Catharine R. Stimpson
May 18, 1990 AT 04:00 AM EDT

What Lisa Knew is smart but vicious, a whiplash of a book.

The Steinberg case was one of the most famous murder trials of the 1980s. In November 1987, Lisa Steinberg, a first-grader, was beaten and left to die in her home in New York City. A baby boy was found tethered to a urine-soaked playpen in the next room. Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum, who falsely claimed to have adopted both children, were charged with murder. A criminal lawyer of doubtful reputation, Steinberg also had been battering Nussbaum for years.

Nearly a year later, the prosecutor’s office dropped the criminal charges against Nussbaum and she became a witness against Steinberg. In January 1989, after days of deliberation, a jury convicted him of manslaughter.

Now Joyce Johnson does what she wishes the courts had done: She tries Nussbaum as well as Steinberg. She finds her guilty — most certainly of child abuse, possibly of murder. ”Even after Steinberg’s conviction,” Johnson writes ominously, ”a shadow of doubt still hangs over the case.” Audaciously, and without offering any proof, she uses the jurors in the Steinberg case to back her up, claiming that ”four out of the six black people on the jury were convinced at the conclusion of her testimony that Hedda Nussbaum had killed Lisa Steinberg.”

Johnson is also eager to condemn both Steinberg and Nussbaum as symbols of their ”dangerously empty” generation. She finds society as a whole little better: Few lawyers care about justice; few doctors about healing; few journalists about reality; too few feminists about the real meaning of women’s autonomy. Most passionately and persuasively, Johnson condemns our refusal to care for children and their rights.

But the worst of her tongue-lashings are reserved for Nussbaum. Steinberg seems the better parent. He is described as given to ”flashes of compunction” about his treatment of Lisa. By contrast, Nussbaum is jealous of the little girl. A ”connoisseur” of cocaine, according to Johnson, Nussbaum became an addict two years before he did. In sum, Johnson’s Hedda is shallow, literal-minded, irresponsible, fraudulent, angry, and narcissistic, a masochist who played power games with Steinberg and let a child die rather than abandon them.

Johnson does admit that Nussbaum was battered. For many people, a battered woman is thrice broken — spiritually, psychologically, and physically — and many people would suggest that by November 1987, Nussbaum was as capable as a corpse of helping Lisa. That doesn’t mean the woman was a saint. The Steinberg-Nussbaum apartment was a cruel parody of a home. Nevertheless, it housed three victims: one woman, two children. Johnson will have none of this. No matter how shattered and battered Nussbaum might have been, she had her obligations to morality and to ”a genuine maternal instinct,” a concept Johnson never explains. Instead she berates Nussbaum’s defenders: ”(T)he slogan ‘Don’t blame the victim!’ became the rallying cry of Hedda Nussbaum’s supporters. Those four increasingly loosely applied words are emblazoned on the banner of the Battered Women’s movement. For me, they have come to mean, ‘Don’t think! Don’t judge! Don’t differentiate!”’

Unfortunately, the book in which Johnson delivers these judgments mingles autobiography, reportage, the Gothic novel, and docudrama. Although her subtitle promises to sort out the ”truths” from the ”lies” of the Steinberg case, she deals instead in conjecture, speculation, surmise, metaphor, perhaps, seems, and maybes. She substitutes insinuation for evidence and even feels free upon occasion to imagine for us Lisa’s thoughts and feelings.

Johnson has set out to name modern good and evil, guilt and innocence. This demands some courage. Yet, entangled in the Steinberg case, angry and often bewildered, she has added to its woeful stock of injuries.

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