Sasha Joseph Neulinger – Rewinds to Come to Terms with Abuse
Sasha Joseph Neulinger
Rewinds to Come to Terms with Abuse
By Jay S. Jacobs
It isn’t easy to expose the worst thing that has ever happened to you. It is even harder to do it in front of the whole world.
Yet, Sasha Joseph Neulinger was driven to make a film discussing his childhood sexual abuse by trusted family members. The documentary Rewind has been receiving plaudits for taking the novel approach of using lots of home video footage showing the time that the abuse was happening – showing young Sasha going from a good-natured and outgoing boy to a sullen, angry and scared child just a few years later.
Neulinger has been working as an advocate for abuse victims for years. His father was a professional filmmaker and Sasha grew up before the camera, so it seems natural that he would turn to film to tell his story – both as the director and the subject.
He went back home to his native Philadelphia area, spoke with his family and some of the professionals – his psychiatrist, the police detective and the lawyer who handled the eventually high-profile case about his abuse which happened when he was in his teens.
It was a difficult path, but one Neulinger found worthwhile, both because it helped him come to terms with what happened to him and because his story can make other victims feel less alone.
About a week before Rewind was released on VOD, we gave Neulinger a call to talk about his life, his movie, and surviving abuse.
How are you surviving in a coronavirus stay-at-home world?
Fortunately, my wife and I live in a portion of Montana where it is pretty rural. So, our experience hasn’t been similar to the experiences that a lot of Americans are having in more metropolitan areas. We’re hunkered down. We’ve got our supplies. We’ve got our puppy. Just trying to think of everything we’re grateful for and focus on the positive the best can. How about you? How are you doing in Pennsylvania?
I’m fine. I’m not far away from where you grew up. I’m in Jenkintown.
Right on, okay.
I’m doing well. I’m getting a little stir crazy, but I’m not sick, so that’s the important thing.
I’m glad to hear it. It’s a scary and uncertain time. But there is an opportunity to take stock of life. That’s what I’ve been doing. With all this time at home, I’m a little stir crazy, but just looking at everything a little more objectively and being grateful for what we have now.
Your film looks at some very painful personal and family secrets. What was it that made you feel it was something that you had to do?
Without giving too much away, my last day in court was the day before my 17th birthday. A year later, I moved to Montana to study film production at Montana State University. When I was 23 and just wrapping up at film school, I had just experienced the first five consecutive years in my life where child abuse wasn’t the primary focus of my existence. In many ways that was a really beneficial and beautiful time for me.
I can imagine…
But there was still this voice in the back of my mind that would come to the surface. This self-deprecating voice of “Sasha, you’re dirty. You’re disgusting. You’re unlovable.” I didn’t want that voice to continue, but in order to stop that voice from coming up, I knew that there were unresolved issues from my childhood that I needed to face. I didn’t know that it was going to be through a documentary at first. I just called my dad, who was a filmmaker, and asked him if he had some old videos laying around, still. To my surprise, he said that he had three huge boxes with over 200 hours of home video.
How difficult was it for you to go through all that footage and try to come to terms with your family and the abuse that took place?
After watching the first six tapes, I realized that I needed to watch all of them. Because, for every question that I was answering within those first six tapes, I had ten new questions. It was very much a recognition that this was going to be a long journey. If I was going to embark on it, and it happened to be one that turned out to be cathartic, then this would be something worth documenting and hopefully sharing with people.
So, you watched it all…
Watching the footage was a mixed bag. In some regards, it was incredibly beautiful. I got to re-watch these incredibly beautiful childhood moments that I had completely forgotten about, because they had been overshadowed by the pain I was feeling as a child. At the same time, I got to watch my parents more objectively, now through my own adult lens. I got to watch some of the perpetrators more objectively. It was very much an experience of juxtaposing my own subjective childhood experience with this new, more objective present-day journey to understand it. It was cathartic.
It is rare that the director of a documentary is also the subject of the same film. Was that a bit of a balancing act?
Oh, yeah. (laughs) Because I was the protagonist in the film, and just as a human being choosing to embark on this journey, it was important that I allow myself the time and space to feel what’s happening in front of me as I am embarking on this journey. But when you are in full-on feeling, or when you’re in all of those emotions, it’s also hard sometimes to remain objective and be directorial. So, it was a balancing act.
How did you handle it?
Ultimately, I learned that it really came down to pre-production and releasing my need to control. It would be best for the film – and for me – if I gave myself permission to just be present in these scenes and feel. Even though I knew that I wanted to go in certain directions, I needed to be open to what the other people in the film were expressing to me in these scenes. In preproduction, we’d talk about the key points we wanted to try and achieve within a scene. I’d have those conversations with my crew. I would try to turn off my directorial brain while I was in those scenes. Then, when we’d come out of those scenes and we’d be driving to the next location, I’d start to reflect more directorially on what had happened and how that content could lead us into the next moment that we were filming.
What was that like?
It was a balancing act. It just made it even more exhausting but also more rewarding.
The film takes on a very difficult subject but does help to make it human and accessible for audiences. As I recall, it was like 20-30 minutes into the film before the abuse was even mentioned. How important was it to you to tell your story and yet at the same time make it something that audiences can digest a little more easily?
Getting my story out to me meant nothing if it wasn’t going to be something that was watchable. We didn’t want to make a four-hour film about child abuse. We also didn’t want to lead with child abuse. To earn the opportunity and trust of the audience to tell this story, we first have to be given the opportunity to get to know the human beings as human beings, independent of the abuse. [Let the viewers] decide for themselves that they have bought into these humans enough that they want to follow that journey into darkness and hopefully follow them through to a satisfying resolution. Structurally, we wanted to mimic how things unfolded in real life. It wasn’t all abuse. Our lives are not defined by the abuse. It was just something that happened to us.
Also, because we hit hard and we don’t beat around the bush, we also wanted to build in emotional breadth for the audience, out of respect for them. If they are choosing to engage in this story, it needs to be an experience – even if it’s hard, it needs to ultimately be rewarding. Whether it was really beautiful innocent home video moments that we could use to give them a break, or whether it was present day scenes that hinted at a brighter future, we just wanted to remind the audience that we’re there with them, too. We’re not just dumping this on them. This is something we’re inviting them to be a part of. There is a reason why they are watching this. We’ll get there. Stick with us.
Your father was a filmmaker, both professionally and as we see as a hobbyist. Do you feel that always having cameras around when you were a kid made the idea of making a film somewhat more natural to you?
Definitely. As a filmmaker, I’ve seen how intimidated people can be by cameras. (laughs) For me, cameras were around all the time, so it never seemed awkward or weird. There’s just a natural comfort growing up around cameras for me. I was always interested in film as a result of watching my dad’s films and the work that he was doing. Of course, being a film nerd, he made sure that I watched decades worth of important films growing up. I was always interested in film as a tool to convey a message to a mass of strangers who could all collectively have a shared experience. That always seemed really cool to me. But I didn’t know that I was going to be making this film, like I said, until I watched the first six tapes from my childhood.
If you could go back in time and tell something to the younger you in the videotapes, what advice do you think you would have?
What happened to you wasn’t your choice. It isn’t your fault. It didn’t happen to you because you are dirty, disgusting, or unlovable. It happened to you because, unfortunately, you were in the presence of deeply wounded, troubled and abusive adults. That’s what I would say to him. And I would say trust me, I know that it’s hard right now, but you’re going to end up having a really great life.
As you said before, you have also moved away from the Philadelphia area years ago. As an adult, what was it like to return and see the places where these things happened and get to see what happened through the eyes of people like your psychiatrist and the detective in charge and the DA? Even your mother, father, and sister, although obviously you have been in touch with them over the years…
In the film, I have a lot of groundbreaking personal discoveries. A lot of people ask, “Did you not remember what happened?” No, of course I remembered what happened, but the thing is, there is only so much that you can retain from such a dense and traumatic experience. For my childhood, every day was just about surviving to the next day. There was a lot that was locked away in my mind that I didn’t have immediate access to. Being able to go back and speak with my mom and my dad, or the professionals involved in my case, being able to hear their perspective on their approach, how things went down from their lens, it helped me to broaden the context of what happened to me, and what happened to our family.
Yes, I can see how that would be eye-opening.
Not only was it informative, but that process was also validating and cathartic. They would share memories, or thoughts, or experiences, that would then unlock memories for me that had been stored away somewhere unknown. These moments in the film of incredible realizations, for me shocked even sometimes. Because memories would come flooding back through taking the time and the energy to hear the stories of others.
I don’t want to give away too many spoilers in this interview, but you weren’t able to talk with the abusers. The one was possibly going to do it but then was advised not to. Another one sort of got away scott free and one died. Were you disappointed that they did not cooperate? Do you think they would have revealed more or just tried to rationalize their role in things?
Two of them I know had their own very hard childhoods, which, I don’t want to get into fully. But I feel that if I had that opportunity to hear about their childhood, it would have been more illuminating in terms of our understanding of our primary antagonist in the film. Then, of course, our primary antagonist – I didn’t feel I could get anything from him, because right after he pled guilty, the first thing that he did when he left the courtroom was say, “I did nothing wrong.” There wasn’t really genuine remorse or willingness to look at painful truths. So, there wasn’t really a conversation to be had there.
No, probably not.
I think that what’s important to look at is the key difference between my abusers and myself is the type of support we had as children. Ultimately, children in many ways are defenseless. It’s our job as adults not only to be aware of these certain dangers that children are extremely susceptible to. A child is sexually abused every nine minutes in the United States. It’s a real issue, but unless we talk about it, and create a society that is nurturing and supportive of children who find the courage to come forward, until we develop that on a large scale in this country, not much is going to change.
At one point your father blames his mother for the abuse in the family, but he does not really spell things out – did he feel she specifically was involved with what happened, or does he just feel that she created a toxic environment where things like that could flourish?
It’s speculation, but it is highly likely that she was sexually abused as a kid by someone in the family. Even if she didn’t sexually abuse her kids, I think it’s highly possible that the person who abused her had access to them. So, I can totally understand my dad’s anger. When you have a mother that isn’t supportive of you and invalidates you every day, how could you possibly feel safe enough to come forward with a dangerous situation that you are experiencing?
I don’t think that she directly sexually abused her kids. She definitely psychologically and emotionally beat them. I feel it’s highly possible that one of her brothers sexually abused someone else in the family. This is multi-generational. I don’t think a human being chooses to sexually abuse another person if they haven’t had severe pain in their own lives that they haven’t had an opportunity to deal with. Ultimately, I think abusers and survivors are both trying to achieve the same outcome. They are both trying to reclaim power and control in their lives. The biggest difference is that abusers are doing it by hurting others and survivors are doing it through a vulnerable internal journey to discover and understand themselves.
Do you feel that finishing the film has helped you to continue to come to terms with the trauma you survived? Did it help to mend fences with your parents and sister?
Oh, yeah. I’m very grateful that Rewind has been well received so far. It feels good as a filmmaker. But honestly the biggest reward for me as a result of making this film is the clarity and the health of my relationships with my parents and my sister. Because we did the hard work to unpack this and really deal with it and confront it, we are now able to have really beautiful, happy, healthy relationships in the present day that aren’t defined by the trauma that we survived together. We are instead focused on what’s coming next, just from a basis of love.
And what about you?
For me personally, the greatest reward is the much healthier, open, uninhibited relationships with my family, and also the fact that I’m now at peace with my past. I’m at peace with my family. Most importantly, I’m at peace with myself. That’s allowing me and enabling me to truly live a beautiful life that I am really enjoying.
You work as an advocate for survivors of abuse. What do you hope this film will mean to other victims like yourself?
Child sexual abuse very specifically is perpetuated in the shame and the stigma. The shame and the stigma work to keep survivors silent. When there is silence, we can’t have conversation. When we can’t have a conversation, we can’t connect and create community and support for each other. I think it’s really important for survivors throughout their feeling isolated in their pain to recognize they are not alone. One out of every four girls and one out of every six boys are sexually abused before they reach the age of 18 in the United States of America.
I can’t speak to the experience of every single survivor. We are all on a unique journey when it comes to the relationship with their trauma. What I can say for me and for my family is that in confronting this trauma head on, and putting the emotional energy and resources into self-growth and therapy, what I’ve come to realize, and what my family is starting to realize, is that what happened to us doesn’t have to define our lives. It is something that happened, but it isn’t who we are. It’s important to make that distinction.
Yes, it is.
I did a tech talk in 2015, called “Trauma Is Irreversible. How It Shapes Us Is Our Choice.” I can’t change what happens. Acknowledging the fact that no matter what I do, I can’t change that I was sexually abused as a kid. Coming to peace with that reality instead of trying to fight it has helped me make decisions about how I want to move forward with my life, because there is still tomorrow.
Now that you have finished the film, do you see making more movies or going back to social advocacy work?
I’m definitely interested in another film. I love film. But it won’t be about child sexual abuse. I can guarantee that. It’s funny, I went to school and studied fictional narrative. I’ve always really been interested in fictional narrative, so it’s possible that my next film won’t be a documentary. But, honestly, right now, I’m just focusing on taking a little bit of a break. 2019 was a big year. We had the film festival tour. I had a 38-speaking-engagement tour. I got married. My wife and I built a house. We adopted a puppy. (laughs) It was a very big year. So, right now I’m just trying to enjoy some time off with my wife and just soak in all of the blessings that have come from all the work I did to reclaim my life.
Copyright ©2020 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 11, 2020.
Photos ©2019. Courtesy of FilmRise. All rights reserved.
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