Exonerating the Friedmans

A reader complained biliously about my comments on Capturing the Friedmans, specifically my refusal to dismiss as ludicrous the accusations of sexual abuse against the Friedman father and one of his sons.

His comments are worth repeating and responding to, because they speak to important issues in the criminal-justice system, sexual-abuse cases, and objectivity in documentary filmmaking.

I present his and my viewpoints here in a “discussion” format. I’ve excerpted from his comments and taken care to maintain their spirit and context. I admit up-front that this isn’t exactly fair, because I’m editing his words and get the final say.

In your review of Capturing the Friedmans, I was disappointed that you couldn’t answer the question as to whether or not the Friedmans had actually done what they were accused of.

I could answer the question in terms of what I think, but I honestly don’t care about the answer, as I made clear when I said:

“Did they do it? The movie is wonderfully rich, and of all the things in it, this is among the least rewarding lines of inquiry for me. The most obvious point of the film is that we cannot know the truth of the accusations, so why argue about it?”

Of course they didn’t do it!

I assume you’ve looked at all the case files, then? And interviewed the police and the people who accused the Friedmans? And searched the house? And interviewed the accused, one of whom admits he’s a pedophile?

Who are you to presume to know, based on a two-hour movie, the truth of a complex situation? Did JFK by itself convince you that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone? Or, for that matter, did the Warren Commission report alone persuade you that he did?

In interviews, the movie’s director is clear that he thinks the police case against the Friedman’s was deeply flawed, but he allows that the question of guilt or innocence isn’t easily resolved for most people: “I also believe that it’s very complicated because Arnold Friedman was a pedophile.”

Here it’s critical to separate criminal-justice issues from the question of guilt; just because a person is found guilty of something doesn’t mean he or she did it, and a not-guilty verdict is no surefire validation of a claim of innocence. The criminal-justice system seriously jacked up the case against the Friedmans, but that doesn’t mean one or both of the accused didn’t molest kids in those computer classes. The filmmaker is addressing procedural criminal-justice issues, not guilt or innocence.

Beyond that, it’s dangerous and wrong to believe anything based on a single source, particularly a movie. Films are powerfully manipulative. Most are carefully crafted to achieve a specific result — to get you to feel or think something, to entice you to laugh at this juncture and cry at this point.

Furthermore, nearly all documentaries are propaganda. Some, such as Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, are up-front about their biases and intentions. Most, however, are far more subtle, including information, images, and sounds to accomplish their goals and leaving out those that might introduce doubt. All the elements are assembled with the end — making you think a certain thing — in mind. How much do you trust the people who made Capturing the Friedmans? Have you ever met them? Trust no one, Agent Mulder.

Don’t insult my, or your, common sense with your comment “I assume you’ve looked at all the case files, then?” No, I live in the world of reality ... .

My point is simple. I don’t pretend to have any idea whether the two accused Friedmans are guilty or innocent. I have a guess, but it’s only a guess. And I’m not going to make a judgment based on a movie, or even case files, or even interviews. There is an objective, physical reality of what happened in those computer classes, and not I or you or the filmmakers or the police have any access to it. I don’t assume the Friedmans’ guilt, and I think it’s wrong to assume their innocence for the same reasons.

... and also recognize how many innocent people are charged as guilty (especially due to severe prejudice) ... .

The ills of a society cannot fairly be used as evidence that any specific prosecution or conviction is unjust. Of course innocent people are wrongly accused and convicted. And of course guilty people are found not-guilty.

But many guilty people plead or are found guilty, and it would be wrong to conclude that all people charged with crimes are guilty based on that.

What on Earth did you think ... that a person could teach a computer class in a suburban basement and have pedophilic orgies day after day and not only did not one kid speak out about it (they all came back the next day?), but they also signed up again for multiple class sessions?

“But Mom, I don’t want to go to computer class anymore!”

“Oh, no. Listen, buddy: You are going to that computer class. We paid good money for those classes, and you will go.”

Of course you can’t have pedophilic orgies without a high likelihood of discovery.

But you can molest people. And they’ll keep quiet about it. Prevent Child Abuse America notes: “Children who have experienced sexual abuse may be too frightened to tell anyone.” In the paper “Sexual Abuse of Children,” the authors write:

“It is rare for a child to speak directly about sexual abuse. ... In most cases of sexual abuse, there are no physical indicators of the crime. It is rare to actually have positive medical findings upon medical examination.”

You believe those two or three hideous people who accused the Friedmans (after the police came banging on their door, so much for their attention to civic duty) versus all those who said absolutely nothing happened?

Nope. I don’t believe anybody in that movie. They all have agendas, and they’re all performing for the camera, which was the point of my original piece.

And what that one witness said in his describing a game of “leap frog” is revealing his own active and bizarre fantasy life, not reporting something that is actually physically possible. Only people of the most drooling ignorance would have ever believed that.

I probably have not been clear enough on this issue. Of course many of the specific allegations against the Friedmans — as you describe them, these “pedophilic orgies” — are ludicrous. The issue, for me, isn’t their veracity. You’re suggesting that either there were pedophilic orgies or there was nothing; I think the truth is probably somewhere in between.

Yes, Friedman happened to have some so-called “child” porn.

Oh, you’re understating the case. The elder Friedman, as the film’s director says, has admitted to molesting a child at one point in his life. Just not the kids in the computer classes.

You are completely right that a movie can be powerfully biased (such as Bowling for Columbine), but this filmmaker seemed to go way out of his way to be as unbiased as possible, to the extent that intelligent people like you continued to question what really happened.

First, you don’t know what happened any more than I do. You’re making assumptions and judgments based on the information you have, and you’re entitled to those, but that’s far different from knowing. I know what I had for lunch today, and I can say with a fair degree of certainty what my wife had for lunch — because of what she tells me and what has gone missing from the refrigerator. But I don’t know what she had for lunch; she could have fed it to the dog. I don’t know what happened in a car accident in my community, but I can piece a reasonably good guess together using the information available to me — news stories, police reports (if I care to get them), eyewitness accounts, physical evidence, the testimonies of the drivers.

The trouble with cases of molestation, though, is that there are only two people who know what happened, and the accused has every reason to lie and children are unreliable witnesses and their memories are even more malleable than those of adults. The physical evidence, if it ever existed, is long gone in the Friedmans’ case. There might or might not have been behavioral clues to what did (or didn’t) happen.

Second, be very suspicious of any documentary that seems to be or purports to be “objective”; even-handedness is an illusion, even with a filmmaker’s or journalist’s best intentions. Bowling for Columbine is easy because Michael Moore wears his politics on his sleeve. But movies such as Capturing the Friedmans are more difficult. The bias is still there, but it’s more subtle. Note, for example, the way Jarecki shoots the person who makes the “leap frog” accusation; it’s patently obvious that the director doesn’t want you to believe a word the guy’s saying.

Get a grip on reality, okay?


The whole thing was a shameless police and court-system railroading.

That might well be true. It doesn’t make the accused innocent. See above.

Honestly, if you’re truly going to take the time to review movies, you’re going to have to become a little more aware of reality, not just let your emotional self run rampant.

Honestly, are emotion and an awareness of reality truly incompatible?

Well, my emotional self needs some exercise, so we’re going to run rampant.

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