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.