My Brother the Slumlord

Going public is something Amy Neustein never could resist

"I hoped that the story would fizzle out and that, if I had a difficult childhood, I could have a normal adulthood," she says. "The way [my mother] has been able to resuscitate the story is by putting herself as a leader for other victims. I don't think she cares about the people she claims to represent."

Orbach says that her mother had confronted her with very disturbing, sexually explicit information as a child, and that had led her to be afraid of her father and, at one point, to corroborate the sexual abuse-a reaction that was described in legal testimony. But when she moved in with her father after foster care, she began to realize "that he was a decent guy," and the longer she was away from her mother's home, the more she felt what she'd been told by her mother was irresponsible.

Sherry remembers visitations from her mother as very painful experiences. Around the time when Orbach developed anorexia, she would do anything to not be in her mother's presence, including scratching herself and screaming. "Throughout my life, my mother was always filming and taping me and taking pictures of me and telling lies. It was profoundly embarrassing. I felt victimized during each visit. She wanted to use me to get the media's attention," Orbach says.

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

Orbach was asked if her father's strategy of never talking to the press (until he recently spoke to the Voice) had made the situation worse. "My mother has dominated the airtime. She has sought a lot of media attention," Sherry responded. "My dad's tactic is a 'No comment' tactic. He didn't want to engage. He knew it was profoundly humiliating to me."

Two years ago, when Neustein was invited to be on Nightline to comment on the case of a prominent Orthodox rabbi who was accused of sex abuse, Sherry called the program and complained, explaining that her mother's supposed expertise on sex abuse was based on a false case-namely, her own. Roxanna Sherwood, a producer at Nightline, tells the Voice that Orbach's objection did lead to a discussion among the show's producers, but ultimately, Sherwood found Neustein's research to be credible, and because she was not going to speak about her personal story, there was no reason to not have her on the program. "Her research was solid and vetted thoroughly. For us to take her research and not give her a nod wouldn't have been fair," says Sherwood.

In 2006, Orbach also reached out to the National Organization for Women, which has been a staunch supporter of Neustein's version of events. She asked a friend who worked with NOW to send the organization's president, Kim Gandy, an e-mail discussing Orbach's side of things. She hasn't heard back.

"The court saw the truth. But in the court of public opinion, it's quite the opposite," Orbach says. "I've been skeptical of the media for a long time, especially when, as an adult, I tried to intervene. I would try to tell people that I wasn't victimized the way my mother said I was. And I expected that what I said would give reason to pause and investigate." Orbach also complained to the lead counsel for the University Press that published Neustein's book, but was told the book was "not a memoir"-even though references to the custody case are sprinkled throughout it.

Neustein, for her part, says she hopes that she can reconcile with her daughter by attending therapy sessions together. But Orbach says that as long as Neustein continues the allegations of abuse, she does not trust her mother: "Of course I would have liked to have a real mother, but I would prefer to have no mother than to have a mother who exploits and victimized me."

After dinner with Orbach, the Voice asked Amy Neustein about her daughter's complaint that she seeks publicity for its own sake. Neustein responded that she actually wants to put the story of her own custody battle behind her so she can focus on her expertise in speech technology. She insisted that she isn't a "media hound," but that, on multiple occasions, she has little choice but to seek the spotlight.

That was true in this case, she pointed out, in regards to her brother, the landlord, who is locked in a battle with Dominican tenants of modest means who just want a decent place to live.

"You need media," she said, "when you are suffocated and oppressed and no one will listen to you. The only way out is freedom of speech."
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