts how other women reached out to her about Schneiderman after the New Yorker piece — including a woman who said she met him after the scandal broke.

Schneiderman allegedly mistreated her, too.

In Assume Nothing, Selvaratnam writes that this woman had sent her an email explaining that she felt "sympathy" for the former attorney general following the 2018 exposé But, after they met, she realized Schneiderman was a "sadist and predator," according to the letter quoted in Assume Nothing.

Selvaratnam recounts that the unnamed woman explained to her, "I believe he has targeted me as a way to get his anger at women out." (While Selvaratnam writes that she never spoke with the woman and "can't vouch for her experience," the email "felt like an affirmation.")

After receiving the email, Selvaratnam was furious because Schneiderman's "pattern of abusive behavior had not been stopped, despite his public statement after the criminal investigation had been concluded — that he apologized to those he had harmed and that he was getting help, that he had gone to rehab," she says. "But part of my rage was also at the enablers around him."

Some of those enablers are "incredibly powerful" women, she says.

Selvaratnam says that she experienced "intimate violence" at the hands of Schneiderman for more than a year, but she never planned on coming forward with her story.

It was only after she learned of Schneiderman's alleged pattern of violent behavior that she decided to speak out, first to the New Yorker and now in her memoir.

Her hope, she says, is to prevent Schneiderman from abusing other woman and to open the door so other people feel safe to acknowledge intimate partner violence and seek help.

Schneiderman did not return a call for comment from PEOPLE; a listed representative also did not respond to a call or email.

Intimate partner violence is startlingly common. "About 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men have experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime and reported some form of [intimate partner violence]-related impact," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nonetheless "there is stigma and shame around being in a committed relationship that is abusive," Selvaratnam says. "There is a veil that needs to be lifted about the violence that happens in the bedroom. People are scared to talk about it because it's embarrassing."

In the New Yorker piece and in a New York Times essay, Selvaratnam detailed the abuse she says she experienced. During their year-long relationship, Schneiderman repeatedly slapped her and called her names during sex without her consent, often demeaned her appearance (he once told her to get surgery for larger breasts), called her his "brown slave" and threatened her life on multiple occasions, Selvaratnam says.

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"The worst part was his criticism of my scars," says Selvaratnam, who got the scars after two malignant tumors were removed. She adds: "In the early days of the relationship, he would look at my scars as a badge of courage. But then, as he became more abusive, as the darkness seeped in, my scars suddenly were ugly and he wanted me to get plastic surgery to remove them."

In Assume Nothing, Selvaratnam delves into the scars — both figurative and literal — that she acquired before, during and after her relationship with the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in New York.

One of the hardest parts of the memoir to revisit was her father's mistreatment of her mother when she was a young girl, she says.

When describing the effects of her father's abuse, Selvaratnam references A.M. Homes' review of her book: "This book illustrates how vulnerable we all are; even those who outwardly seem so strong have ancient fractures, points of entry where we are susceptible to the debilitating darkness of others."

After reading that quote, Selvaratnam says she realized "the fractures of my father fractured me."

"As a child, witnessing horrific domestic violence, I never thought that I would become a victim myself," she says. "I stood up to my father. I stood between him and my mother when he would try to hit her. I tried to get her to divorce him."

It was only after experiencing an abusive relationship herself did Selvaratnam get a sense of what her mother went through, she says. "It also helped me understand how a victim looks like all of us, and that even fierce women get abused."

Selvaratnam, a feminist who describes herself as "independent" and "strong," never thought she'd be abused like her mother was. When she met Schneiderman in 2016, they connected over their love of meditation and liberal causes.

But Selvaratnam was also in a "fragile" state, she says. She had suffered multiple miscarriages, been treated for cancer and gotten divorced before dating the attorney general. (She is also the author of The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock.)

"Eric Schneiderman was perceived as a progressive hero, and an ally of the #MeToo movement. And it helped me understand how I got drawn in. People worshiped him and vouched for him." Selvaratnam says. "But, as time progressed, I realized that this man who championed women publicly would abuse me privately."

Selvaratnam realized she needed to get out of the relationship "when the slaps got harder," she says, and after he told her, "Bad girl, daddy's going to rape you," while they were having sex.

But it was difficult for Selvaratnam to end the relationship for multiple reasons. She was his secret keeper: He told her he needed her and he said he'd get help.

Selvaratnam was also scared of him — of his political power and the threats he made (which he denies).

"One of the more vivid times is when he was sharing with me stories about his life, and his family, and his fractured relationship with his own parents," Selvaratnam remembers. "And he just stopped all of a sudden and said, 'If we break up, am I going to have to kill you?' "

Shortly after Selvaratnam left Schneiderman's apartment with her things in 2017, she learned that she wasn't the only woman who says they were treated this way. She would eventually learn of multiple women who say they experienced similar patterns of abuse and manipulation.

"[Eric], like so many abusers, was very skilled at tapping into my insecurities and manipulating them," Selvaratnam says. "He, by nature or by intent, derived pleasure from breaking strong women down."

In order to help these other women, Selvaratnam came forward with her story, despite the cost to her mental health.

In Assume Nothing, she writes of dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts.

"Trauma sets in at a cellular level, which scientists understand," she says. "Abuse, whether it happens for a few minutes or many years, creates a scar that is a marker of time before and after. I have actual scars that run down the length of my torso, which for me mark a time before and after — before I was diagnosed with cancer and after. There has to be an unearthing, an excavation of that trauma."

Through writing and therapy, Selvaratnam has found a way to deal with the pain.

"I am my strongest self ever now, because I went through this seven-year period," she says. "Trauma can be cumulative based on various negative experiences, and I had a long run of them. Culminating that experience was the abusive relationship with Eric."

She continues: "Because I took the step of coming forward and speaking out about the cycle of violence that we're conditioned to normalize from the time we're born, I feel like I healed myself."

Assume Nothing is on sale now.

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