Capturing the Friedmans

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Fri Jul 11 12:39:07 MDT 2003

Capturing the Friedmans: <>

Jesse Friedman's Web Site: <>

Julie Salamon, "Home Movie to Big Screen: A Family Tragedy," June 3,
2003, <>

*****   A Long Island Family's Nightmare Struggle With Porn,
Pedophilia, and Public Hysteria
Complex Persecution
by Debbie Nathan
May 21 - 27, 2003

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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

[The full text of the article is available at
<>.]   *****

*****   New York Times   July 6, 2003
What 'Capturing the Friedmans' Says About Getting Tough on Crime

Jesse Friedman took a break from a recent lunch to lift his leg in
the air and show me his ankle bracelet. Electronic monitoring is
hardly the worst of Mr. Friedman's current woes. He will have to
register as a sex offender for the rest of his life - his Manhattan
apartment building, on getting word about that, evicted him and he
spent two weeks in a homeless shelter. He is struggling to get his
life on track after spending ages 19 to 32 behind bars. Mr. Friedman
was upbeat at lunch, but I was getting depressed. Particularly since
it seemed to me more than likely that he was innocent.

Mr. Friedman is a central figure in "Capturing the Friedmans," a
masterly, disturbing new documentary that won a top prize at Sundance
and has fast become an art-house favorite. The film examines an
infamous Long Island case in which Mr. Friedman and his father were
accused of molesting students in computer classes in their home. The
filmmakers give everyone - law enforcement, the Friedmans, the boys
identified as victims - their say....

The case against Mr. Friedman appears straightforward. He and his
father, Arnold, both ended up pleading guilty to the molestation
charges. And his father had been found with child pornography.

But the film shows why these apparently damning facts do not settle
the matter. Arnold Friedman was accused of molestation simply because
he possessed child pornography and taught children, not because any
victims came forward on their own to complain. He pleaded guilty, it
seems, mainly so that Jesse Friedman, who helped teach the computer
classes, would not have to stand trial with him and be tainted by his
father's association with child pornography. But the son ended up
pleading guilty, the movie suggests, because it would have been
nearly impossible to beat the rap before a jury that knew - as much
of Long Island did - about his father's confession. If he had gone to
trial and lost, Jesse Friedman could have spent the rest of his life
behind bars.

Obviously, the criminal justice system needs to pursue vigorously any
possible case of child molestation or child pornography. But in Jesse
Friedman's case, the system - at least as presented in the film - did
a less than ideal job of getting at the truth. The movie indicates
that investigators told parents that their children had been
molested, not that they might have been. Parents, perhaps caught up
in the hysteria that often accompanies such charges, apparently
pressured other parents to say their children had been abused. It is
troubling, to say the least, that Jesse Friedman's trial was not
moved from Long Island to a less biased venue.

...Most defendants must rely on public defenders who are too
overloaded to investigate or try their cases adequately - a system
that works well enough when defendants want to plead guilty, but not
when they are innocent. Judges have been loath to order states to
finance defense systems for the poor adequately - or to set aside
convictions when defense lawyers have done a poor job.

When a defendant is convicted, a judge who has listened to the case
should be able to impose a punishment that fits the crime and the
criminal. But judges' discretion is increasingly being usurped by
inflexible, and draconian, sentencing guidelines and "three strikes"
laws. The Supreme Court, in its most regrettable decision this year,
upheld California's three-strikes law - and a sentence of 50 years to
life for a man who stole $150 worth of videos.

Our get-tough legal system is also not interested in the progressive,
and once widely accepted, ideal of rehabilitation. In 1991, one-third
of the inmates with addiction problems got treatment; by 1997, only
one-sixth did. Prisoners today are routinely released with a bus
ticket and a few dollars and expected to turn their lives around

The result of these "throw away the key" trends is a bad case of what
legal experts call "overincarceration." After a three-decade surge,
which has continued even as crime rates have dropped, the United
States has 702 inmates per 100,000 people, the highest incarceration
rate in the world. The growing number of death row exonerations -
more than 100 since 1976 - are proof that at least some of these
inmates do not belong in prison at all. Many more inmates are behind
bars longer than they should be....

<>   *****

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