IPT Book Reviews

Title: What Lisa Knew: The Truth and Lies of the Steinberg Case  Positive Review Positive Review
Author: Joyce Johnson
Publisher: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1990

G.P. Putnam's Sons
200 Madison Avenue
New York, New York


This is the true account of the Steinberg case of child abuse and murder in which the charges against the adoptive mother were dropped, even though she was originally charged with second-degree murder.  She later testified at the trial of Joel Steinberg, her lover and the adoptive father.  The author believes the adoptive mother, Hedda Nussbaum, was a co-conspirator in the death of six-year-old Lisa.  Instead, Hedda Nussbaum replaced her dead adoptive daughter as the victim society would honor.  The book is divided into four sections: factors leading up to the murder, the two accused parents' personalities and relationship, Lisa's sexual abuse, and the trial.


This book is loaded with shocking information that was not brought out at the trial and will upset many feminists, who overidentified with the adoptive mother and believe that she allowed the murder in order to save herself.  Various persons, including several professionals and a ticket booth attendant, claimed that they did not see any form of physical abuse on Lisa, which adds confusion to the situation and destroys many of the myths in child abuse.

The trial section of the book is the most interesting.  There is much criticism of the court since the author believes that both the defense and the prosecution lied to make their case.  Joel Steinberg, charged with murder, was a criminal lawyer who practiced none of the traditional defenses in his own case.  He betrayed his own lawyers and had a long history of suicidal and other self-defeating behaviors.

The book raises questions that it cannot answer.  Hedda Nussbaum is viewed by the author as a coconspirator to the murder, but she was never tried for this.  Her lawyer, Barry Scheck, controlled the trial through the media.  Hedda Nussbaum appeared on talk shows and finally sold her story (before the trial) to People Magazine for $30,000.  Some 18 law students from Cardoza Law School were hired to go over a plastic sack of the couple's belongings for the prosecutor who played cards with the press on his lunch hour.

The author states that several feminist groups, including "Steps to End Family Violence," manipulated Hedda Nussbaum to testify against her lover to save herself.  Hedda was treated like a rape victim, was excused from the murder, and told to turn state's evidence against her lover.  She did and was set free while Joel Steinberg was sentenced to 8.5 to 25 years in prison.  The woman's movement was set back 20 years through having the court validate women as weak victim-like children.

This book is worth buying by every professional who is concerned about human rights.

Reviewed by LeRoy Schultz, professor of social work at West Virginia University.

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