AMPLE EVIDENCE, BUT OF WHAT? 

 
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The Friedman family in less tumultuous times: a photo from David's Bar Mitzvah
The Friedmans and the modern-day witch hunt

Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, in the course of making a film about clowns, stumbled onto the kind of treasure trove most documentarians would kill to get: hours upon hours of home movies taken in the most candid moments of the family of two convicted child molesters - footage shot after their convictions, while the court cases were ongoing, and years before, when there was no hint of the upheaval to come.

You might see it as a failure, then, that with such a miraculous body of evidence Jarecki seems unable to nail down some fundamental truths about the case - little issues like whether or not any of the alleged crimes actually took place.

There is no question that Arnold Friedman - respected schoolteacher, family man, and decent pianist - was a pedophile. He owned child pornography, admitted that he was aroused by young boys, and in a letter to a journalist recounted an incident in which he had unspecified but inappropriate sexual contact with two boys.

All of these facts emerged, though, only after he was accused in 1987 - along with his teenaged son Jesse - of raping boys enrolled in a private computer class he taught in his basement. The crimes Friedman's students described were sadistic and strange. Arnold lived the rest of his life in prison, and Jesse served 13 years. The trouble is, it now seems almost certain that none of these crimes occurred.

Investigative journalist Debbie Nathan, who has a great deal of experience on the topic, believes that the case is an example of a community's collective imagination running amok at the idea of sexual assault. Through interviews with her, and with those connected to the events, a picture emerges of children being steered by their parents' worst fears, of youngsters who want to give the right answers when interrogated by detectives for whom "innocent until proven guilty" is a fairy tale.

Jarecki's interviews with Friedman's former students lend credence to this portrait. One young man, speaking with his face hidden in shadow, reclines lazily on a couch (not in the stereotypical posture of a patient in therapy, but with the casual sprawl of someone accustomed to having things done for him) while he casually rattles off a grocery list of atrocities that sometimes contradict each other. Another student, this one willing to show his face, says that nothing remotely inappropriate ever happened; he recalls eavesdropping when policemen paid their first visit to his house, insisting to his parents that their child had been victimized. New interviews with those detectives, whose recollections don't mesh with some of the facts, don't help.

Capturing the Friedmans
Dir. Andrew Jarecki; feat. Arnold Friedman, David Friedman, Elaine Friedman, Jesse Friedman (NR)
Still, most observers of such scandals believe that smoke comes from fire, and that all those accusations mean something happened. There was definitely something odd about this family, a strange tendency toward exhibitionism that becomes evident when the home movies we see are no longer generic party and vacation footage, but documents of intense disagreements that most families would prefer to forget. We watch as the three Friedman sons cling steadfastly to their faith in Arnold, and as they turn on their mother Elaine, who believes the worst. We see them discuss court cases and plea arrangements. One of the film's most unsettling sequences revolves around Jesse's guilty plea: In a recent interview, Jesse (whose innocence we at this point take for granted) describes how, convinced that he had no chance at trial, he conceded to plead guilty. In the next moment, though, we see the 19-year-old Jesse breaking into tears as he stands before a judge, admitting his crimes in what seems to be a heartfelt moment.(The accompanying Q&A with Debbie Nathan sheds some light on this apparent contradiction.)

In the end, Capturing the Friedmans does nothing of the sort - and while the story's unresolved questions might make it unsuccessful as journalism, they add up to a thoroughly captivating film. Friedmans is heartbreaking, mystifying, and impossible to ignore; and while it hardly "captures" anything, it sheds a great deal of light on aspects of human psychology that should trouble anyone who believes in society's ability to mete out justice. •


CAPTURING 'CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS'

One of the film's researchers tells more of the story

By John DeFore

Longtime Current readers are familiar with investigative journalist and former Current writer Debbie Nathan, who pops up many times as an interviewee in Capturing the Friedmans. She knew the Friedmans quite well before filmmaker Andrew Jarecki started his project, and in a recent e-mail interview, Nathan - well-known for her writings on false claims of mass child abuse - tells parts of the story that didn't make it into the film.

Because of the way Jarecki reveals inform-ation - holding some facets of the case under his vest to increase the drama - readers are advised to see the film before reading further. While Nathan takes exception to some of the filmmaker's editing strategies (justifiably so, which is why we asked her to fill in the gaps), there is little question that Capturing the Friedmans is a more compelling moviegoing experience for those who enter the theater without knowing the whole story.

John DeFore: You say you "took `the Friedmans'` claims of innocence seriously." Does that mean you're convinced that none of the claims of molestation involving computer students are true?

Debbie Nathan: That's right. I don't think any of the computer room charges are true. Logistically, they simply could not have happened.

JD: If you believe Jesse is innocent, what do you make of the convincing confession he gives in court when he pleads guilty?

DN: Though in the movie the confession seems to directly follow the scenes from the "last night home" and Monty Python in front of the courthouse `in which Jesse goofs around for the camera`, it actually was made six weeks later, after Jesse had been locked up by himself for all that time. By then he was distraught and in a mood to shed tears whether he was telling the truth or not. Having said that, I also think the Friedman family's tragic flaw is the men's obsession with performing in front of cameras. But having said they love to perform in front of cameras, I also have to say that I don't think they ever lied in front of cameras when they said they were innocent.

JD: Are there any cut-and-dry facts we should know about the case which the movie omits?

DN: This is the how the case started: In 1977, it became a federal crime to sell child pornography, but it could still be mailed. In early 1984, it became a crime to mail it or get it by mail. During this period, the Justice Department began a multi-million-dollar project to find consumers and makers of child pornography, with the rationalization that billions of dollars' worth of the material was on the market. In fact, very little commercial material existed (what did was mostly made in Northern Europe), and - relative to the scope of the problem - the government was vastly overfunded in terms of money and manpower. It was a case of a huge effort chasing a problem much smaller than what the government was telling people.

It was so hard to find perpetrators that, via a program called "Operation Looking Glass," the U.S. government in the early '80s actually became the country's biggest manufacturer of child pornography. Pictures from old magazines, often dating back two decades, were clipped and reassembled to make new magazines. The government then sold these federally-manufactured publications to people it had identified during intercepts such as the one at JFK airport where the magazine Arnold Friedman ordered in late 1984 came into the country (this was just a few months after the law changed). The postal inspector who finally got Arnold to mail a pornographic photo spent over two years cajoling him to put the item in the mail. (The correspondence began in 1984 and the piece wasn't sent until August 1986).

In the '90s, many convictions based on this sting project were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

Arnold Friedman told me after he was imprisoned that he had sought therapy in the early '70s for his pedophilia (note that pedophilia is a psychological condition and not necessarily an activity). He told me a therapist advised him to buy child pornography to "sublimate" with. Note again that during the time he bought most of his magazines, it was not illegal to buy or mail child pornography. It's also worth noting that when Arnold ordered the magazine in 1984, it was still perfectly legal to have this kind of stuff in one's house in New York state! Possession charges were not part of the case - only the charge of mailing. When the cops came into his house, the pornography they found was mostly adult "fantasy" material, with models over 18 years of age posing as though they were younger: disgusting, maybe, but not illegal. The actual child porn they found consisted of about three magazines, all old.

So regardless of whether Arnold's particular case would later have been deemed unconstitutional, given his good reputation in the community and his lack of prior problems with the law, he probably would have gotten a year of probation and state mandated therapy if the case had stopped with the kiddie porn mailing charges.

This background is one of the telling issues left out of the film. I think Jarecki believed it wasn't important to include it because Arnold had admitted to his therapist and his family (subsequent to his arrest) that many years earlier, he'd had some sort of sexual contact with two boys. While this shows that Arnold wasn't entirely in control of his pedophilia (at least back in the '70s), I firmly believe that if we in this country wish to put someone in prison for something wrong that they probably did, we need to prosecute that particular crime - not another one, and certainly not one they probably didn't do. Jarecki's attitude toward Arnold Friedman seems to be that since he apparently molested children in 1970, he deserves to be convicted of the mass-molestation computer classroom charges laid on him in 1987. Jarecki has never seemed very interested in the sordid history of government overinvolvement in cases like Arnold's.

I also think it would have been helpful for the audience to know that:

1) Besides Arnold and Jesse, there were three neighborhood teen boys accused (one was imprisoned for a year).

2) Jarecki has a transcript, given to him by Jesse's lawyer, in which the police browbeat a child in the case who insists he was never molested. The cops tell the boy he's being a smart-aleck for denying abuse, and that if he doesn't disclose, he'll grow up homosexual. This is the only surviving documentation of an interview.

3) Arnold for years gave private, one-on-one piano lessons in a closed room. Unlike in the computer room, with lots of kids and a view to the street, one would think the piano-lesson scenario would have perfect logistics for a pedophile to abuse children. But unlike for his computer classes, Arnold didn't keep lists of piano students. It seems very odd that - even though the newspapers in Great Neck were continuously filled with news about the Friedman case - not one piano student ever came forward with an accusation. It's reasonable to assume that computer students made accusations because the cops worked on them, and piano students didn't, because the cops didn't work on them.

4) The motivating theory behind all these '80s-era cases was the that the perpetrators were acting as a group to make and sell pornography of the students. Early in the case, Nassau county police told the press they'd found child pornography of the computer room students. But they have never produced any such material, and during the pendency of the case, they told Jesse they would let him off practically with no time if he could produce even one picture. Jesse said he couldn't, because none existed.

5) Jarecki interviewed about 20 young men who'd been computer students. Only one - the subject filmed reclining, in darkness - claimed to have been molested. All others said nothing happened.

JD: Of the 20 or so interviewees, about how many had told police they'd been molested at the time? Any of them, other than the one we saw?

DN: All the interviewees were named as victims in the case, though I don't know how many actually said at the time that they'd been abused. That's because after he confessed to the first cohort of charges (laid by about a dozen kids), Arnold went through a process called "close-out," in which he further confessed to abusing scores more children. He did this because the prosecution told him he could be indicted and tried for molesting additional kids after he confessed to crimes against the original accusers. The police then took this "close-out" statement back to parents who were saying their children weren't molested, and who had been willing to let those children testify in Jesse's defense, back when he was still planning a trial. The parents of course felt devastated and deeply betrayed that Arnold was now admitting he'd molested their kids, when they had been confident he hadn't. The close-out statement was one reason Jesse realized he would have no hope for acquittal at a trial. It also created a very large list of children who supposedly were molested by Arnold.

JD: Would you describe your participation in the film?

DN: I did several months of paid work on the film as a consultant and researcher. One of my jobs was to mediate David's and Jesse's ongoing relationship with Jarecki, since they trusted me to advise them about how to proceed with, e.g., transfer of the home videos. I also gave Jarecki a lot of background material on the national child sex abuse hysteria that created many cases similar to the Friedmans' during the '80s. I put him onto the probability that hypnosis had been used by therapists of child accusers in the case. I did some gumshoe work to find the (now grown) kids.

I got involved in the Friedman case after Arnold wrote me from prison in the late '80s asking me to look into the case. At the time, I didn't understand why anyone would make a false confession, and I'd never heard of a case where one of the accused was a pedophile. So I just shook my head in disbelief. Later, I began seeing other cases with confessions that I came to understand as having been false. And I learned that kids in the Friedman case - not preschoolers, mind you, but 8- and 9-year-olds - supposedly didn't remember they'd been brutally molested over weeks and months. I learned this from writing that the therapists had done and presented at a national child abuse conference.

JD: Is it true that Jarecki didn't know about any of the home movies until you told him they existed?

DN: Yes. I told him about the home videos. In fact, the whole bunch of them were in my house when I first met Jarecki: David Friedman had given them to me in late 2000 to look at and perhaps do something with. I had learned about them from David in the late '90s.

JD: Do you think it's inappropriate that the film's credits list you as a participant on-camera but not behind the scenes?

DN: This is Jarecki's first serious film. It saddens me that he apparently did not understand that a long-term, monumental project like Capturing the Friedmans typically is a product of many people's contributions, and the professional thing for a director to do is to publicly credit all of them. Hopefully his approach will improve in future work.

JD: How does the documentary hold up to your ethical standards as a journalist?

DN: Capturing the Friedmans does play a bit with time sequence (that confession scene, e.g.), but it's not fictionalized. Even so, Jarecki's post-release rhetoric that "we can never know the truth" seems pretentious to me, and based on his business-driven focus on the dramatic or novelistic-seeming part of the movie - the "Greek tragedy" element embodied in the family conflict - rather than the "whodunnit" part (were the father and son guilty, or innocent, of the crimes they were charged with?). I think audiences would like more information about the whodunnit aspect than Jarecki gives them. But it's his movie, not mine. And he's not a journalist.

JD: Whether it is a perfect piece of journalism or not, does the movie contribute to a productive discussion about child molestation? What direction should this conversation be headed?

DN: I hope the movie helps us have a national conversation about how to truly promote justice: not just for tortured souls like Arnold Friedman, but for kids who actually suffer from child abuse. Arnold was a great and giving teacher beloved by countless kids - even kids who thought he was a little weird because he was a bit touch-feely. Practically every guy I know remembers this sort of behavior from a summer camp counselor or a boy scout leader. Apparently, the world is full of Mr. Friedmans. Mostly they stay within the realm of mild weirdness, but sometimes they get truly out of control. What do we do with them then? I think we should look carefully, on a case-by-case basis, at their misdeeds. Some children are utterly traumatized by fondling. Many others hardly notice. Many pedophiles respond well to therapy. Others don't. We need to treat each child and each adult individually. We need also to realize children can be deeply hurt by all forms of child abuse. Beating is one - it can wreak terrible psychic devastation. But do we lock adults away for life, or start witch hunts against them, if they act out the "spare the rod" sections of the Bible?

We need to discard our boogie-man fantasies and learn how people really act when they mistreat children, and how young victims react - to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. We won't be able to protect the innocent and confront the guilty until we understand that whatever dark urges Arnold Friedman felt toward kids, he couldn't have done the crimes he and his son were accused of in computer class.

JD: If Arnold and Jesse were incarcerated for non-existent molestation, are there many Arnolds and Jesses in America - people serving time for molestation that didn't happen?

DN: Bernard Baran, the first person ever convicted of mass molestation in daycare, has been imprisoned in Massachusetts since 1985. Gerald Amirault has also been in locked up in that state since the late 1980s. Frances and Daniel Keller, former daycare operators in Austin, have been behind bars since the early 1990s. Bruce Perkins, from Houston, is another incarcerated Texan. The list goes on, but we don't know how many people are still rotting in prison for child sex abuse crimes they never committed because there's no official registry. To get a better idea of how big the problem still is - and to donate to prisoners' appeals - see the Web site of the National Center for Reason and Justice (www.ncrj.org). •


More by John DeFore

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