Capturing the Friedmans

Capturing the Friedmans

Home movies are about innocence-our lost, fuzzy, glowing personal pasts, all horseplay and funny hats and the promise of youth. The flickering family images bring us back to when things were simpler: the prelapsarian blisses of childhood on the one hand and young married parenthood on the other. Now here comes Andrew Jarecki’s astounding film, Capturing the Friedmans, to turn this mythic property of home movies on its head, painting innocence with layers of culpability. In the process it makes the most acidly ironic use of family movies since Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” the 1937 short story in which a narrator’s fantasized movie of his unhappy parents’ long-ago courtship engenders the hopeless, self-annihilating wish that they had never met. Do you think a family never wished that? Meet the Friedmans of Great Neck, Long Island.

The story behind Capturing the Friedmansýbeggars the imagination. Several years ago Andrew Jarecki, multimillionaire inventor of Moviefone-cum-neophyte filmmaker, set out to make a short documentary about a forty-two-year-old man, David Friedman, the number-one children’s birthday clown in Manhattan. This was supposed to be a charming, quirky little personality profile. Friedman, it turned out, had a whole nother tale to tell. It concerned a notorious 1980s sexual-abuse case in the upscale New York suburb where David Friedman’s father, Arnold, a milquetoast science teacher, and David’s teenaged younger brother, Jesse, were convicted of molesting and raping a number of boys in a computer class held in the basement of the family’s home. Arnold admitted to keeping a cache of child pornography, but denied the abuse charges. Fifteen years later David Friedman, convinced of the innocence of his brother and father, and consumed by rage at the injustice, agreed to let Jarecki change the subject of the documentary. The clown was too angry not to cooperate.

Here the story became a documentarian’s fantasy. Friedman possessed, and made available to Jarecki, more than fifty hours of family home movies. The archive included both old home movies made by Arnold Friedman, dating back to the early 1960s, and home videos shot by David Friedman himself-who for immensely complicated reasons continued to chronicle the family’s life in the unimaginably turbulent time after the accusations. In effect, the Friedmans themselves had done Jarecki’s work for him. All the filmmaker had to add were follow-ups: the Friedman brothers and their mother, Elaine (Arnold had taken his own life in 1995); the cops, prosecutors, attorneys, and judge involved in the case; several former members of the computer class; and various experts for perspective.

Capturing the Friedmans is a portrait of a family self-destructing, turning in on itself in suspicion, recrimination, and rage. With the cool poise of a war photographer, David Friedman documented his family’s own private Vietnam, taping shots with subtitles such as “The Night before Arnold’s Sentencing.” These are not reenactments, you have to keep reminding yourself, but actual footage. One can’t but wonder, Why in the world would the Friedmans allow their misery to be so extensively captured on tape? Clearly David Friedman represents a welter of motives-self-dramatization, therapy, and the forensic impulse to document a case against police and prosecutors, and ultimately against his mother, whom he accuses of betraying Arnold. But there’s more to it than this. New York Times critic Frank Rich has coined the term “telephilia” to describe the irresistible urge to be on TV-the pathology of our video-crazed era, which places us all potentially just one reality-show audition away from our fifteen minutes of fame (or infamy). Such agonized family intimacies as those of the Friedmans, thrown onto the screen of the cineplex, trigger intricate questions for the audience. “This is private,” David says into the camera in his video diary in 1988. “So if you’re not me, you shouldn’t be watching this.”

But we do watch. Capturing the Friedmans puts us there, again and again: in the courtroom and around the kitchen table; in David’s room, as he wails at the camera, “I’m so scared!”; on the courthouse steps moments before Jesse pleads guilty, when the brothers film a bit of bravado, imitating a Monty Python routine. Perhaps the most unsettling moments reveal family members celebrating birthdays and seders, trying gamely to smile for the camera-Arnold playing “Cheek to Cheek” at the piano the night before he goes to prison. You get the feeling that the Friedmans have always taken home movies, associating them with happy times, and can’t stop now. “Arnold liked pictures,” Elaine says, in one of the film’s many surpassing ironies. “Lets face it-he liked pictures.”

The grotesque attempts at forced cheer can’t cover an accumulating rage. “Why don’t you believe him?” the sons scream at Elaine. “I don’t believe your father,” she answers, “because your father has never been honest with me.” Bit by bit their fights assume the tenor of cross-examination, and preexisting cracks in deep family structures yawn open under the pressure of accusation. Eventually, and with Elaine’s encouragement, first Arnold pleads guilty to multiple counts of sodomy and sexual coercion. “My mother manipulated him,” David says bitterly, fifteen years later. “It’s called being pussy-whipped.” A little later, it’s Jesse’s turn to plead.

Jarecki keeps the issue of guilt and innocence blurred, juxtaposing wildly divergent recollections to accentuate the Rashomon-like fracture of perspective. We listen to David’s account of how his father taught him to follow his dreams (“My dad was a cool guy, you know? He was selfless, altruistic”), then cut to a detective detailing Arnold’s MO with the boys in class, beginning with sexually suggestive computer games and culminating in backroom rape. “I was raped by him and by Jesse at the same time,” recalls one victim, interviewed in shadow. The charges seem both wild and uncertain-elicited, at least in this case, through hypnosis-and a second student rejects them as “a grotesque fantasy.”

Additional skepticism comes via Debbie Nathan, a journalist who has written about the sexual hysteria of the late 1980s, which produced fabricated charges in several high-profile sexual-abuse cases. With her help, Jarecki details extensive flaws in the case against Arnold and Jesse: dubious investigative practices and a lack of physical evidence; leading questions and coached answers; and perhaps most interesting of all, the fraught dynamic of community hysteria. “If you’re not victimized,” Nathan sums up, “you don’t fit into that community.” When one father asserts that nothing happened to his son, he’s ostracized. “We were told we were in denial,” he says, years later. As for the police questioning of his son, “It got to the point where they were less asking him about what happened than telling him what happened.”

Yet each time we feel convinced the case is trumped up, Jarecki turns us around again. Why, we wonder, is Arnold acting so guilty? Other families facing similar charges, Debbie Nathan observes, use “a monolithic assumption of innocence” as a bulwark against the immense pressure of accusation. The Friedmans lack this key advantage. As we delve into Arnold’s past, secrets emerge, ambiguities of sexual orientation that have tormented him for decades. Whether or not the lurid charges at the computer class are true, it turns out Arnold has things to feel guilt for; his meekly submissive stance in court signals a life lived beneath a burden of sexual shame. “Arnold had a need to confess,” Elaine says. “He had a need to go to jail.”

How to interpret this remark? Is Elaine the long-suffering, lied-to, deluded wife and mother, excluded and finally ganged up on by her husband and sons? Or is she a cold, uncomforting woman who engineers the sacrifice first of her husband, then her son-the woman who admits to Jarecki years later that only once Arnie and Jesse were behind bars, “that’s when I started becoming a person”? Jarecki leaves open big questions, including the biggest one-namely, whether one or both of the Friedmans were wrongly convicted. Some will find this coy; after all, either they did it, or they didn’t. What Jarecki understands, however, is the open-endedness that surrounds not ultimate factuality, but our ability to know. Unpretentious in manner, Capturing the Friedmans becomes nothing less than an exercise in epistemological doubt, unsettling us by piling up conflicting, and alternately convincing, cases for innocence and guilt, until certainty becomes a pipe dream. Images of the Friedmans can be caught in the eternal prison of celluloid, and the family members themselves put behind bars, but what can’t be captured is the family’s truth.

Jarecki closes his astonishing debut with slo-mo images of the Friedman children as young boys. Such images are so familiar, they’re branded on our collective imagination: the jerky madcap lunges toward the camera, the wide smiling faces, the skinny arms and fun with the sprinkler amid a burnished eternal summer. Yet all that has come before-or rather, after-visits a searing pain atop the pleasurable ache of nostalgia. Capturing the Friedmans manages an unsettling feat, showing a family foundering on its own uncertain memories, and leaving us a little bit estranged from our own. end

Published in the 2003-07-18 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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