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Capturing the Friedmans

Described in the "Entertainment Weekly" blurb review as "the most haunting documentary since Crumb," Capturing the Friedmans tells the story of the child abuse trials of Arnold and Jesse Friedman, a teacher and his son from Great Neck, New York, who were accused of hundreds of counts of sexual abuse against children. The film is as revolting as it sounds but, to my surprise, this revulsion comes not from the alleged actions of the Friedmans but from the deplorable handling of the case by authorities and the unnecessary trauma to which the Friedman family was subjected. As a rebuke of Salem witch hunt-style moral hysteria and the destructive force of the news media, it stands alongside Bowling for Columbine as a chilling and important film.

Capturing the Friedmans seems to take a truthful and objective approach to the story, allowing the evidence to stand on its own. (Since suggestibility is one of the movie's main areas of investigation, I suppose its apparent objectivity is subject to scrutiny. [A scrutiny to which, until now, the investigation itself has never been subjected.] The director spoke after the screening and indicated that the prosecutors and investigators involved in the case had seen the film and felt that it was truthful, so it must be pretty well balanced. He said they even felt that the film substantiated the actions they took in their investigation!)

As a document, Capturing the Friedmans is thoroughly researched and compellingly constructed. In terms of its presentation, the film makes some choices (interstitial slo-mo shots of idyllic present-day Great Neck) which seem out of place. These may have simply been designed to offer the audience a break from the nauseating video-verit̩ footage from the family's own documentation of the trial. Also, statements that the director made in the Q&A after the film would ideally have been included in the documentary to enhance every audience's understanding. For example, he originally set out to make a film about David Friedman (Arnold's oldest son and Jesse's older brother), who is New York's premier birthday party clown. Through the clown interviews, the other story was revealed; knowing this might help the audience make sense of some early interviews which are holdovers from the clown story. Also, middle brother Seth's decision not to be featured in the film could use some further explanation. As stated in the film, it's ambiguous whether Seth's refusal should be considered a statement against Arnold and Jesse or just Рas seems to be the case Рa decision to move on, for the sake of his current wife and children.

Those minor stylistic shortcomings aside, the film is a gripping and heart-wrenching account of a truly horrifying experience that many families struggled through in the mid-1980s epidemic of day-care child abuse allegations. The facts, as I understand them, are these: Arnold Friedman was a pedophile. He possessed a collection of child pornography and purchased some of it through the mail. The Postal Inspector's office intercepted a piece of mail from a known child pornography distributor in the Netherlands and began an undercover operation to catch him sending and receiving illegal material through the mail. In the course of a subsequent search of his home, they found some more pornographic material and a list of children's names. This list was a class list for an afternoon computer class that Friedman taught in his basement for extra money. Investigators made the deductive leap that Friedman the kiddie-porn enthusiast might also be a child molester. Acting without the discretion due to such an unsubstantiated hunch, they raided the house with the news trucks of every local TV station present. At this point, Friedman was effectively "guilty" of child sexual abuse in the court of public opinion and any family whose child had attended his classes had immediate cause to start asking the child some dangerous questions. Shortly thereafter, investigators conducted interviews with the children and their families and (through ignorance or possibly misguided zeal) these discussions were conducted improperly. Parents of children who denied any abuse were pressured and children were asked leading questions and effectively badgered until they finally, in the words of one such student, "said what they wanted me to say in order to get them to leave me alone." As a result, hundreds of counts of sexual abuse were charged against Arnold and his son Jesse who was himself a minor at the time of many of the alleged incidents.

The film deals with some powerful themes, chief among them the concept of recollection. The Friedman family is shattered by the allegations because they begin to distrust their own ability to recall. Could this really have been going on in my house all this time without my knowledge? Arnold's wife, Elaine, can't be sure. Unlike some of the defendants swept up in the scandals of the era, Arnold Friedman was a materially proven pedophile. Confronted with the realization that she has been ignorant of this fact for their entire marriage, Elaine can't be so sure that molestation was not also a possibility. Her sons see this hesitation as a lack of faith in Arnold, and turn against her. But something in David responds to the same distrust in the reliability of his memory. His reaction is to document the family's life with his video camera. As he states it, "I filmed it so I wouldn't have to remember it." The unreliable human memory is relieved of the responsibility for preserving a record of events – if everything is documented electronically, then the truth can't be called into question again the next time.

The fallibility of memory exists also in the only evidence presented in the Friedman case: the testimony of the children. The delicate considerations of interviewing young children, particularly in situations involving trauma, are addressed only briefly in the documentary, but based on my extensive reading since seeing the film and my Psychology 101 course, it is clear that great care must be taken to avoid contaminating their accounts and – even worse – permanently altering their memories. Capturing The Friedmans presents no transcripts from the interrogation of the children, but by the accounts of the parents and students interviewed, it is clear that the investigators in this case made many of the same mistakes as those in the McMartin trial, the Kelly Michaels trial, and others of the era. According to one parent, the manner in which investigators approached the students on the list was inappropriate enough to compromise any further testimony from the children. Police contacted parents, by letter or in person, before meeting with the children. They outlined for the parents some possible acts that their children may have been subjected to, along with possible symptoms of sexual abuse (like bed-wetting and recalcitrance – what kids don't exhibit these symptoms?). The problem here is that any rational parent would immediately begin grilling their child upon receiving news like this, trying to make sure that he is okay. And these early conversations have great potential to confuse the highly suggestible memories of young children. (Keep in mind that no physical evidence was ever presented to support the hunch that these children may have been touched inappropriately. Investigators contacted parents based only on a class list.)

The memories of children are subject to revision, and children aren't alone. Studies we looked at in Psych class reveal that even adults will recall things differently than they actually occurred based on very subtle hints from the interviewer.

For example, subjects viewed a videotape of a driving automobile that, at the end of the tape, is involved in a fairly mild crash and then answered some questions about it. Asked to estimate the speed of the car, subjects' guesses went up significantly as the language of the interviewer changed from "What was the speed of the white car when it bumped into the blue car?" to hit, crashed into, or smashed into. The interviewer then asked, "Was this faster or slower than when the car passed the barn?" and "How many seconds earlier did the car pass the barn?" Almost no subjects correctly stated that there was no barn in the video.

At issue is the response to the authority of the interviewer, and if adults are this susceptible, you'd better believe children are more so! (And if the first interviewer is a parent – what greater authority is there in the eyes of a child?) Not to mention that the questions asked in these investigations were more leading and that interviewers repeated the same question again and again (assuming the child had just suppressed ugly memories) if they received a "No" answer. Children will assume they're doing something wrong and vary their response until the grown-up seems satisfied. (This isn't just my opinion – the student quoted previously expressed exactly that reaction!)

Plenty of inappropriate techniques came into play, like peer pressure ("All the other students told me the bad things Arnold did. Don't you want to be helpful, too?"), negative stereotyping, and the improper use of anatomically correct dolls. In the case of these techniques and many others, scientists have been able to prove that they highly degrade the reliability of children's accounts. (See "Suggestibility of Children" link for further in-depth reading.)

Having some understanding of the suggestibility of eyewitness accounts I figured out quickly what was going on. But I began to wonder... why? Why was a case built on zero physical evidence allowed to progress so far? Why did the interviewers use such inappropriate and harmful techniques? (The adverse effects of the interrogations didn't stop at the students' testimony. As in the McMartin trial, many of these children carry the false memories of their trauma with them into adulthood. The sexual abuse, even if it didn't happen, is real for them thanks to high-pressure interview tactics and, in some cases, hypnosis.) At first, it is tempting to ascribe malice to the actions of the investigators. They must have "teamed up" to "get" the Friedmans. With great difficulty, I set this theory aside as impractical. My best guess is the following: Once they learned that Arnold Friedman collected kiddie porn, they were so disgusted by him that they (maybe subconsciously) wanted to make sure that he was punished to the maximum possible extent. The penalty for molesting a child being much greater than that for owning sexy pictures of one, they felt compelled without a shred of physical evidence to investigate the chance of his molesting children. The media frenzy that resulted combined with the improper interrogations to create a hysteria that led to Arnold and Jesse being indicted on hundreds of counts of child sexual abuse. This was happening all over America at the time. So grave were the allegations that no one could dare question the children's memories or the interview techniques. (Today we know that badgering children is more likely to produce false memories than unearth repressed ones. Why this wasn't obvious at the time is beyond me.)

"Believe The Children" read the buttons worn by the parents in the McMartin case. But this was a selective belief. Belief in their allegations of hundreds and hundreds of incidents of violent abuse with no physical evidence, but dismissal of such obvious fabrications as the McMartin defendant who was accused of beating a giraffe to death with a baseball bat and transporting victims to Palm Springs by hot air balloon to sexually abuse them. "Believe The Children" they cried, alleging that to disbelieve the children's fantastical stories was to advocate child abuse. (As in the Salem witch trials, those coming to the aid of the accused often found themselves accused.) No other film has inspired me to do so much thinking and further research as Capturing the Friedmans has. It's a spellbinding film and an essential story for understanding our media culture and the consequences of such paroxysms of moral hysteria.

"Believe The Children" has a familiar ring to it. How many times have we heard "Be Patriotic. Support Our President" in recent months?

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