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Song of Sorrow


In the affidavit, police quote Henry describing Howard as "intimidating, controlling, mean, and sadistic." Contemplating how to characterize him as an adult, Henry snorts. "Howard shows you the side of Howard he wants you to see," he says. "He always felt he had the answers for me -- where I'd live, who I'd marry." He pauses. "The interesting thing is that he cared about those things. Our relationship wasn't all negative."

It's clear that Henry still feels some residual pride in his brother's talent. "That throat," he says. "It was legend in our house. I was very proud of my brother. I used to love to brag about who he is and what he does. I felt very proud of that."

The day Henry learned Howard had finally been arrested, he drove to his mother's Philadelphia home, breaking the news to her before she heard it elsewhere.

"People keep saying, 'Why'd you go after the family? Why couldn't you keep it in the family, handle it that way?' " says Henry, suddenly defensive. His face flushes red, then just as suddenly drains of color. "I didn't go after my brothers. The prosecutors went after my brothers."

As Henry talks about his family, he seems almost numb, as if flattened by the mass of circumstances weighing on him. He brightens only once, when asked about a collection of early-twentieth-century cameras displayed on some shelves. As he gently handles a 16-mm. camera, Henry explains that he collects historical home videos, footage of parents and kids goofing around on holiday in San Francisco in the twenties, or maybe on a cruise. He has hundreds of reels -- sweet, nostalgic depictions of family lives long past.

Even before Joel's manic episode with the mask, there had been signs of trouble. When he was 3, he came home from school one day and said his penis hurt. In fact, it was bruised. There are a number of ways it could have happened -- a bump on a piece of furniture, for example -- but it worried Jacqui enough that she went to his preschool to ensure that no caregiver would ever be alone with him.

Although Joel continued on and off to complain about pain -- sometimes in his stomach, sometimes around his genitals -- Jacqui and Henry had little sense of what could be troubling him. "They were seeing signs something was wrong, but they couldn't put their fingers on it -- it's the unthinkable," says Jill Talus, a close friend of Jacqui's with a child around Joel's age. "How do you even go there? It's almost easier to believe your kid has cancer than to think it's sexual abuse."Jacqui and Henry saw Henry's brothers several times a year: One summer, Larry spent a lot of time helping them renovate the house. Howard and his wife, Fern, a petite woman who worked for years in a dentist's office, visited on holidays. When Larry's son Stewart needed to save some money and pull his act together, Jacqui and Henry took him in. A few months later, after finding blood in Joel's stool, Jacqui took her son to the doctor, who didn't sound any alarms. Only after the incident with the mask was she concerned he was being harmed. She whisked Joel off to another doctor; when she returned, Stewart was gone, leaving his belongings behind.

Joel never seemed the same after that: He tried to throw himself in front of a car; he was angry and out of control. Jacqui started spending less time at the production company, and more with Joel and Laura (also not her real name), his younger sister by three years. In therapy, it all came out. Eventually, in October 1998, Jacqui walked into a police station to talk about what they'd learned.

The assertions in the affidavit of probable cause supporting Howard's arrest are grim: that Howard partially penetrated Joel and pinched his penis (causing the bruise), threatening to kill him if he talked; that Larry licked his genitals, and that Stewart "pulled his pants down, got on top of him, and rubbed his penis back and forth." The affidavit also states that Stewart penetrated Laura with his finger. 'Ihad no reason to disbelieve what my son said when he told me," says Henry, "because Howie did the exact same thing to me. It wasn't like 'What is this bizarre thing you're saying about a member of my family?' I was horrified -- suddenly it was like a switch turned on in my head and I started to remember vividly the pain."

Henry believes that someone may have abused Howard, inflicting an earlier sin, if not the original one. But who that might be, he doesn't speculate. The Nevison parents, Mervin and Sylvia, started their family in Strawberry Mansion, then a comfortable, close-knit Jewish community in Philadelphia. Both Mervin's and Sylvia's fathers were cantors; Henry was told neighbors used to come by to hear his maternal grandfather recite the Shabbat prayers on the stoop.

Mervin was a grocer, a mild man who suffered a heart attack at 40, then never worked again and stayed home with the kids. ("It wouldn't have been him," says Henry. "He hated confrontation.") Sylvia, who supported the family as a seamstress, was more assertive (her first words upon meeting Fern were, "Nice to meet you, Howie's not getting married until he goes to Europe," where she hoped he'd launch his career).

Henry says that Howard, already a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, one of the country's most prestigious music conservatories, penetrated him when he was about 8, in the bathroom, up against the cold tub, as his parents watched TV on the floor below. "It was probably Walter Cronkite," he says. "It doesn't take long. I was seeing stars. I remember praying and hoping it would end." He claims it happened on one other occasion; a third time, he slipped away. Within the family, to his brothers, Howard was cruel and sadistic, Henry says, adding, "I don't think anyone outside the family ever saw it."

Henry says his own experience with his two brothers helped him understand Joel, but also intensified his feelings of responsibility for the terror his son endured. "Imagine the guilt that I have to live with," he says. Another flush of red, then a quick fade.

The possibility that Henry, too, could well be a recipient of whatever behavioral "virus" might have afflicted his family was not lost on the police, who briefly looked into Henry's relationship with Joel. They submitted him to a polygraph test, which he passed, confirming one he'd taken independently. After questioning Joel repeatedly on the matter, they ultimately ruled Henry out as a suspect.

Henry himself says that for a long time, he was afraid to have children, unsure, at some level, of the kind of father he'd be. He says he was troubled to see the way Larry beat up on his own kids, impulsive behavior Henry now chalks up to sexual humiliations Larry says he suffered at Howard's hands. "I didn't have children with my first wife," says Henry. "I really believe it's because I was afraid of being abusive. I was afraid of repeating, of doing the very thing . . . I think there's a part of us that we're afraid is a dark corner, and we don't want to put ourselves in situations where we might reveal it."

Of the three sons, Howard seemed to be the golden one. After graduating in 1965 from Curtis, he eventually moved to New York with Fern. For nearly fifteen years, he tried to make it in the opera world while making a living as a cantor at Progressive Shaari Zedek Synagogue in Brooklyn and in the choir at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, near Lincoln Center. Eventually it became clear that the Met wasn't about to tap him. The opportunity at Emanu-El, which came up in 1978, provided a level of prestige and security that made it easier for him to relinquish his operatic ambitions. It apparently didn't matter to Emanu-El that he had no seminary training. He sang, as one Curtis classmate described him, "like a pint-size Robert Merrill." His voice was particularly prized because the temple's Friday-evening Sabbath service is broadcast weekly over WQXR-FM.

Outside of social life within the synagogue, Nevison kept up with his classical-music connections: He stayed in touch with several classmates from Curtis, including prominent Metropolitan Opera soprano Judith Blegen. And he remained active in some local classical-music groups, serving as vice-president of the once prestigious, now somewhat musty Bohemian Society. "Our official position is innocent until guilty," says Bohemian Society president Abba Bogin. "We're distressed by the situation, but we don't want to make any prejudgments until the trial."

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