Capturing the Friedmans

Capturing the Friedmans

In 1987 Arnold Friedman and the youngest of his three sons—Jesse—were charged with a massive number of child sexual abuse offenses. That Arnold was guilty of at least some crimes is indisputable. It’s less likely but possible that some of the crimes he was guilty of were child abuse. There is no realistic chance he was guilty specifically of all these child abuse offenses he was charged with. Meanwhile, it’s likely Jesse wasn’t guilty of anything.

The documentary Capturing the Friedmans looks back on the Friedman case, with contemporary interviews with the family (except one of the three sons, who declined to participate, and Arnold himself, who had died in prison in the meantime), attorneys and others involved in the case, alleged victims, and third party experts.

But what is no doubt most unexpected is that there is also a high quantity of “home movie” type footage of the Friedmans from that period. As it happens, they had recently obtained a video camera and gotten into the habit of filming a lot of everyday stuff of the family. Then when the child abuse accusations arose, they continued filming. According to what I read about the movie, there is a huge amount of such footage, and it became so much the norm to have a camera running that it’s likely they generally weren’t even aware of it or altered their behavior in response to it. So it’s not a hundred percent candid, but it’s a pretty darn revealing portrait of a stressed out family in an extraordinary situation.

The case started with Friedman, a schoolteacher, caught with child pornography. That part’s not in dispute; they caught him red handed with it.

But when law enforcement found out he’d routinely had students meet with him in his home—for computer classes he taught on the side with Jesse—that created in their minds a strong presumption that he was also a child molester. So they interviewed everyone on his list of students.

It’s clear from what’s said in the film that the questioning was at least leading, if not crossing the line into being coercive. Following a pattern that was depressingly routine at the height of the child sexual abuse panic, kids were browbeat until they told the investigators what they wanted to hear.

In the end, they accumulated a large number of accusations, adding up to hundreds of alleged incidents of abuse. And not only was the father implicated, but eventually the stories also included Jesse as, if anything, an even more violent abuser.

There was zero evidence beyond the students’ stories, i.e., no physical injuries, no blood, no semen, no indication they’d ever told anyone any of this before being questioned by the police.

At the same time, there was massive circumstantial evidence against the allegations. Mainly that a lot of these things supposedly happened in group situations, in a house where people—including parents of the students—were coming and going informally without always calling ahead. Not to mention the students kept coming back week after week for more lessons, and some even signed up for additional lessons in later semesters. (Again, all depressingly familiar to those who’ve looked into the more elaborate, and ludicrous, Satanic ritual-type group sexual abuse allegations of that time period.)

Some of the students have always claimed absolutely none of this ever happened to them or in their presence. Some of the students who did claim to have been victimized admitted later that they made the whole thing up to get the police off their back. Some stick to their guns, but they’re not very convincing. One even admits the “memories” (which still sound pretty vague) didn’t even come back to him until he was hypnotized, which notoriously blurs fantasy and reality.

Debbie Nathan, who’s done wonderful work reporting on cases like this, provides the voice of reason in the movie, pointing out how implausible it is that anything like what’s alleged could have happened. My only complaint is that there’s too little of her.

Reading about the movie later, I think it may be the filmmaker didn’t want to make it look like he’d stacked the deck. Reportedly he thought he showed enough without beating people over the head with it to establish that the accusations were bogus, and he was surprised later to find that viewers of his film tend to be split on the Friedmans’ guilt or innocence.

So I don’t want to make it sound like the documentary is simply a one-sided exposé about a miscarriage of justice. It doesn’t shy away from showing things that will make people wonder if maybe Arnold, Jesse, or both weren’t guilty after all. And it’s at least as much about the family dynamics of the Friedmans as about the case itself.

As to the evidence against them, both the father and son eventually accepted plea bargains, which many people believe an innocent person would never do. That happens to be an inaccurate belief in general, but it is a little odd that the father claimed he was doing to in order to sacrifice himself for his son, since there was no such deal in place, and in fact it probably just made it harder for his son to claim innocence, as he was at the very least present when all this now admitted sexual abuse by his father was taking place. And as far as Jesse’s plea bargain, he continues to maintain it was a pragmatic decision—under pressure from his family, mostly his mother—based on the dire prospects if the case went to trial, whereas his attorney says, no, he confessed it all to him and insisted it all really happened. Further, the attorney claims Jesse told him he’d been abused by his father, whereas Jesse claims the attorney came up with the idea to pretend that to try to get sympathy from the judge. So one of them is simply a liar. (The attorney seems a little more shifty to me.)

Also, Arnold admitted in letters that he’d had sex with children at other times and places, though there’s enough ambiguity to it to make one wonder if he’s making it up for some strategic reason, or if it’s a fantasy he has come to believe, or what. He claimed, for instance, that he and his brother had sex for years when they were little kids. That’s news to his brother, who says he remembers no such thing. (I’m on the fence here. I could see the brother denying it out of some kind of shame.) Arnold also admitted there were other occasions where he was sexual in some sense with a minor, but as his son David angrily points out, it’s worded so vaguely that it could refer to just about anything.

As to the family dynamics, the main conflict is with the mother. The sons support Arnold and their brother Jesse, and Arnold’s brother thinks the accusations are false, but the mother kind of hedges her bets. What is confirmed—that Arnold’s a consumer of child porn, that he’s admittedly sexually attracted to children, that he’s confessed some sort of vaguely sexual inappropriate behavior with other children—is disturbing enough to her that she’s not about to embrace him and offer unconditional support in his struggle against these charges. Plus, they had had a far from ideal relationship even before these revelations, with basically zero sex life.

It’s all quite fascinating, and at times quite creepy. The wonder is that the participants agreed to this project. I guess they felt being able to make their case that the two Friedmans were innocent is worth having all their dirty laundry aired on a movie screen.

The film is well done. I don’t know that as a film it would stand out to me; it’s the subject matter that mostly kept me engaged. But I like that it’s done in a straightforward, easy-to-follow manner, which is to say the filmmaker doesn’t get too cute or too artsy so as to get in the way of the sensational material.

As I say, my take is that the specific allegations of these wild repeated group sex parties with the Friedmans beating and raping all these kids over and over are wildly implausible, so either something much less than that happened or nothing did. But with Arnold already undeniably a consumer of child porn, I think most people assume he’s guilty of whatever else is alleged, or would just take the position that anyone into child porn is a piece of shit who deserves worse than the criminal justice system can give him anyway, so who cares if he’s really guilty of the other stuff.

As bad as that is, what’s worse is the “guilt by association” of Jesse. Unlike Arnold, there’s zero evidence he was into child porn, was sexually attracted to children, had any past sexual experiences with children, or any of that, yet he gets caught up in the insanity because he happened to be present during the computer lessons that gave rise to the increasingly fantastic allegations against his father. So he gets stuck spending a good portion of his adult life in prison for crimes he’s exceedingly unlikely to have committed.

Though I think enough information is given to come to a confident conclusion as to the Friedmans’ guilt or innocence of these particular charges, that’s far from the “whole truth.” There is a lot about Arnold and about this family—some of which I allude to above—that remains elusive.

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