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Capturing the truth
Jesse Friedman talks about the scandal that shattered his family and the movie that explains it all
BY MICHAEL BRONSKI

JESSE FRIEDMAN is 34 years old. As a 19-year-old, he went to prison to serve a sentence for crimes he says he didnít commit. He spent 13 years there. Andrew Jareckiís documentary Capturing the Friedmans seems to suggest that Jesse is telling the truth when he says heís innocent.

The film, which has become this summerís surprise art-house hit, examines what happened to Jesseís middle-class Jewish family in the prosperous community of Great Neck, Long Island, when it became caught up in child-abuse allegations (see "Picture of Injustice"). In 1988, Jesseís father, Arnold, was arrested for mailing child pornography. The case mushroomed in a full-fledged sex scandal when Nassau County police vigorously questioned boys who had taken computer classes from Arnold and Jesse in the Friedmansí home. Within weeks, Arnold and the then-18-year-old Jesse were arrested on multiple counts of child sexual abuse. Although he claimed to be innocent of all 42 sex-related charges, Arnold was persuaded to plead guilty so that Jesse would have a better chance in court if he were not tried with his father. Arnold, who collected child pornography and had admitted to twice having sex with young boys during family vacations, would not make a sympathetic figure before a jury. Arnold was sentenced to 10 to 30 years and later committed suicide in prison.

Jesse, on the advice of his lawyer, who felt that a fair trial was impossible with all the publicity given to the case, also pled guilty in hopes of receiving a light sentence. He also claimed that his father molested him, a claim he now says is simply not true, in the hopes of receiving mercy from the court. He was sentenced to six to 18 years in prison and released on parole in 2001. He moved to Manhattan and is classified as a sex offender. He wears an electronic ankle bracelet so the police can track his movements. He also must be home by 8 p.m. every evening and is forbidden to go near schools or other places where children might hang out, including Central Park. Jesse spoke with me last week by phone from his apartment in Manhattan.

Q: Whatís it like to watch the movie?

A: Every time I watch this movie itís different for me. It took me three times before I was even able to begin to get a sense of how an outsider might see it. I think the film is wonderful. At times people have asked me about the film being ambiguous ó I donít think it is ambiguous at all. A lot of the press has categorized it as a Rashomon and that it doesnít present any conclusions. But I think people are confusing fair and balanced with ambiguous. I think the film clearly demonstrates that I am innocent. It gives the police and others the opportunity to tell the story from their point of view, and I have no problem with that. I just donít think the police are credible.

Q: I know that you have been at some of the screenings of Capturing the Friedmans in New York. Whatís it been like to answer questions from an audience thatís just seen the film?

A: We never planned the audience-question periods at the Angelika theater in New York when the film opened. I went to the theater when the film opened because I couldnít help myself and wanted to linger in the lobby to see if anyone recognized me. When I got here, Andrew Jarecki, the filmís director, was there to see how large the crowds were. We were all excited about the film opening ó both the filmmakers and the Friedmans.

It was a huge project and took three years to make and was a very personal project, even for the filmmakers. We just started talking to people in the lobby, and people stayed with us for an hour talking about the film. And then the next showing was getting out, and we met with the next audience. Itís amazing. Over the past months Iíve completely come to understand how personal the movie is to many viewers. People have come out of that movie and they cry, and they just want to give me a hug. A few weeks ago there was this big black guy who just came out of the film and gave me a hug and then left. People want to share personal stories. And there are some people who feel that they have invaded my familyís privacy in some voyeuristic, unhealthy way. But whatís interesting is that just as personal as it is for people to watch it, it is just as personal for me to have people see it.

Q: I know that they have had screenings at a theater in Great Neck, with a question-and-answer period as well.

A: There was a sort of town meeting after the premiere hosted by John Anderson, who is the senior film reviewer for Newsday. I was not there. I did not go to Great Neck. I am not interested in going back to Great Neck. They ran me out of town once, that was enough for me. They donít have to run me out of town again. The meeting, however, was filmed for both the forthcoming DVD and, I believe, itís going to be aired on 48 Hours as well.

Q: Has the "reality" of the film become real in some way to you?

A: I have to say that Andrea Morriconeís music is beyond great. I feel so special that Andrea Morricone wrote a score for my familyís home movies. I watched some of the original home movies a while ago and my brain was saying, "Whereís the sound?"

Q: How many times have you seen the film?

A: Watching from beginning to end in a straight sitting, I have seen the film seven times. But Iíve also seen some scenes many, many times, and of course there are parts that I am in when they were filmed. But as often as I have seen the film, there are scenes ó no matter how often I see them ó that I canít sit through without crying. I donít think I ever will.

Q: Which are the hardest scenes for you to sit through?

A: The toughest one for me is just before the epilogue. Mom says, "Arnold had a need to confess and a need to go to prison. The sad thing is that he took his son with him." There is then a montage of some of the old home movies. It is the scene with David pushing me on the swing set. Iíve spoken to my brothers about this, and my mom agrees with it as well, that watching the home movies made us remember that we actually were quite happy as a family. It was the events of 1988 and 1989, with the arrests and everything else, that made us forget that. That time was so horrible, so oppressive, that they really obliterated everything that came before. Itís been really nice to see that there were times when we were happy, when we werenít fighting and things werenít always horrible. Over the past 15 years, those memories were so crushed and buried, and we totally forgot that we once had fun as a family.

Q: Does watching the film bring back the ordeal to you?

A: No. Of course not. It never went away. It never ever went away from me. People have said, "It must be upsetting to relive these events again." There is no "relive" ó it still lives. It never went away. Every single one of those 13 years that I was in prison are real and now to me. It is strapped to my ankle, every day. There is no "relive." There is no re-anything. It is always there. Always, always there, never ever goes away. I donít know if it ever will.

Q: When you were in prison, did you have people you could turn to for support?

A: I was lucky. Most people donít make friends in prison, but I made some friends because I was not your typical prisoner. Making friends in prison is like making friends in the middle of a war ó you can wake up in the morning and your friend is dead, or gone. It takes a long time to learn to trust anyone. Those friendships kept me alive emotionally and prevented me from closing off my feelings and living the life of a hermit. Many people live very hermit lives in prison.

Q: What about people outside the prison?

A: Then it was only the family. I didnít have friends who wrote over the years. They all disappeared very quickly. They simply were not there.

Q: When did you get in touch with people who do work on the child-sex cases like Debbie Nathan, the writer who appears in the film and wrote a book that exposed the truth about the Kelly Michaels child-abuse case in New Jersey?

A: My father contacted Debbie Nathan when he was in prison, probably before I was even sentenced. But she did not become involved in my fatherís or my case until she attended a conference in San Diego and heard a paper about the use of hypnosis in recovering memories from abuse victims who claimed they had no memories of abuse. She realized about a year later that the paper was about the Friedman case. It was very powerful for her ó it was proof that my fatherís claim to innocence was true.

Q: Nathan and others have written about your case as part of a series of cases in which hysteria and witch-hunting took precedence over common sense and the criminal-justice system ó like the McMartin Preschool case or the Massachusetts Fells Acres case. Do you see those connections as well?

A: I have always thought that my case fell into that same group. There are a small core group of people who are involved in the defense of the people involved in these cases, such as Debbie Nathan, Robert Rosenthal, Michael Schmidiger, Dorothy Rabinowitz, and of course William Kunstler, who was involved in the Kelly Michaels case. They all knew about my case, but none of them wanted to touch the case, because it was the only case where you had guilty pleas and my fatherís clear pedophilia and possession of the magazines. Everyone thought that their very limited resources are better directed at cases where they could get people out of prison.

In 1997, Debbie Nathan sent me a letter saying that most of the other cases had been unraveled and overturned. And it was gut-wrenching for me because I was overjoyed when the McMartin verdict was overturned with a hung jury ó and I thought at that point the tide should have turned ó but not for me.

Q: How was Debbie Nathanís support important to you?

A: Debbieís support and then her friendship was vital. She was really the only person outside of the family who believed in my innocence. She was also our link to a network of people working on these other cases and that was also incredibly meaningful. Her involvement the film was also important. You have to remember that the film took three years to make, and when David and I knew that Andrew Jarecki was talking to Debbie, we were able to begin trusting him. If we knew that he was learning from Debbie about what we understood as the truth then we knew that Andrew was going to make an honest movie. It was really a good year before David and I felt we could trust Andrew. And remember, he had to learn to trust us as well. He double-checked every thing we said with other people and then back with us. He came back to me again and again with accusations from other people. It was really a period of his learning to trust me as well as get at the truth.

Q: Do you feel the film is therapeutic for you ó to finally be able to work out and have a better understanding of what happened to you?

A: The film itself is not therapeutic. But the process of making it certainly was. Andrew Jarecki has really increased my knowledge of what happened to me by at least 400-fold. That has been incredibly therapeutic. Just getting the e-mail I get from strangers expressing their sympathy is therapeutic. But what is truly therapeutic is that for the rest of my life, I know that I will never have to do two things: the first is to tell the story about what happened to me again. I canít tell that again. I just canít do it.

The other thing is that I will never have to convince anybody again that I am innocent. I donít want to, and I wonít try. Anybody who doubts me, I tell them to see the film. If they donít go see it, nothing I can say will change their mind. And if they do see it and still think I am guilty, then I say, "Fine, I donít need you to believe me." I know that the truth is out there now, and that is enough. And I donít need people to be convinced. If someone thinks I am a child molester, that doesnít change the truth that I am not. All of my e-mails end with a quote from William Blake ó "Does the firm persuasion that a thing is so make it so?" If someone thinks that I am a child molester, [that] doesnít make me one. I know that I am not. And it is because of the movie that I can get to that place.

Michael Bronski can be reached at mabronski@aol.com

Issue Date: July 11 - July 17, 2003
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