Neulinger, now 29, said he was sexually abused by two uncles and a cousin as a child growing up in Pennsylvania.
“It's been a real journey for me as a survivor, but also as a human being,” Neulinger told a packed ballroom at the Spring Lake Country Club on Friday afternoon during a fundraiser for Holland's Ed and Nancy Hanenburg Children's Advocacy Center.
Child sexual abuse is one of the greatest social epidemics of our time, according to Neulinger, who last week debuted an autobiographical documentary film at the Tribeca Film Festival. “Rewind” chronicles his life as a survivor of multi-generational child sexual abuse. He said that, according to current statistics, one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys will be sexually abused before age 18.
Neulinger sprinkled home-movie clips and television news broadcasts into his presentation.
“At 3 years old, I was the happiest kid on the planet,” he said. “I felt safe, supported, and felt free to express myself. Unfortunately, that joy and happiness was violently interrupted.”
At age 4, he said his uncle sexually abused him for the first time.
“I only knew what my uncle was doing to me was extremely painful,” Neulinger said. “I thought I was awful and that I must have done something to deserve it. At that moment, the world became a dark place and I felt dirty.”
But the abuse didn’t stop there. For the next four years, he said two uncles and a cousin raped him, often during family gatherings in his own home.
“Uncle Howard said to me, 'If you tell anyone, I'll kill you.' And I believed it,” he said. “With each rape, I felt increasingly numb. My sense of self-worth, my identity, my ability to see beauty in the world was deteriorating rapidly. At some level, I believed I deserved this.”
One day, when his cousin Stewart summoned him to a room in the attic, Neulinger saw his little sister exiting the room, tears rolling down her face.
“It was at that moment that I finally realized what my abusers were doing was wrong,” he said. “My little sister didn't deserve to be hurt like that. And maybe, just maybe, I didn't either.”
Neulinger approached his mother, telling her about the “secret club” that was doing bad things. His mom asked his sister to draw pictures.
“My sister drew pictures that no 4-year-old child should know how to draw,” he said.
The experiences carved a deep hole in Neulinger's soul. He suffered from insomnia, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. He jumped out of a moving car in an attempt to kill himself.
He began to see a psychiatrist, and eventually revealed his deep, dark secrets.
“I was 8 years old at the time of disclosure,” Neulinger said. “I felt this huge sense of relief. For the next nine years of my life, I was in and out of courtrooms testifying against all three of my abusers.”
In those days, Neulinger had to travel to physicians offices, detective offices, Child Protective Services and various other government buildings, telling his story over and over, dozens of times. It was traumatizing, and tiring, he said.
His Uncle Larry Nevison was sentenced to 14-22 years in prison, and served 11 years. Stewart asked for a plea deal and served 11 months in prison.
Uncle Howard Nevison, a prominent Manhattan Jewish cantor, used defense attorneys to drag out the legal process, filing multiple motions over many years. After a plea bargain, Howard was sentenced to 12 years probation, when Neulinger was 16.
“After four years of abuse and nine years of prosecution, I was ready to move forward with my life,” Neulinger said. “I was unwilling to make my entire young life about prosecution. He only got 12 years of probation, but the multi-generational abuse was over.
Neulinger had learned that his Uncle Larry, father and others were sexually abused.
“After 13 years of fighting to get my life back, the war was finally over,” he said. “It was a triumphant moment.”
The legal minds who helped prosecute Neulinger's case reached out to him to set up a Children's Advocacy Center in his home county. Like many similar advocacy centers across the country, including the one in Holland, it's a child-friendly space where kids can share their stories, undergo forensic medical exams, experience play, art and psycho-therapy, all under one roof. There's no running from place to place, retelling the story dozens of times, like Neulinger had to do. And there's no cost to families.
“Everything is under one roof with access to justice, physical, emotional and mental healing,” Neulinger said.
For more information on volunteering or donating to the Ed and Nancy Hanenburg Children's Advocacy Center, call 616-393-6123, visit cac-ottawa.org/prevention or email [email protected]