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Song of Sorrow


For all of Montgomery County district attorney Bruce Castor's grandstanding, the case is far from airtight. Joel evidently sustained physical injuries, but there's a man in jail and another one just out who could be responsible for that. The prosecution will have to rely heavily on the testimony of a 12-year-old repeating the statements he made as a 9-year-old recalling what happened to him as early as 3. Linda Fairstein describes testimony by children remembering incidents that happened when they were that young as "treacherous" in terms of potential unreliability. She also points out that the delay gave the D.A. time to coach the young witness -- a point that surely will not be lost on the defense.

Should Henry and Larry testify about their alleged abuse as children -- and it's unclear the judge will allow that testimony -- their statements would prove problematic, too: Larry is hardly sympathetic, and Henry's description of his memories is complicated. He doesn't claim to have blocked them out entirely (the standard for classic recovered-memory syndrome); on the other hand, he says he only confronted them after Joel spoke out.

Defense attorneys would have no trouble finding expert witnesses to question the reliability of Henry's memories. And if he claims they weren't suppressed, why would he allow his son to be alone in a room with the man he says tormented him? Or putting Henry on the witness stand could backfire: If he'd been abused himself -- or believed he'd been -- could he have pressured his son into testifying in his stead?

Stewart Nevison's older brother, scott, is a 32-year-old truck driver who lives in Philadelphia. "He's a pompous prick," he says about Howard, "and I haven't talked to him in ten years. What's it to you?" It smells like kitty litter in the hallway of his apartment, and there's a sticker on the plywood door inviting guests to open their arms to Jesus.The crack in the door gradually grows wider as Scott counterattacks: "How'd you feel if it was your family? I've got three blows -- my father, my brother, and my uncle."

Inside Scott's dimly lit apartment, there's a small Christmas tree in a dark corner, overflowing ashtrays, overflowing boxes of kitty litter. Lighting up a cigarette and leaning against a doorway to the kitchen, Scott seems relieved to be talking about the subject. "Yeah, you could say he was the hip uncle," he says, "because he was more freewheeling than my dad." Until Scott was 9, Larry beat both Scott and Stewart -- closed-fist hitting, in the head, on the shoulder. "I used to piss my pants when I saw him coming at me," says Scott.

Larry, who worked in a print shop, left his wife when Scott was 9, Stewart 8. (Larry's first wife, Carol, remarried and is now a Jew for Jesus living with her second husband in Philadelphia; she declined to comment.) When Larry walked out, Howard effectively cut him off, stepping in to help Carol. Howard and Fern would spend weekends at Carol's home, pitching in, splurging on gifts for the kids. "He and Fern -- they just kept us laughing 24/7," says Scott. Now he smiles boyishly, remembering, and sits down at the table. "I just loved him as my uncle. He was the one responsible for getting me motivated to go to college. That's why all this is so hard." He flushes red, and then the color fades almost immediately, a physical response startlingly similar to Henry's.

The relationship abruptly ended when Scott, struggling financially with school, dropped out to take a job driving a recycling truck. "Howard was like, 'Real nice job for a Nevison,' " says Scott. "I said, 'F you, buddy, I don't have to take it from you.' " A flush, a fade. "I was mad at myself for not being able to do what I wanted to do. A lot of stuff wasn't going my way."

Scott blames Howard and Larry for a lot of things, but neither of them, he says, ever touched him sexually. As for the array of charges, Scott doesn't know what to think, except that he believes in Stewart's innocence. Stewart initially contested the charges, but shortly after a jury sentenced his father to five to fifteen years (Larry is appealing the conviction), Stewart pleaded guilty to two counts of lesser molestation charges, spending about a year in prison before being released on parole this past November. "I told him," says Scott, " 'You didn't do it, so then don't say you did!' " Despite the rift with Howard, he can't fully accept the notion of his uncle as a pedophile. "For one thing, he wasn't there that often," he says, adding, "How do you prove you didn't do something like that? If they could accuse Stew . . . they could accuse me."

Now married (to a woman fifteen years older, with ten kids from earlier marriages), he says he'd never hurt her or her kids, an assertion he makes with pride. "So boo-hoo-hoo, something happened, your dad beat you up. I was beat, but I never touched a soul in my life," says Scott, smoking furiously. "If there's something wrong, you think, I better go to the doctor, not I'll just hide it. You have to take responsibility."

Still, he feels ashamed of his family. "I feel guilt," he says, trying to work out why. "It's my family. Maybe there's some kind of gene in the blood."

Scott occasionally talks to his grandmother Sylvia. Even after all that's been charged, the mundane kinds of guilt persist. "Sylvia always asks me, 'Have you tried writing your father?' " says Scott. He looks down sheepishly. "And I have to lie and say that I do."

When thinking back on Howard's career, Henry remembers feeling most gripped by one of his early roles, with the Opera Company of Philadelphia. "I have a vivid memory of him playing the villain who kills his wife in Puccini's Il Tabarro. I loved to watch that because he was so demonic." Henry's chest practically puffs up and his eyes grow slitted as he reenacts his brother's performance for a moment. He wraps his arm across his front with a flourish as if enfolding himself in a cloak. "I used to think that was so cool. He had this evil, baritone voice" -- he sits up straight, opens his voice, and lets out a deep trill. Then he deflates; he looks confused, like he's trying to understand why he loved his brother in that role, admired it so.

"When he attacked me, when he did what he did to me, it was with that same level of dominance," he finally says. "I felt his evil. When I read what my son said about Howard -- that he had an 'intimidating voice' -- that really sent it home to me. That was my experience."

Eleven days before his extradition hearing, at around ten on a Friday morning, Howard, possibly hoping to avoid press, unexpectedly turned himself in at a small courthouse in Narberth, Pennsylvania, arriving with a vanful of friends and family. Later that day, after a handcuffed trip to the police station for fingerprinting, he was released on $25,000 bail. On the way out of the courthouse, as he faced the photographers the police had alerted, Fern tried to make light of the situation: Make sure not to be too "mean-looking," she was reported saying dryly to her husband. But back in the courtroom, she'd turned to a friend and wept in her arms.


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