Complex Persecution

A Long Island Family's Nightmare Struggle With Porn, Pedophilia, and Public Hysteria

David Friedman, a/k/a Silly Billy, is the city's—and possibly the country's—most famous children's birthday party clown. Silly Billy has often been featured in fluffy articles, but there are things about his family's past that are not fluffy at all. In the mid 1980s, the Friedmans of Great Neck, Long Island, were caught up in a sex scandal of epic proportions. The case was widely publicized at the time, but a new documentary, Capturing the Friedmans (opening May 30), offers a more intimate portrait of this tragic clan—a Franny and Zooey-esque collection of neurotic but gentle eccentrics, at once brilliant and doomed.

Silly Billy belongs to the category of not very nice clowns who scold and screech at children at their birthday parties. Still, he stops short of being mean or scary. In fact, Silly Billy is such a schlemiel that he makes tiny children feel superior—and perhaps even a little sadistic. He does the same magic trick over and over, wrong every time, until the four-year-olds are shrieking with contempt; then he does it right, all the while cracking jokes that only the parents get. Everybody loves him; moms recommend him to their friends. David's younger brother Seth was a well-known advocate of underground publishing during the 1990s, putting out the exhaustive media-watchdog zine review Fact Sheet Five.

And there was the late paterfamilias, Arnold Friedman. A Coney Island-raised Caspar Milquetoast with shapeless clothes and major myopia, he was nonetheless a vortex for the energies of other people, most of them young. During the '40s and '50s, he was a talented Latin-music pianist and mambo bandleader who played venues like Roseland. After he married and had three boys, he became a teacher in Queens. At Bayside High School, he was known for his radio-TV-film course. Former students would speechify at class reunions about how Mr. Friedman turned their lives around—weaned them from teenage anomie, pointed them to careers in media.

Nuclear meltdown: the Friedmans  in happier days. From upper left: Arnold, David, Seth, Elaine, and Jesse.
photo: courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Nuclear meltdown: the Friedmans in happier days. From upper left: Arnold, David, Seth, Elaine, and Jesse.

(Photo: Magnolia Pictures)
Arnold instilled in his sons a propensity to document their lives. The boys always had Super 8s in hand, recording birthdays, seders, and vacations. Arnold helped them do funny little dramas like Dr. Zero and the Destruction Ray, made by 10-year-old David, in which an evil scientist makes people disappear by beaming a flashlight at them. A pioneer of computer lesson materials, some of which he co-published with comedian-intellectual Steve Allen, Arnold also taught immensely popular after-school classes at the family home in Great Neck. He won countless teaching awards. His sons adored him.

But Arnold had a secret life that the police eventually pounced on and used to destroy the family. That is the subject of Andrew Jarecki's award-winning Capturing the Friedmans. For New York's most famous clown, the release of the documentary is both cathartic and terrifying.

Arnold Friedman was a pedophile. According to forensic psychiatric reports developed as his case unfolded, he harbored sexual urges for boys ages eight and upward. He managed to keep these proclivities secret until late 1987, when police raided the Friedman home based on evidence obtained in a three-year-long postal sting operation. In 1984, Arnold had ordered a kiddie porn magazine from the Netherlands that the feds intercepted at JFK. A postal inspector then pretended to be a fellow pedophile, writing letter after letter cajoling Arnold to put something in the mail.

After he finally did and the house was searched, the feds told Nassau County police that Arnold was giving computer lessons at home. Worried that he was photographing and molesting his grade school students, detectives seized class rosters and started interviewing. Within weeks, according to police reports, several little boys were accusing Arnold of priming them for sex by showing them dirty computer games, then raping and terrorizing them for months, even years. Jesse Friedman, the youngest of Arnold's three sons and his classroom assistant, was also implicated. Both were arrested on charges of child molestation. Capturing the Friedmans shows the family members convulsed by their discovery of Arnold's pedophilia and their powerlessness before the rage of the cops and community—even as they at first staunchly proclaim Arnold's and Jesse's innocence.

Because I knew the family and have written extensively about cultural hysteria over child sex abuse in schools, I appear in the film as a talking head and was hired to consult on it. I also told director Jarecki about the family's home movies, some of which he ended up using in his documentary. Amazingly, the Friedmans' shock, shame, internecine warfare, and indignation—like their childhood skits and cheerful family holidays—are captured on videotape, which David recorded for many months, up to and including his father's and brother's convictions.

I first heard from Jesse and Arnold in 1989, shortly after they were sent to prison. Back then, I got a lot of mail from inmates claiming they'd been falsely convicted. The Friedmans wanted me to look into their case, but I demurred. I was put off by Arnold, who told me in a quavering, stop-start voice over a prison pay phone: "Since childhood I've been tortured by this problem. You have to remember, those magazines used to be perfectly legal. I was trying so hard to control my urges. To not touch a child. My therapist told me to go to Times Square and buy porn. To sublimate with. He called it a prescription." And there was also the matter of Arnold's and Jesse's confessions—Jesse had even repeated his on Geraldo.

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