FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Framing the Friedmans

by SUSAN DAVIS

“Capturing the Friedmans” is Andrew Jarecki’s documentary about a child sex abuse scandal that shook Long Island, New York in the late 1980s. Arnold Friedman and his youngest son Jesse were accused of hundreds of cases of assault and sexual abuse of minors. They pled guilty; Arnold committed suicide in prison, and Jesse served 13 years in Dannemora correctional facility. Unfortunately, the documentary sheds little light on these events and refuses to answer the questions whether real crimes were committed and the right people punished, or whether as seems just as likely, police, psychologists, lawyers and judges went badly astray in a miscarriage of justice.

It seems plain that Arnold Friedman received child pornography through the mail, and this is what kicked off an investigation into the computer classes he ran out of his home. His ex-wife Elaine says he confessed in therapy to molesting two boys who were not his students, at a different place and time. Arnold may have had sex as a child with his younger brother, but his younger brother doesn’t remember any of this. His son Jesse’s lawyer alleges that Arnold told him he was a pedophile. But Arnold wasn’t indicted for those sex crimes, as far as we can tell from Jarecki’s movie. Rather, Great Neck, Long Island police charged him with conducting a continual man-boy orgy in his house over a period of four years. None of his students complained, nor did their parents until after they’d been interviewed by police. No physical evidence was ever presented.

The documentary is troubling in its sources, in what it draws on and what it leaves out. The only accuser (beside police and prosecutors) the filmmakers were able to interview is unwilling to show his face on camera, although he is now an adult, as he retails stories of having retrieved his abuse memories under hypnosis. Other former students say they saw nothing and were pressured by police to affirm they’d been raped. There’s enormous tension between accounts of the crimes Arnold seems likely to have committed (and for which he was not tried) and the stories of coercion and false testimony about the impossible-seeming crimes for which he was imprisoned. You would expect the documentary to take off after this problem: “how is it that no one complained during four years of group rape?” But that question would be either too hard or too easy to try to answer.

Instead, Jarecki centers on the spectacle of pain. The Friedman family tore itself apart under unfathomable pressure, and as their father was about to be sentenced David, the eldest son, began recording the horror on his video camera. Dysfunctional doesn’t cover it: the sons pile on their mother in a blamefest. She’s faced with the agonizing choice of standing by a man who has lied to her for decades about his sexual predilections, or breaking up a vulnerable family. Either way, the family is doomed in the face what appears to be police and judicial railroading, but at least two of the sons decide it’s all her fault, not Dad’s. Then there are all kinds of unanswered questions about the brothers’ versions of what happened, and their motivations for participating in the film. Their versions of events change until we’re left with only miserable sympathy for Elaine Friedman and no respect for anyone except invisible Seth, the middle brother who refused to participate in the documentary project.

It’s a disservice in this day and age not to have the documentary filmmaker take a more definite point of view on what happened, however difficult the truth is to discover. Even though Jarecki has recruited Debbie Nathan, an investigative journalist who wrote about the sex panic for the Village Voice, he doesn’t give her a final say about what she really thinks. Yet it seems what happened was this: a pedophile’s crimes (including, possibly, violations of his own child) went undetected and unprosecuted until his pornography was discovered. The porn was then treated as prima facie evidence that he was running a kiddie rape ring, and police ran amok proving this was so. Children may have been coerced into implicating innocent people, and at least one young man was placed under so much prosecutorial and defense lawyering pressure that he may have confessed to crimes he didn’t commit. All this unfolded under the watchful eye of a judge well-versed in sex crime prosecution.

Just how much Jarecki confuses things by his focus on the family is clear from the creepy web site he’s built to promote his movie (www.capturingthefriedmans.com). It takes the form of a family album with pages of snapshots devoted to each miserable member, albeit in supposedly happier days. But there are no pages for “experts on sex offenders,” “lawyers,” ” what we know and don’t know about pedophilia,” “investigative reporting,” or “other mass sex abuse allegations,” in other words, no room for anyone who might have a less weird, more grounded perspective on what was a societal as well as personal disaster. The contemporaneous McMartin pre-school case is barely mentioned.

Jarecki is so invested in commenting on the final undecidability of reality (and, it might be added, so indebted to David Friedman for his use of his extensive home movies) that the larger implications of this mess are never explored. This backhanded achievement can be measured on the comments pages of the web site. Viewer after viewer has signed in to say things like “what a great movie, but finally, I couldn’t figure out what really happened. I guess we’ll never know.” The implication is that in art, the truth doesn’t really matter. Maybe that would be a cute filmmaker’s trick if this were the only example of such a witch hunt, and if so many lives weren’t still being ruined.

SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana.

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
April 28, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Slandering Populism: a Chilling Media Habit
Andrew Levine
Why I Fear and Loathe Trump Even More Now Than On Election Day
Jeffrey St. Clair
Mountain of Tears: the Vanishing Glaciers of the Pacific Northwest
Philippe Marlière
The Neoliberal or the Fascist? What Should French Progressives Do?
Conn Hallinan
America’s New Nuclear Missile Endangers the World
Peter Linebaugh
Omnia Sunt Communia: May Day 2017
Vijay Prashad
Reckless in the White House
Brian Cloughley
Who Benefits From Prolonged Warfare?
Kathy Kelly
The Shame of Killing Innocent People
Ron Jacobs
Hate Speech as Free Speech: How Does That Work, Exactly?
Andre Vltchek
Middle Eastern Surgeon Speaks About “Ecology of War”
Matt Rubenstein
Which Witch Hunt? Liberal Disanalogies
Sami Awad - Yoav Litvin - Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
Never Give Up: Nonviolent Civilian Resistance, Healing and Active Hope in the Holyland
Pete Dolack
Tribunal Finds Monsanto an Abuser of Human Rights and Environment
Christopher Ketcham
The Coyote Hunt
Mike Whitney
Putin’s New World Order
Ramzy Baroud
Palestinian, Jewish Voices Must Jointly Challenge Israel’s Past
Ralph Nader
Trump’s 100 Days of Rage and Rapacity
Harvey Wasserman
Marine Le Pen Is a Fascist—Not a ‘Right-Wing Populist,’ Which Is a Contradiction in Terms
William Hawes
World War Whatever
John Stanton
War With North Korea: No Joke
Jim Goodman
NAFTA Needs to be Replaced, Not Renegotiated
Murray Dobbin
What is the Antidote to Trumpism?
Louis Proyect
Left Power in an Age of Capitalist Decay
Medea Benjamin
Women Beware: Saudi Arabia Charged with Shaping Global Standards for Women’s Equality
Rev. William Alberts
Selling Spiritual Care
Peter Lee
Invasion of the Pretty People, Kamala Harris Edition
Cal Winslow
A Special Obscenity: “Guernica” Today
Binoy Kampmark
Turkey’s Kurdish Agenda
Guillermo R. Gil
The Senator Visits Río Piedras
Jeff Mackler
Mumia Abu-Jamal Fights for a New Trial and Freedom 
Cesar Chelala
The Responsibility of Rich Countries in Yemen’s Crisis
Leslie Watson Malachi
Women’s Health is on the Chopping Block, Again
Basav Sen
The Coal Industry is a Job Killer
Judith Bello
Rojava, a Popular Imperial Project
Robert Koehler
A Public Plan for Peace
Sam Pizzigati
The Insider Who Blew the Whistle on Corporate Greed
Nyla Ali Khan
There Has to be a Way Out of the Labyrinth
Michael J. Sainato
Trump Scales Back Antiquities Act, Which Helped to Create National Parks
Stu Harrison
Under Duterte, Filipino Youth Struggle for Real Change
Martin Billheimer
Balm for Goat’s Milk
Stephen Martin
Spooky Cookies and Algorithmic Steps Dystopian
Michael Doliner
Thank You Note
Charles R. Larson
Review: Gregor Hens’ “Nicotine”
David Yearsley
Handel’s Executioner
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail