Complex Persecution

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

What, exactly, did Mr. Friedman do? In an interview for Capturing the Friedmans that did not make it into the film, a former computer student who insists the accusations were bogus nonetheless recalled that Arnold used to give boys furtive pats on their clothed legs and butts. It felt kind of weird, he said, but the kids shrugged it off as mere nuisance behavior by the nebbish who was still a great teacher. But—as the movie makes clear—Arnold sometimes did more than patting. During the investigation, he told a therapist and his family that almost two decades before, he'd committed sex acts with two neighbor boys. He never gave details except to say they "stopped short of sodomy"—and the victims have not come forward.

With this confession of ancient misbehavior, if the case against Arnold had stopped at the magazine possession charge, he probably would have gotten a year's probation and therapy with people like Kay Jackson and Rashmi Skadegaard. Based on their experience, they tell me, some 80 percent of sex offenders in treatment can remain out of prison and pose no danger to the community. Jackson notes that, contrary to common wisdom, sex offenders repeat their crimes at lower rates than other offenders. But Arnold confessed to the mass molestation charges apparently because he was so filled with shame and despair. Jesse followed suit—after acquiescing to what he now insists was his lawyer's pity-garnering strategy, claiming Arnold abused him as well—because he thought no jury would believe the son of a confessed pedophile was innocent.

That's the only conclusion I could come to as I delved into the case. There was the total lack of physical evidence that one would expect after violent rape: semen, blood, anal scarring. The pornographic computer games found on some class computers, which police said were loaded by Arnold, were in fact being traded by kids all over Long Island in the late 1980s. Further, Arnold for years gave private piano lessons to grade school boys. Yet even when the community was rocked with news of the Friedmans' sexual perfidy, not one piano student came forward. Police got hold of Arnold's computer class rosters, but the piano students' names were never written down—which might explain why none of them "remembered" abuse.

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.

Besides official accounts of hypnosis-related therapy sessions with alleged victims, there is a transcript of an interview with one boy, which surfaced while Capturing the Friedmans was being researched (but also wasn't included in the film). The boy insists that nothing happened in the computer classes, but detectives warn that if he doesn't disclose, he'll grow up "gay." Several of the interviewees also accused three teenage boys whom the Friedmans barely knew. The case had clearly been developed as a gay "sex ring"—a police fantasy rampant during the homophobic Reagan years, when Anita Bryant was denouncing gay men as child molesters, and psychiatric nurse Ann Burgess, author of 1988's Children Traumatized in Sex Rings, was publishing her first writings on the topic. Child protection authorities speculated about gay men organizing to move boys around the country in order to molest them and make pornography. The sex ring theory was the precursor of the "satanic" day care cases, such as the McMartin preschool in California, and Kelly Michaels in New Jersey.

Only a bit of this detail made it into Capturing the Friedmans. In Jarecki's defense, he was trying to fit a very complex case, along with all that powerful family video, into under two hours. But Jarecki, the multimillionaire founder of Moviefone, also has shrewd business sense. While the film was in production, Jarecki told the Friedman family he thought the two were innocent of the charges. Polling viewers at Sundance in January, he was struck by how they were split over Arnold and Jesse's guilt. Since then, he's crafted a marketing strategy based on ambiguity, and during Q&As and interviews, he has studiously avoided taking a stand. Teaser ads pitch the film as a Long Island Rashomon: "Who do you believe?" For Jarecki and his PR people, the question is rhetorical.

The Friedmans have had little active part in this strategy, or for that matter in making the film. When David mentioned to me three years ago that some guy was doing a whimsical documentary about his clowning, provisionally titled Funny and Silly, I was amazed that he would take such a chance on his family tragedy being revealed. But David was aglow about the movie advancing his career. Some months later, Jarecki put two and two together and changed the focus of his film. David was distraught, but he and the family had already signed releases for Funny and Silly. After he called me for help, I spoke with Jarecki, who struck me as sincerely interested in doing an in-depth examination of the case. I'm happy now that the film is out. Market-tested Rashomon or not, I think it gives the Friedmans—and the culture—a little bit of space to think about who pedophiles really are, what they really do, and how we should deal with them as human beings instead of monsters.

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