Complex Persecution

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

Two Decembers ago, while the movie was in production, Jesse was released on parole. He had gone to prison at age 19, long-legged and shiny-haired. He came out 13 years later thick from bad food, balding from incipient middle age, gap-toothed from jailhouse attacks at Attica and other state facilities. He was dizzied by grocery stores and shocked by cell phones. He still lionized his father.

For years, he and David had been telling me what a great person Arnold was. Well yes, there were the magazines. David once told me, when they were young, each of the brothers had run into them while poking in Arnold's things. David said it was no big deal, because Arnold was, in all other respects, such a good man. As the case snowballed and the brothers struggled to save the family, they increasingly saw their father as a martyr—a view that fossilized when Arnold died in his jail cell in 1995, an apparent suicide.

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.

Martyrology has remained especially important for David as he struggles to protect his career. During filming, it was intensified by Jarecki's focus on the possibility that the Friedman sons—Jesse in particular—were molested by Arnold and might not remember. Jesse says he has no memory of being abused, and neither do the other brothers. This could well mean that they weren't victimized. On the other hand, lack of recall is common in adults who were molested when young. According to the new book Remembering Trauma, by Harvard psychologist Richard McNally, which debunks the "traumatic amnesia" theories that have been bruited by some child protection workers, children may forget molestation simply because they were too young when it happened or because the abuse didn't feel weird or troublesome enough to remember for very long.

Jarecki's repeated questions about whether Arnold molested his sons unnerved David and Jesse, and heightened their fears about the movie. Jesse's first on-camera interview was so guarded that it had to be shot again. The first year of production was replete with screaming matches and phalanxes of lawyers. Things calmed down considerably when Jarecki started finding former computer students who now say police coerced them into accusing Arnold and Jesse.

Still, David now worries that his clients will think he was an abused child, and that they will fold that belief into the folklore that countless therapists spread—that molested kids become molester adults. Writing in Pedophilia: Biosocial Dimensions, Arizona prison psychotherapist Randall Garland reports finding no convincing evidence that victims become sex offenders. But who has read Pedophilia: Biosocial Dimensions? David reasons that in order to continue his clown career, he must convince the world that he is uninfected by the urge to molest—which, to him, means denying his father ever molested.

The family hopes that Capturing the Friedmans will vindicate Arnold and Jesse. Whether or not it will, the film makes it timely to ask: What is the human reality (rather than the sensationalized fantasy) of pedophilia? When acted on, what does it typically do to minors? How should we respond to it? And what do we do about people like Silly Billy's terrible and wonderful dad?

Related Article:
Michael Atkinson's review of Capturing the Friedmans

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