Archive for June, 2013

Summer Beach Reading

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

OK, summer’s here, and it’s Gay Pride day, and now the Supreme Court says everyone (well, 30% of everyone) can marry the person of their gender preference. What better time to pick up a sweet gay travel romance for some summer beach reading? Now you can get my novel The Traveler’s Companion in e-book or paperback.

The easiest source is Amazon, but if you’re looking for alternative file formats, try Smashwords.

And to prove that it’s perfect beach reading, here’s a beach scene set in Venice:

lidoWhen Lint and Ricka and Klaus have gone off to the nude beach, I feel a tiny regret at not having gone along, not least because my cowardice has left me just here, lying between Philip and Antonio who are as glistening and uncommunicative as fish at a market stall. I take out my book and start to read but can’t concentrate. I glance again at my companions. Philip may or may not be sleeping, but he has achieved in repose the stillness and symmetry of the effigy on a Medieval sepulcher. Antonio must be asleep. His lips move, and every now and then a murmur escapes them. My eyes travel down his chest, lightly dusted with dark hair, along his narrow waist, to the tiny black swimsuit. He moves suddenly, and I glance away. But he has only shifted in his sleep.

I get up, walk down to the water, and wade in. The water is warm, with a lingering odor of the canals. A hundred tourists and Italian holidaymakers splash around me. I wade out past the crowd and begin to swim until I am rather far out. Around me the sea is a glittering disk with the sky domed above it and, at its rim, a crescent of sand dotted with colored moving forms. I float on my back and let the sun bake my face. Then with slow strokes I make my way back to shore. As I stand up and wade through the crowd, I hear my name called.

“Mark!”

I look around. Off to my left, Francesco stands at the edge of the water. I wave and wade towards him.

“How are you?” he calls.

“Fine, and you?” I shout back.

I have the disconcerting sensation that, like the hero of a children’s story who steps magically into a picture book or a painting, I have walked into a Vogue Uomo spread. If Francesco was beautiful in the lovely setting of his garden, he is stunning here, set against the sea and sand, with the breeze sifting through his honey-colored hair. He seems taller than I remembered, or perhaps it’s just that, in his snugly fitting bathing suit, there seems so much more of him and all of it perfectly shaped and tanned. The rest of us, duller and plainer and all too recognizably human, fade into background detail. I fold my arms across my chest and squint up at him, finding my skinny, pale form reflected in his sunglasses.

He smiles. “A beautiful day.”

“Yes,” I agree. “Are you going swimming?”

He casts a finical glance at the water. “The water is dirty here,” he says making me feel all at once coated in grime. “There are nicer beaches to swim.”

I wonder if he means Lint and Ricka’s beach, then have a quick image of Francesco striding naked down the beach with everyone gazing in hushed appreciation as if royalty were passing.

“Thanks for dinner the other night,” I tell him. “It was really great. Do you cook a lot?”

“Yes,” he seems pleased that I’ve asked. “I like to cook very much. I would like to open a restaurant some day.”

“Here?”

“New York. I love New York. I must convince Adam. He does not want to return to America.”

“Well, it’s a big country,” I say, wondering what I could mean by such a pointless remark.

“Yes,” he agrees. “I love it. You liked to meet Adam?” he goes on.

“Very much. He’s very nice.”

“He is very intelligent. He talks all the time.” He laughs and flutters his fingers against his thumb to indicate constant talking. “Sometimes I just let him talk. He likes to talk. I let him.”

It strikes me as a pity that Adam should have a lover who doesn’t like to hear him talk and wants to go to New York when Adam wants to stay in Italy. But, I tell myself cynically, his other charms must more than compensate.

I’m searching for my next trivial remark when I look up to see Antonio coming down the beach. I start to wave, but he stops and seems to hesitate. Francesco follows my gaze and calls out, “Ciao! Come stai?

Antonio, reluctantly it seems, moves towards us. He nods briefly at Francesco. “Come stai?” They talk in Italian for a few minutes, Francesco smiling pleasantly and Antonio appearing to give brief, unwilling answers. Finally Francesco, with a smile at me, moves off. “We see you soon?” he calls as he moves away.

“I hope so.” I watch his tanned, well-shaped back disappear into the crowd, then turn to Antonio who, I’m surprised to notice, is looking remarkably discomposed. Even with the dark glasses he’s having trouble meeting my eyes, and he may be blushing.

“How do you know Francesco?” I ask.

“I see him, you know, in the city.”

“Do you know him well?”

“No, not at all.”

“I guess that’s a coincidence, that we both know him.”

He shrugs. “Venice is not a large place. You know him well?” he asks.

“I just met him the other night. He’s a friend of—he lives with this guy—a friend of my sister’s.”

“And you like him?”

“He seems very nice.”

“Yes, he is very nice.” He hits the words with a mocking lilt, as if he’s only mimicking my accent again. With his eyes hidden behind his sunglasses, any other meaning is impossible to guess. “We must wake Philip,” he says. “He will burn.”

Powerful Delusions

Friday, June 28th, 2013

Shortly after Capturing the Friedmans came out, I was on a bus and overheard two people behind me discussing the film. “They were creeps!” they said, referring to Jesse and his father. “They were so guilty!”

I was stunned because I thought the film, though deliberately ambiguous, portrayed a clear miscarriage of justice. But I realized that the miscarriage of justice was probably clearer to someone who had studied other such cases and recognized the patterns. My fear is that, by the same token, my recent posting might be unpersuasive to people who don’t know the history and theory of the day care cases. And it occurs to me that I might be able to explain the problems with the Jesse Friedman case in a way that doesn’t require special knowledge. So:

When I began to research the Bernard Baran case, I quickly realized that there were only two possible theories of the case: either Bernard Baran had committed crimes of horrific depravity against vulnerable children or he had spent half his life in prison for something that never happened. (You might argue that a third theory is possible, one that splits the difference. Sure. You just have to make sure it’s a real theory and not a cop-out. If you find yourself saying, “Well, something must have happened,” you don’t have a theory. You have an evasion.)

All theories, of course, are provisional. A theory is good only as long as it continues to adequately explain the known facts. In this light, though, a heavy burden is on the prosecutors in the Jesse Friedman case. They have to explain:

…how it was possible for so many students to be repeatedly abused in a classroom without anyone noticing anything amiss

…why other students in the classroom claim never to have witnessed the abuse, which was supposed to have happened in “plain view”

…why some of the accusers now say that nothing happened, but describe instead intense pressure from investigators to say it did

…how it is possible to know whether any of the accusations were true if some of them were clearly fantastic (anal sex leapfrog?)

…how this case is different from other cases which, operating on the same assumptions and pursuing the same methods, have since been discredited

The theory that most adequately explains all of the above is the theory advanced by Jesse’s supporters: that Jesse and his father were victims of the same kind of hysteria-driven witch hunt that played out in the McMartin case, the Amirault case, the Kelly Michaels case, the Wenatchee case, the Little Rascals case, the…. well, you get the idea. Regarding the largest explanatory burden placed on Jesse’s defenders—why would the kids make these accusations if none of it was true?—they can simply state, “It happened all the time,” and adduce as evidence McMartin, Amirault, Michaels, Wenatchee, etc. (Another part of the explanatory burden is the guilty pleas. For those, I refer you to Jesse’s account.)

As I suggested in my post, the news accounts of the report, instead of providing solid refutation of the defense’s theory, offer random bits of information of the kind that all criminal cases throw up. So we get an uncle who now claims that Arnold Friedman confessed to him years ago; Jesse’s own trial psychiatrist calling him a “psychopathic deviant”; two sexually related infractions on Jesse’s prison record. The problem with these random bits of information is that they don’t do anything to address the difficulties I’ve outlined above. They don’t make the prosecution’s theory of the case any likelier. Indeed, they seem like diversionary flares sent up to distract people from the weaknesses of that theory.

It’s characteristic of such random bits of information that they can be hard to pin down. Who is this uncle? When did he make this revelation? Why did he wait so long to make it? Is he lying? Crazy? Misremembering? If he’s remembering accurately, what did Arnold actually say? Why? What was his state of mind? (Free answer: not good.)

The day care cases were built on just such random bits of information, information that sounded shocking, but was difficult to place in any concrete way. The Bernard Baran case began when a mother claimed that, while giving her four-year-old son a bath, she saw blood coming from his penis. The boy, she claimed, said Bernie had touched it. Quite disturbing, but on the other hand, huh? The child had not been in the day care center for several days. What could Bernie have done on Monday to make a child’s penis bleed on Thursday? For that matter, what would you actually do to a child’s penis to make it bleed? (It doesn’t help that this mother was not, um, the most trustworthy person in the world.)

Of course it’s shocking to think that Great Neck children might have been sexually abused in their after-school computer class, but how did it happen in real world terms? You’ve got to be able to at least imagine a where, when, and how. The problem with the day care cases was that the efforts made to pin any of this down produced only wilder and woolier accusations, until you ended up with anal sex leapfrog. (See page 10 of my Baran piece if you want to know how crazy things got in that case.)

I was asked the other night what draws me to these cases. I think it’s the toxic interplay of irrationality and injustice. I’ve always been fascinated by human irrationality. When I was in high school, I wrote a report on theories that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. It changed how I viewed the world. It had never occurred to me before that people believe in spite of evidence and logic, that they marshal evidence and logic at the service of belief, the belief itself being overpowering, world-shaping, self-justifying, whether it’s the belief that the Earl of Oxford wrote Hamlet or that a monster has been loose in the local day care center. Perhaps for this reason, the district attorney’s “impartial analysis” was no more likely to find Jesse innocent than a council of Mormons would be likely, after impartial analysis, to acknowledge the golden plates as one of Joseph Smith’s more charming flights of fancy.

Such beliefs can be harmless but they can also be immensely destructive, and this is why I’ve never been happy with the epistemological shrug (can we ever really know what’s true?). It might not matter whether Shakespeare wrote his plays, but it matters that Bernard Baran spent 21 years in prison, that Jesse Friedman is still a registered sex offender, and that three of four women in Texas are still imprisoned nearly twenty years after becoming targets of the same kind of self-justifying delusions.

The district attorney’s report revealed once again how depressingly difficult it is to break through the walls of those delusions. What makes it difficult is that these delusions are ultimately about power; they reinforce and protect power, and to give them up is to yield power. The power of delusion is that it can shape not just facts but people to its will, which is how a gay day care worker can become a sex fiend and a suburban teenager a “psychopathic deviant.” Another reason that the DA’s office was unlikely to clear Jesse Friedman is that it would have deprived them of their power to tell him who he is.

Jesse Friedman

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

I first met Jesse Friedman in February 2002, a little over a year before Capturing the Friedmans came out. He’d just got out of prison, and friends from Boston asked me to look him up because he was living in New York and didn’t know anyone. My friends thought I’d be a good person for Jesse to know because I’d been working with them on a project I was developing: a screenplay about Bernard (“Bee”) Baran. Like Jesse, Bee had been ensnared in one of the sex panic cases of the 1980s. Convicted of raping five children at a daycare center, he had, at the time, been in prison for 17 years, though his conviction would be overturned four years later. (I’ve written about Bee here.)

Jesse’s case was a different story. I first heard about it from Debbie Nathan when I interviewed her for the Baran project. Debbie’s incisive investigative articles for the Village Voice were what first got me interested in the day care scandals, yet she told me she’d initially been leery when Jesse reached out to her. Not only had he and his father both confessed, but Jesse repeated his confession on Geraldo. Moreover, Arnold Friedman actually was a pedophile. The case began when police recovered child pornography from their suburban home.

But the patterns were the same. No sign of any problem until an investigation was sparked. Children making accusations only after repeated, often coercive questioning. Increasingly improbable scenarios of abuse. And, among the investigators, the moral fervor of priests performing an exorcism.

Oh, and one more thing: an absolute refusal on the part of prosecutors to admit that mistakes were made, no matter how many years had passed or how high an accumulation of evidence they had to ignore.

Hence, presumably, the report from the Nassau County District Attorney’s office which on Monday upheld, after conducting an “impartial analysis” of a three-year investigation, “the integrity of Jesse Friedman’s guilty plea, and his adjudication as a sex offender.”

I haven’t read the report, but what’s appeared in news accounts seems to reflect a problematic combination of outraged authority and insufficient curiosity. The outraged authority can be heard in the claim that Jesse “remained quiet” about his innocence until the movie came out. He didn’t. (See above.) Indeed the report directs a certain amount of animus at the film, as if it were the film and not an excoriating court decision that made the re-investigation unavoidable. There is also outraged authority in the random bits of character assassination that at least the news reports are supplying in lieu of solid refutation: an uncle’s belated revelation, a psychiatrist’s report, Jesse’s prison infractions.

The insufficient curiosity, though, is more troubling. The report claims that the Friedman case is “in no way similar” to other notorious sex abuse cases of the 80s. That’s not true. The similarities are striking. You can argue that, despite those similarities, Jesse was guilty, but to claim that the case is “in no way similar” is to confess that you haven’t studied those cases with any understanding. To substantiate the supposed lack of similarity, the report asserts that, unlike in the McMartin preschool case, the children in Great Neck were older and their accusations emerged quickly. But the other half of the sex panics of the 80s and 90s consisted of adults recovering memories of lurid, often satanic abuse, so there’s no age limit on the manipulation of memory. As for the swiftness with which the accusations emerged, Bernard Baran went from first accusation to conviction in four months; the initial accusation was followed by a second within hours.

Perhaps the most chilling insight into the re-investigation comes from a Times article that appeared ten days ago. Someone speaking anonymously from inside the investigation claims that “the most compelling evidence was the level of specificity and detail in the children’s accounts, which was beyond what a child could have come up with on his own.” Maybe you have to have spent as much time in the thickets of the day care cases as I have to feel the special horror of that claim. It was a claim made repeatedly back in the day. The children could not possibly have come up with such graphic details unless they’d actually experienced them. And, repeatedly, when transcripts of the children’s interviews were available, it was revealed that the details were supplied by the adults interviewing them. The statement suggests an investigation frozen in time, unable to give up (or insufficiently curious about the problems with) the discredited thinking of 1988.

There are other signs that the investigators did not consider the history of the daycare cases to be part of their investigative bailiwick. The report includes a list of “symptoms” that the children were said to be experiencing as a result of the abuse. You don’t have to have read up too much on the sex panic cases to know that exactly such vague, generic lists were used to diagnose abuse, whether of a child at a day care center or of an adult seeking help with emotional difficulties. If those lists are symptoms of anything, they’re symptoms of a sex panic.

In one way, the report is not surprising. The day care center cases were about belief, and it’s hard to penetrate a belief system. The fact that these particular belief systems are shored up by considerations both political (people’s careers are at stake) and personal (who wants to acknowledge that they ruined someone’s life?) only makes them more resistant to outside analysis.

And yet that resistance brings with it a moral calcification, which, in the report, finds expression in some high-handed verbal overkill. At one point, the authors declare that Jesse was “a maker of his own destiny.” Jesse may have made some bad decisions, but he made them in horrifically difficult circumstances. When he pleaded guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence, he was being charged with 243 counts of child sexual abuse and facing a lifetime in prison. It takes a certain kind of moral obtuseness to call that making your own destiny.

But the day care cases were always notable for missing the human context, for failing to recognize that everything is tied to human circumstance. Yes, it always needs to be asserted, sexual abuse happens, but it happens within a recognizable human context. In the day care cases, sexual abuse was assumed to happen outside that context: in a busy day care center with parents coming in and out, in a computer class to which students happily returned week after week. It happened in defiance of temporal, physical, and psychological constraints. And where justice has been achieved in the day care cases, it has required a return to human understanding, a painstaking investigation of how things happen in human terms.

I suspect that when Kathleen Rice, the district attorney, congratulates herself on the “impartial analysis” of her report, she’s actually describing a failure of human understanding.