Exonerating the Friedmans
July 7, 2003
Andrew Jarecki’s debut documentary Capturing the Friedmans, which features startling home videos of a family falling apart under police investigation, has received the sort of critical acclaim generally reserved for instant classics. Friedmans not only won the 2003 Sundance Film Festival documentary prize; recently The New Yorker called it “one of the most heartbreaking films ever made about an American family.” The New York Times liked Friedmans so much that it reviewed it twice. Elvis Mitchell gave two thumbs up; so did columnist-critic Frank Rich, who wrote that “Capturing the Friedmans is the most compelling American movie I've seen in ages, and one of the most astonishing debut features ever.”
There’s just one small problem with all this swooning: a journalistic and ethical one. Jarecki’s film centers on a real-life criminal case out of Great Neck, Long Island, in which two men, retired teacher Arnold Friedman and his 18 year-old son Jesse, were imprisoned for shocking episodes of sexual abuse involving children. The events “captured” by Jarecki thus have continuing consequences for real people, both the accused and the supposed victims. Yet despite having access to mounds of evidence which points to the Friedmans’ innocence, Jarecki’s film perversely refuses to take a firm stance on this central question. It’s a shifty attitude that skeptics will recognize from media depictions of the paranormal, and sure enough, many of the children who accused the Friedmans of horrid sexual abuse only “remembered” that abuse after undergoing dubious hypnosis therapy.
Bizarrely, reviewers of Capturing the Friedmans have applauded the aura of conflicting claims and impenetrable mystery in which Jarecki shrouds his documentary. “The movie is a stunning demonstration of the subjectivity of recollection,” wrote The New Yorker's David Denby. “Not even ‘Rashomon’ itself is more ambiguous or many-sided.” Denby’s comparison is shockingly inapt: Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic was a work of fiction set in 12th century Japan. Jesse Friedman, meanwhile, was released from a 13 year prison term in 2001; he has to live as a registered sex offender “with an electronic monitor attached to his foot,” as one news account put it, and is still trying to clear his name.
Still, one needn't look far to see why reviewers have celebrated the postmodern ambiguity conveyed by Capturing the Friedmans. They are kowtowing to Jarecki, who has pushed this angle very hard. His film, he told The Washington Post, is about “how influenced the truth is by all of our own prejudices and agendas and needs on every level.” There’s even evidence that Jarecki adopted this line as a cynical marketing ploy. In a Village Voice article that should be required reading for Capturing the Friedmans audiences, journalist Debbie Nathan, a participant in the documentary and an expert on the Friedman case, reports the following:
While the film was in production, Jarecki told the Friedman family he thought [Jesse and Arnold] 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.
This is tragic, at least for those who believe in the standard of “reasonable doubt,” because the Friedman case wasn’t really so ambiguous at all. You might reasonably conclude, in fact, that it was a miscarriage of justice, in which the suspicions and hysteria of a tight-knit community, aided and abetted by overzealous police work and false memories retrieved through hypnosis, collaborated to send two innocent men to jail.
Here are the key facts. In 1987, Arnold and his son Jesse were charged with literally hundreds of counts of child molestation of children who had taken Arnold’s computer class, which he taught in the basement of his family home with Jesse’s help. And Arnold was indeed a pedophile: He was guilty of possessing child pornography magazines and confessed that long before the Great Neck scandal he had molested several children, none of whom ever came forward. The case establishing that sodomy and other sex abuses occurred in the Friedmans’ basement, however, was weak. There was no physical evidence; the charges rested solely on the word of children who took the computer class. These children, Jarecki’s documentary makes clear, were doggedly pursued by over-imaginative investigators prone to telling the kids that they knew something had happened, then goading them to tell the “real” story. Nathan even reports that in one case, a boy who insisted nothing had happened in the computer class was warned by detectives that if he didn’t come clean, he would grow up to be “gay.” This evidence was omitted from Capturing the Friedmans, but Jarecki did uncover computer students who say they were pressured by police into accusing the Friedmans of abuse.
Moreover, some of the child accusers only “remembered” what happened after highly dubious hypnosis therapy sessions, where false memories could have been planted in their heads through leading questioning. (For more on the serious problems with recovered memories, see here.) Sure enough, the scale of the alleged abuses committed by the Friedmans more suggests a fantasy gone wild than an actual crime. In Capturing the Friedmans, police describe massive group orgies, carried out week after week, and occurring without complaint until Arnold Friedman fell under suspicion for possessing child pornography. The police, wrote one reviewer, then accused the Friedmans of “abusive behavior on a scale not seen since the Marquis de Sade.” Yet the supposed victims reenrolled in Arnold ‘s computer classes over the course of consecutive years.
Add to this the historical backdrop. This was the Reagan era, and the Friedman case mirrored other cases of alleged ritual abuse involving Satanists and day care centers, which also involved recovered memories, claims of wild sex abuse and even ritual murders. However, with all the rumors flying and numerous investigations, not a single ring of Satanist child abusers was ever uncovered. Writes Nathan of the Friedman case:
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.
Both Friedmans, it’s important to note, pled guilty to the charges against them. But Capturing the Friedmans suggests that they did so in the hope of receiving shorter sentences, knowing that they had already been convicted by the media and their community and could expect that a jury trial would but follow the trend.
Clearly, there was much to unearth about the Friedman case, and a serious documentarian might have been able to exonerate both Arnold Friedman, who committed suicide in prison, as well as his son Jesse. Indeed, with more effort on Jarecki’s part, and some tougher interviews of police and the judge in the Friedman case, Capturing the Friedmans might have blown the lid off a modern day witch trial. Jarecki’s inexperience—before turning film auteur he was the co-founder of Moviefone—shines through most dramatically in his unwillingness to pull the trigger in these already damning interviews.
Granted, the film presented enough evidence to convince at least some viewers of the flimsiness of the case against the Friedmans. In a report on the ramifications for the village of Great Neck on Capturing the Friedmans, the New York Times noted that the film “implies a possible miscarriage of justice” (my ital). The Washington Post went farther, writing that Capturing the Friedmans “strongly suggests that law enforcement officials of Nassau County, Long Island, were overzealous in their investigation, indictment and imprisonment of computer teacher Arnold and his then 18-year-old son, Jesse.” Yet some reviewers, particularly The New Republic's Stanley Kaufmann, wrote as if Capturing the Friedmans had convinced them of Jesse’s guilt, and virtually all celebrated the documentary’s ambiguity about what actually happened.
A rare review contrasting with the back-slapping herd was written by The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan, who strongly criticized Jarecki’s contrived posture of uncertainty about guilt in the Friedman case:
...at some point in the process, Jarecki decided to structure the project around his refusal as filmmaker to say if he thought the Friedmans were guilty or not. And it is with this pose of neutrality that the film’s troubles begin.
The word “pose” is used advisedly and for several reasons. No matter what claims the director has made for taking himself out of things, it couldn’t be clearer that Jarecki believes, as any sophisticated viewer of the film will as well, that, a la California’s McMartin case, there was a serious miscarriage of justice in terms of the scale of the crimes the Friedmans were charged with. As investigative journalist Debbie Nathan, the film’s very welcome voice of sanity, puts it, we have a problem in our culture with hysteria in the area of sexual abuse — the Friedman situation being a case in point.
For skeptics, Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, in which the director ignored his duty as a responsible documentarian to actually seek the truth —and was championed for this refusal by the media—should be very troubling. Most worrisome of all is that despite the hard lessons about group hysteria learned from the 1980s, the reaction to Capturing the Friedmans suggests that even today few audiences, or even well-educated film reviewers, react with adequate skepticism upon hearing claims of ritual abuse and memories recovered through hypnosis. Capturing the Friedmans could have served as an ideal opportunity to educate the public about how communal hysteria over sex abuse feeds upon coerced or false accusations and can result in the persecution of innocents. Instead, the documentary chose the path of ambiguity as “art.”
It is fascinating that, Jarecki told one interviewer that he retained an “ethics advisor” while making Capturing the Friedmans. He doesn't say what he was told, but when dealing with a case like that of the Friedmans, in which numerous people to this day probably nurture a false believe that they were abused as a child and innocents were likely imprisoned, there’s nothing ethical about not taking a stand. Here’s an interview Jarecki gave to the London Observer, in which he addressed what he hoped audiences would get from the film: “What I would like is that people leave and say, ‘You know, I've seen a lot of films where, at the end, I’m supposed to think something. And here, I’m not supposed to think something. I’m just supposed to think.’ That’s my hope.” It’s also the easy way out.