Dear Mr. Cheshire,
I read your review of Capturing The Friedmans, and I’d like to contribute a few thoughts on the subject. I grew up in Great Neck, N.Y. I am one year older than Jesse Friedman. I knew Jesse as a friendly acquaintance, though not very well, and we had several mutual friends at the time the charges against him and Arnold Friedman became public.
I think you made a few good points about how the film works as a drama more than as an attempt to uncover the truth. It raises some questions without following through as fully as it could to seek answers, with the result that the film reads as “ambiguous” to many–and I think this is intentional. If the film was just a blanket condemnation of a couple of confirmed molesters, it wouldn’t be as “thought provoking” and therefore would not succeed as a dramatic film. It could have tried to go the other way and attempted to exonerate the presumably innocent, but there’s enough compelling evidence against the Friedmans that the film could not have gone that way and remained honest. So the filmmaker chose an ambiguous tone.
It’s true that the film does not give a full picture of the ritual sexual-abuse hysteria that was part of the climate of the ’80s. However, there is another aspect of the climate that is also passed over. This was also the Bensonhurst ’80s. For those who may remember, in 1989 at least a dozen white men killed a black man (Yusef Hawkins) in a racist attack in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and the community was mostly united in defense of the accused. That case had nothing to do with sex abuse, but it did highlight what was very obvious at the time: New York communities are very insular, protective of their own, and prefer to deny than confront the more heinous crimes that take place in their own backyards. The suburbs are not so far from the city as many people presume, neither in geography nor in attitude. I think, in fact, the communities of Great Neck and Bensonhurst are reflective of attitudes in communities all across the globe, when it comes to crimes committed by “nice” people that no one thought capable of such crimes.
Great Neck at the time of the Friedman case was not a climate of rampant hysteria, as the Friedmans would like to assert today. Great Neck was a divided community. Some people, most notably the families of victims, were outraged. Other victims’ families preferred to remain anonymous and say nothing, because even today it is seen as a mark of shame for a child to be molested. Most of the community, however, showed a real interest in denying that any such crime could have occurred–until the Friedmans themselves set foot in court and said “we did it” through their guilty pleas. I, like most people, was thrown for a loop by the charges and the confessions. How could this really happen? How could someone be a good son, good friend, good father, good teacher … and also a child rapist!? But the fact is these things do happen, as terrifying as the thought appears. The frightening aspect is the Jekyll and Hyde duality displayed by the perpetrators. Witness Jesse’s strange Monty Python act in the parking lot with his brothers, just minutes after a tearful confession of guilt and a claim that everything was his father’s fault (the same father he defended so adamantly in confrontations with his mother).
Some of the charges that were brought seem patently absurd. Some of the claims seem unreliable, such as the story of the leapfrog game, and the supposed openness of the sexual activities that must have occurred in sight of other children who later claimed no knowledge of what was charged. This uncertainty throws a mist of confusion over the case. Some of this may have been influenced by other cases circulating in the media and in the minds of the public. Then again, the very fact that any man can molest children seems absurd and inconceivable, yet it happens. How are we to resolve this conflict between horrible reality and our own notions of what is “plausible” or “implausible”?
In any case, a few doubts about the testimony of some witnesses does not mean the charges were bogus. The most damning evidence was provided by the Friedmans themselves: the child pornography, the confessions of pedophilia and other cases of molestation, Albert’s sexual desires for his own sons, and ultimately the admission of guilt in court, by both parties.
Did they necessarily play a “leapfrog game?” No.
Did they molest children? By what they told the courts, and told their own lawyers, absolutely. By the history of pedophilia and incest in the family, yes. By what Albert slowly, reluctantly, but finally admitted to his own wife about his own sexual history and proclivities, yes. And by what the dozens of victims told police, yes again.
Not all molesters convicted in the 1980s were victims of a mad witch-hunt. Some of them were simply sick and dangerous individuals, who were very good at lying to their friends and families until the evidence became too much to deny. It’s both disingenuous and unsurprising that a molester will plead guilty and then claim that his own confession was a lie, insisting we must now believe his claim of innocence. It’s unsurprising that the supposed climate of hysteria will be blamed, and the convicted felon will insist he was the victim. And it’s unsurprising that a filmmaker will find a way to sculpt a drama out of the material provided. It is a compelling story. It is thought provoking. But I think it says a lot more about a culture of denial than it does about a culture of hysteria. The denial persists today, and questions that should have been put to rest 14 years ago are still haunting us.
Read Godfrey Cheshire’s original review online at https://indyweek.com/durham/2003-07-16/movie2.html.