Filmmaker Sasha Joseph Neulinger‘s father saved boxes packed with video tapes he recorded of his children as they grew up in a Philadelphia suburb in the 1990s. In an eerie twist, the home movies of family outings, get-togethers and celebrations turned out to be a damning picture of multigenerational child sex abuse.
To make his masterful and courageous documentary, Neulinger combed through 200 hours of this footage. Through the film, he comes to terms with his traumatic past as a victim of three paternal relatives — including his uncle Howard Nevison, a high-profile cantor at Manhattan’s prominent Temple Emanu-El.
“Rewind” recently had its broadcast release on PBS, and is also available via VOD streaming. In it, 30-year-old Neulinger revisits the abuse not through the eyes of the child he was at the time, but as the adult he is now.
Newly married and living in Montana, Neulinger is a filmmaker and a public speaker on reforms in child advocacy and child abuse prevention. He told The Times of Israel in a recent interview that combining the home movie footage with present-day interviews of his parents, and the psychiatric and law enforcement professionals who assisted him and his sister (who was also abused), helped him address old wounds.
“I think deep, open conversation and patience and perseverance is required to clean out those wounds and really give them an opportunity to heal,” he said.
Neulinger, who was born with the last name Nevison but legally adopted his mother’s maiden name at age 10 as the trials against his paternal relatives began, was careful to craft “Rewind” to be viewable despite its intense subject matter. The film’s narrative is unsettling from the outset, and it continues to unfold as a mystery where each answer leads to new questions.
Ultimately, we learn that Sasha was abused between ages three and seven by his father Henry’s two older brothers, Howard and Larry, and by Larry’s son Stewart. Sasha’s younger sister Bekah was also abused by Stewart. When Henry was a child, he was abused by both Larry and Howard. Howard also abused Larry.
Larry Nevison was convicted in 1990 and served 14 years in prison. His son Stewart pleaded guilty during his father’s trial and spent two years in and out of prison, dying at age 42 in 2016. After a long, drawn out litigation, Howard Nevison, who Neulinger said was a particularly violent abuser, pleaded guilty in 2006 to misdemeanor charges and avoided jail time thanks to a dropped felony charge. He had been put on paid leave by Temple Emanu-El upon his arrest in 2002, and retired in 2006.
The Times of Israel asked Neulinger why he revisited his childhood trauma, what he learned by doing so, and how his relationship to Judaism was affected by what he endured.
Not many years had passed since the legal closure to your ordeal when you began working on this film. Why did you want to revisit the abuse so soon?
When I was 23 I was just finishing film school, working on a film and feeling happy, but there was still this inner voice in my head that echoed those victim statements — you’re dirty, you’re disgusting, you’re unlovable. I didn’t want to go through life ignoring that voice and hearing it in the back of my mind. I wanted to address its source so that I could heal it and make it go away. I recognized that there were clearly unresolved issues from my childhood that I needed to address.
I remembered that my dad had taken a ton of home video from our childhood. I thought that some of my answers and catharsis could be found in those tapes. It turned out he had three boxes of tapes with more than 200 hours of footage. After I watched the first six tapes, I knew that I had to watch all of them and that I was going to embark on a very long and important journey. If this turned out to be helpful for me, then I should document it because it could be helpful to others.
How did your parents and sister react to your decision to make “Rewind?”
My parents were incredibly supportive. My sister Bekah was at first really skeptical, wanting to know why I wanted to dig everything up. I told her that if there was a part of our past that we couldn’t touch without feeling traumatized, then we were still victim to that trauma.
If there was a part of our past that we couldn’t touch without feeling traumatized, then we were still victim to that trauma
I wanted to truly understand what happened and come to peace with it so we can all move forward with our lives. When Bekah saw that I received over 6,000 personal messages from survivors in response to the film’s Kickstarter campaign, I think she was able to shed some of her shame around it and recognize that this could be a good thing for us, and she got on board.
What did you think you would learn from making this film that you didn’t already know from years of psychotherapy and litigation?
My experience in the late 1990s and early 2000s was as a subjective child. All the abuse, chaos, and unearthing of my life was through the lens of a terrified, traumatized child. I have always known what happened and how I felt through the whole process. The abuse and those experiences are seared in my mind.
At the time, I was just focused on survival, but years later I was really interested in recontextualizing the narrative through an adult lens. I wanted to understand the legal prosecution, the methods my psychiatrist used, and how my parents dealt with it. By fleshing out the narrative and truly understanding all the different facets of the story, I felt it could help me come to peace with the turmoil and help me move on. I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. I had a lot of unanswered questions.
What was happening in my parents lives while everything was occurring? Why did they not know the abuse was happening and protect me? What did the struggle look like for me to finally feel comfortable to disclose the abuse? How did my dad’s childhood and unresolved issues contribute to the continued cycle of abuse? Why did it take nearly nine years to get through three trials?
What are some of the key insights you gained by making this film?
The raw emotions of pain I felt about how my parents handled it, were replaced with empathy and understanding that the situation wasn’t so black and white.
Up until I realized that my sister was being abused, I thought my abusers were hurting me because I had done something to deserve it
I discovered that my dad never thought that his abusers could hurt my sister and me because we were beautiful; that they would only hurt someone who was dirty, disgusting and unlovable. This is one of the ways that multigenerational abuse perpetuates. Oftentimes victims believe they were abused because they are dirty, disgusting and unloveable and did something to deserve the abuse. I totally understood my dad, because up until I realized that my sister was being abused, I thought my abusers were hurting me because I had done something to deserve it. I would never have imagined that they would hurt my sister.
With regard to my mom, I tried to hint to her many many times that something was wrong. As a kid, I felt those hints were clear. But unless you are explicit about what is going on, a parent can only try to understand, and she certainly did. I was able to remember beautiful experiences of her efforts to support and help me. Those memories had been buried because they were overshadowed by the painful ones.
Montgomery County in Pennsylvania changed its testimony procedures for child victims of sexual abuse as a result of your experiences. Can you explain a bit more about that?
Child advocacy centers [CACs] started in Huntsville, Alabama in 1985. These centers are the gold standard for helping children who have been abused, and there are over 1,000 of them in the US now. The centers use a multidisciplinary approach aimed at reducing secondary trauma. The child only has to tell their story once, and all the information needed for all the different facets of the child’s well-being, including mental health and justice, are met simultaneously.
I had to disclose all the different times I was abused by all three abusers dozens of times to over a dozen people before I even got to my first courtroom
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Montgomery County did not have a CAC. I had to disclose all the different times I was abused by all three abusers dozens of times to over a dozen people before I even got to my first courtroom. It’s systematic abuse and retraumatization. In that regard, the system inadvertently protects the abusers, because there aren’t that many children who can withstand that repetitive interviewing. As a result, these kids carry the effects of the abuse into adulthood through no fault of their own, because of a system that wasn’t protecting them. CACs are vital.
In the film we see moments in which you have a positive connection to Judaism, such as your bar mitzvah, and when you drew strength from donning your maternal great-grandfather’s kippa when facing Howard Nevison in court. At the same time, your most violent abuser was a prominent cantor who was protected by his congregation. Have you been able to reconcile this conflict?
I am a secular Jew but I believe in God. I experience God when I am on the top of a mountain, when I am dipping my hands in a creek, or watching a sunset. I don’t experience God when I am at temple. A big part of that is because of what I experienced.
There are incredibly beautiful and important teachings in Judaism, however human beings can be flawed. There is a huge danger that I see in blindly following religious leaders, some of whom are human beings who crave power and use religious institutions to use that power. It happens in every religion.
I often wonder why Temple Emanu-El chose to support Howard. I think it is a lot easier to say that something didn’t happen than to acknowledge the fact that the person who sings you the word of God could have raped children.