One of the most terrifying aspects of Jesse Friedman’s conviction for the sexual abuse of 14 children–the subject of this week’s cover story–is the mutually reinforcing interplay between the the police investigation and prosecution and the public hysteria surrounding the case.
Arline Epstein remembers the public mania that gripped Great Neck well. Her son, Michael, was a student in the Friedmans’ computer class, and though he steadfastly denied that anything untoward had ever happened in the class, parents like Arline were repeatedly told by police investigators, psychologists, and psychiatrists that if their sons were denying being victimized, it only meant that the trauma of their sexual abuse was especially severe.
“The therapists that were brought in were saying things like, ‘If your child is denying it, that’s part of child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome,'” Epstein says. “The first stage is utter denial. if you look at that with rational eyes now, it doesn’t make sense–where’s the out? What if it didn’t happen?”
At the time, it seemed persuasive. Epstein and other parents were told that if their children didn’t ultimately confess to being abused, the repressed experience could make them homosexual.
Further contributing to the hothouse environment in Great Neck was the relentless press coverage. “The newspapers were just regurgitating what the police were telling them,” Epstein says. “Looking at this in hindsight, I can see it so clearly. To my great remorse, I didn’t see it clearly then.”
By the summer of 1988, the frenzy in Great Neck had reached a fever pitch. Police picked up several local teenagers on the suspicion that they were the Friedmans’ accomplices in the secret sex-abuse ring. Gino Scotto, one of the teenagers arrested, came from a family that ran a pizza shop in town. When word of the police’s interest in Scotto leaked to the public, parents organized a boycott of Scotto’s Pizzeria. “Police were fueling the rage of the parents, using their activism to help make the case,” Epstein says.
Meanwhile, Epstein’s son, Michael, after months of therapy that consisted of constant admonitions to talk about his abuse, finally decided he wanted the whole thing over with.
“Eventually, I just decided to lie,” Mike Epstein says now. “I decided to tell my mom I’d been abused, and regurgitate some of the same things I’d heard about what had happened to other kids. I said I’d been abused, blah blah blah–fully conscious that I was lying. I just didn’t see any other way to get out of it.”
Arline Epstein was a member of a group of other mothers who met regularly over lunch to discuss the most recent developments in the Friedman investigation. She recalls learning one day that the children of one of the mothers in the group had admitted to being abused in the Friedmans’ computer class–but not by the Friedmans.
“He said there was a slightly older helper who came to the classes and had upper-body tattoos and was like 21,” Epstein says. “His nickname was Snake.”
Seizing on this new detail, the mothers deputized Arline to try to identify Snake. She went to the public library, and began thumbing through recent high school yearbooks. To her amazement, she found something: “In the back of the yearbook, where a family says we love you, there was a dedication: ‘We love you Snake, from the Lorber family!’ I’m going, ‘Holy Toledo, Snake!'” But when she found the yearbook page of the person nicknamed Snake, it turned out to be a girl. The mysterious figure was soon forgotten in the flurry of other developments.
Only years later did anyone realize that the children’s description of Snake perfectly described Kurt Russell’s character in the 1981 action movie Escape from New York, popular among the boys in the computer class. Pressured to tell stories they knew weren’t true, the boys had drawn on one of their favorite fictions to provide the details that police and therapists were asking for.