Complex Persecution

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

Daddy dearest: amid a swirl of dubious accusations, authorities arrest Jesse and Arnold Friedman.
(Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

Then, in 1990, I came across a paper that had been recently presented at the San Diego Children's Hospital's annual national conference on child abuse. The author was David Pelcovitz, chief of child and adolescent psychology at Long Island's North Shore University Hospital, and the paper ("Group Therapy and Hypnosis for Victims of Child Pornography and Extrafamilial Sexual Abuse") concerned his therapy with kids in the Friedman case. Many of them, Pelcovitz noted, had no recollection of abuse, so he plied them with details about the Friedmans' purported crimes. The paper implies that he used hypnosis to jog their "memories." By then, studies by researchers like Nicholas Spanos and Elizabeth Loftus were emerging that cast doubt on the reality of repressed memory, as well as suggesting that hypnosis can create false recollections, even for abuse. Among criminologists, concern about false confessions was growing. I contacted David and told him that I took his family's claims of innocence seriously. We stayed in touch.

Meanwhile, David's career as Silly Billy was taking off. He appeared on Letterman, and Susan Orlean wrote a piece on him in The New Yorker without knowing about the Great Neck scandal. I never wrote about him until now because he begged me not to. He lived in constant fear that his celebrity clients—like Susan Sarandon and Eddie Murphy—would never again let him near their kids if they discovered the connection.

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.

David and I used to have lunch when I visited Manhattan. David would do sleight-of-hand tricks as he reminisced about his days as an 11-year-old visiting 42nd Street and enraging the three-card monte players by beating them at their own game. Once, about seven years ago, he mentioned that he'd made videos of the family for months after Arnold's and Jesse's cases broke. Back at his apartment, he dug the tapes out of a closet and played them. There was his mother, Elaine, raging at Arnold; David, Seth, and Jesse raging at Elaine; Elaine alternately cursing her husband and tenderly embracing him; Arnold suffering anxiety attacks that include high-pitched animal sounds; the whole bunch desperately weighing the advantages of trading false confessions for shorter prison time. It was 25 unnerving hours of a family cracking under a crushing load of state pressure and their own disgrace about the magazines. I asked David why he made the videos. "Maybe because we knew we'd never be a family again," he said. I think they're about the real Dr. Zero—Arnold Friedman—being annihilated, with his entire family, by the Destruction Ray. I think David wanted to make a tribute to his dad.

Medical libraries and the internet are filled with research on pedophiles, but most people get their information from USA Today or CNN, with their breathless Megan's Law scenarios: kids raped, beheaded, dumped in the woods. The investigations in the Friedman case started with magazines, and from there, authorities accused Arnold and Jesse Friedman of raping boys, battering them, and threatening them with further assault, even death, if they told.

The Long Island authorities might have been more sober in their investigation if they'd better understood the psychology of pedophilia. According to Kay Jackson and Rashmi Skadegaard, New York City psychotherapists with 20 years' experience treating convicted child molesters, extreme violence among pedophiles is exceedingly rare. An undetermined proportion never touch children at all. (It's impossible to know how many, since the subject is so hush-hush.) But in several studies—including two published by University of Southern California child abuse researcher John Briere and colleagues in 1989 and 1996, and one in 1995 led by psychologist Gordon Hall, currently at the University of Oregon—male college students were asked if they ever felt sexually attracted to small children. At least a fifth of the men answered yes. In addition, Hall hooked his subjects to a plethysmograph (to detect organ engorgement)—when exposed to images and audiotapes of prepubescents in sexual situations many of them had erections. While most of these "normal" men never act out their fantasies, they might look at pictures. Paul Federoff, a Canadian researcher and clinician at Canada's Royal Ottawa Hospital, noted recently that the fastest growing group in his therapy sessions are men who, as far as Federoff knows, have never abused a child, but were arrested for looking at child pornography on the Web.

According to government-published monographs written in the 1980s by FBI sex crimes expert Kenneth Lanning, pedophiles seldom use overt threats and violence. It's far more common, say Jackson and Skadegaard, for pedophiles to seduce through their gentleness and sensitivity, and for their abuse to take the form of undressing, fondling, and oral sex.

If victims fail to report the crimes, it's often because they're ashamed that they enjoyed the abuser's attentions, or worried he'll go to jail. While molestation can of course leave kids with grievous psychic wounds, research by Philip Ney of the University of British Columbia and his colleagues (published in 1994 in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect) suggests that physical and verbal abuse and neglect tend to be far more emotionally damaging to children than molestation. Research by Bruce Rind and colleagues, published by the American Psychological Association in 1998, indicates that many children seem wholly unaffected by sexual contact with adults. This should not surprise. The Arnold Friedmans of the world are kinder to kids than many normal adults.

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