My Brother the Slumlord

Going public is something Amy Neustein never could resist

The courts, meanwhile, repeatedly ruled in Orbach's favor. But Neustein was just as repeatedly the victor in the court of public opinion. The Voice itself published a piece supporting her, which was co-written by Lesher, who would go on to co-author From Madness to Mutiny with Neustein.

"Amy came to me-as she came to everybody-and her story was pretty compelling. And I think I wanted to believe her. . . . I was a feminist . . . and here was a woman whose daughter was taken from her and . . . thrown into foster care," says NPR's Adler, who recalls combing through mountains of information in order to report the piece. "I did this story 15 years ago. And at the end, all I could say was, 'I don't know who is right in this.' By the end of the story, I really didn't have a clue. But, boy, did they mess up their lives."

The case continues to be seen as a landmark of injustice by some women's rights groups. On May 12, 2006, the New York Chapter of the National Organization for Women, which has long supported the Neustein cause, sent out a press release in commemoration of Childless Mother's Day, which opened with the line, "As in the case of Dr. Amy Neustein, women are charged with 'child neglect' on the sole ground that they believe their child has been abused." In the same year, Neustein was presented with a Woman of Valor: Lifetime Achievement Award from the Battered Mothers Custody Conference held in upstate New York.

Amy Neustein breaks into tears when she sees the blight at one of her brother’s buildings.
Jeremy Bales
Amy Neustein breaks into tears when she sees the blight at one of her brother’s buildings.
Amy Neustein
Jeremy Bales
Amy Neustein

Taking into account the long time that has passed since the case first made headlines, however, the Voice asked Neustein about the current location of her daughter, whom she has not seen in many years.

"All attempts at reconciliation have failed thus far," she replied in an e-mail. "I don't know Sherry's whereabouts other than a Google search which has her last (and possibly current) position in Philadelphia. . . ."

Today, Sherry Eve Orbach is 28 years old. After graduating with joint degrees from Harvard's Kennedy School of Public Policy and Columbia Law School in 2007, she now works as an attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

Four years ago, when Neustein and Lesher began to receive publicity for their book, From Madness to Mutiny, Orbach suspected that a new series of stories would be written about her childhood and the allegations that she'd been sexually abused by her father.

So she finally decided to speak out about the case on her own. In an article published by the Jewish Press, Orbach denied that she was ever abused by her father.

"Although I have not seen my mother, Amy Neustein, in 16 years, I remember her clearly," she wrote. "I remember, on one of my rare visits to my mother's house in Brooklyn, watching her softly stroking her hair with an antique silver brush as she gazed at herself in her bedroom mirror and wondered out loud whether she was pretty enough to be famous. I remember my mother sitting with me on the plastic-covered couch in my grandmother's country home at age five as if it were yesterday. We had been rehearsing for hours. She would begin by telling me a sordid and false story about my father, such as a detailed account about how he had molested me or about how he had thrown me violently against a wall. She then instructed me to repeat the story word for word until she was satisfied with my rendition. At the time, my father had indicated he would be filing for custody. My mother warned that if I did not tell these lies to the judge, I would be taken from my grandmother. After my mother lost legal custody, I visited her once a week. During these visits, my mother used to tape record me and pose me for pictures in order to gain material for her next media performance. I fought back in the only way I could. Once, I chased her around a table in an attempt to snatch her tape recorder."

The piece was immediately questioned by other Jewish publications. The Jewish Voice and Opinion openly doubted that Orbach had actually written the piece. Lesher also publicly claimed that the "Sherry Orbach" who had written the piece was an imposter. (Privately, however, he wrote Orbach an e-mail asking her to reconcile with her mother.)

The mainstream media that had followed every development in the case years earlier, however, didn't take notice. Neustein's book was published to favorable reviews, and she has continued to advance her career.

The question lingered: Was it Orbach who had written the Jewish Press piece claiming that she had been coached as a young girl?

The Voice arranged to meet Orbach recently at a vegetarian restaurant in the East Village. Soft-spoken and slender, she was accompanied by her fiance, Jon Lachman, whom she met while completing her master's degree at Harvard two years ago. Almost immediately, she handed over her driver's license.

"A lot of people have told you that I'm not who I say I am," she said.

Why, we asked, had she finally gone to such an obscure local journal with information that, at one time, was a prime-time television case? She said that she'd spent her adult life avoiding publicity, and it was still humiliating to speak publicly about her experiences.

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