Capturing the Friedmans is a spellbinding look at the collapse of an American family. I caught this docu-movie at the local art house and was unexpectedly floored by it.
Arnold Friedman, an award-winning former teacher, lives with his wife of over 30 years and three sons in the small town of Great Neck, New York. The oldest son owns a camera, and as a result, we are treated to several mundane scenes of suburban family life. But there is, beneath the veneer of this seemingly average Jewish family, something much more incendiary.
Arnold Friedman is arrested one day after a kiddie porn magazine is intercepted by postal inspectors. A subsequent search of his home turns up “stacks” of such material in his private office and behind the family piano.
More ominously, investigators discover that Arnold has been teaching a popular computer class to neighborhood kids for years. In the ensuing frenzy, Arnold and his son Jesse are charged with hundreds of counts of sexually abusing students in the classes.
By almost any standard, his would seem to be an open-and-shut case. But as more information is revealed, the more dubious the case becomes.
Prosecutors relayed stories of constant, open sexual abuse among students, yet they never found any physical evidence of abuse either on the children or in the classroom area. Members of the Friedman household said they never observed any abuse.
Interviewed today, some who had leveled the accusations as children said they were coached by parents and police who did not ask what happened, but rather, insisted that they had been abused and demanded to know the method and the frequency with which the acts occurred.
Some former students said the claims of sex games were preposterous, and that no unusual events occurred. Others said they had been hypnotized by investigators and “recovered memories,” telling wild tales of group sexual abuse.
This, despite the fact that many children taking the courses were picked up by family members (sometimes unannounced) and never cried or told tales of inappropriate goings on before the kiddie porn charges surfaced. In fact, many of the kids had even reenrolled for the advanced computer course.
In this small town, where the desire to outdo the Joneses is trumped only by the desire to fit in, some parents recalled being pressured by other parents to say their kids were abused. At the height of the frenzy, those who resisted were accused of being in denial.
It is here that one realizes the irony of the film’s title. In other child abuse cases, an observer notes, when the family of the accused believes the person is innocent, they “circle the wagons” and vigorously defend him. In this case, that did not happen because the family was so stunned by the revelation of Arnold Friedman’s pedophilia. As a result, the mother somewhat ruthlessly “cuts the rock from the canoe,” and we watch as the family implodes.
After seeing this film (which is, for now, the only way in which outsiders can assess the situation), it seems to me that objective viewers will leave the theater perturbed that the case against the Friedmans may have been perversion of justice. It is indeed likely that Arnold Friedman engaged in some inappropriate behavior, what with his pornographic computer games and admissions of prior abuse. But the specific charges against him seem more the result of hysteria than his own actions, and the case against his son appears to be completely fraudulent.
(The problem was addressed in a recent New York Times editorial, but the conclusion is wrong, damn wrong, having less to do with the actual film than the writer’s own willingness to pervert it for his own liberal agenda. The answer to cases like this one is not to relax sentencing guidelines for genuine abuse cases, but rather, to ensure that law enforcement officers investigating such cases are properly trained to get at the truth.)
Let us examine the problem of Arnold Friedman’s pedophilia from the perspective of administering justice. Arnold stood before the jury as an admitted pedophile in nature, but claimed he had not acted in the manner of which he was accused.
In a broader practice, avowed pedophiles often claim their pedophilia is an involuntary sexual orientation, much like heterosexuality or homosexuality.
It would seem to me that presenting such a claim to those sitting on juries and courts would doom the accused regardless of any lack of evidence supporting the accusation.
When confronted with the permanent, unreformable pedophile, even reasonable jurors will be filled with a mixture of indignance, fear and horror. They will be unwilling — indeed, unable — to distinguish between predisposition and action.
Thus, the pedophile is, in whole, a monster. Abuse is his nature, his destiny, and he must be, as often as he rises, banished, lest their own children be preyed upon.
Thus was the case with Arnold Friedman, the once-exemplary citizen who, once outed, so horrified the community that he had to be ousted by whatever means. It appears that his son’s prosecution was unjust, but in the eyes of the police, the townspeople and, indeed, perhaps Arnold’s own wife, it was all the same.