Revisiting The Friedmans

Susan Slotnick

Unlike Jerry Sandusky, Arnold Friedman, the subject of the Academy Award-nominated film Capturing The Friedmans, was a pedophile with a conscience. In the 1980’s, Arnold feared he might molest his own sons. This fear brought him to a very forward-thinking therapist who knew, 25 years ago, what is just becoming understood today. Many, maybe even the majority of pedophiles, suffer in private and can go through their entire lives without hurting a single child.

An increasing number of researchers have concluded pedophilia is an illness with a physical basis in the brain. Many scientists believe it is a sexual orientation, unchangeable and tragic, since the only way a “real” pedophile can express his sexuality is by committing a crime. Real pedophiles account for only 20 percent of sexual abusers. What one researcher meant by “real pedophiles” are, “people, the overwhelming majority of whom are men, who have an unwavering, life-long sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children.” A 21-year-old, who has relations with a 16-year-old, is a sex offender, not a pedophile.

Arnold Friedman’s therapist gave him compassionate advice when he told him, “Go to 42nd Street and purchase some magazines and pictures (legal at the time). Use them as an outlet in private. You have this under control. You need not worry about hurting your children.”


At some point, Mr. Friedman, who was a well-respected accomplished musician and teacher, awarded “Teacher Of The Year” in his district, made the life-altering decision to purchase some magazines from the Netherlands. They were intercepted by the police who began a sting operation. The police started a correspondence with Mr. Friedman. Posing as pornographers, the police tried to encourage Mr. Friedman to send one of his magazines through the mail, as a “good faith” gesture. At the time, receiving porn was not a crime, but mailing it was. After several letters, Mr. Friedman took the bait and what followed is a story so terrifying and unbelievable there are no adjectives powerful enough to describe it.

The day before Thanksgiving, while Mrs. Friedman was out buying a turkey, the police in a gestapo-like raid, broke down the front door of the Friedman’s home and began searching for more pornography. The three Friedman sons and Mrs. Friedman were not allowed to re-enter the family home. Poor Arnold, who many considered a docile nebbishy kind of man, naively watched as the police found his magazines hidden in his basement office behind a heavy piano. “That’s all there is,” he said. That’s all there was. During the search, however, the police also found class rosters listing names of students who attended computer classes conducted by Mr. Friedman in the family home. The sex-crime detectives, wishing for a more exciting and salacious story, visited many of the children listed in the hopes that something untoward, disgusting and vile would be uncovered. It was with a twist, the untoward, vile and disgusting acts were committed by the detectives and eventually the lawyers, the judge and a therapist.

Of the 400 students, only 14 seemed vulnerable to intimidation and the “law enforcers” went at them like rabid rats. The children were hypnotized (it is alleged before the grand jury hearing), threatened and told there were witnesses who saw them being violently raped. Parents were not allowed to be present when their young children were interrogated. There were endless interviews where the students insisted, “Nothing happened!” but the police would not stop until they could fit reality into the story they created in their minds. One mother placed a hidden camera in the room where her son was being grilled. She heard the detective saying, “We KNOW what happened to you and unless you admit it, your life will be ruined!” Eventually, 14 students, half-crazed from pressure, started to make up stories so implausible and preposterous that they could only have been from, as Macbeth said, “… a dagger of the mind, a false creation proceeding from a heat-oppressed brain.”

Imaginings went deeply into the dark side. The charges mounted. Jesse Friedman, Arnold’s 18-year-old son, was implicated in scenarios which the detectives jumped, pounced upon. The details, sick, perverse and vomitous were devoured by Detective Galasso, the sex-crime detective who states in the film, Capturing The Friedmans, “Just when you think your job is going to be dull, something is dropped in your lap and it turns out to be bigger than you thought.” The operative word here is “thought,” as in “totally thought-up.”

The list of lunatics on the law-enforcement side, buying into the story and convincing the students and parents that the made-up events actually took place, was astounding. Where were the rational law-enforcers? According to Jesse Friedman’s wife, “Throughout the current investigation aimed to overturn my husband’s conviction, we found that there were many people in 1988 who had doubts. Individuals from the police department, from NSUH, from the DA’s office, people in the community have told us that they knew the case was crazy because they could feel that it was sort of a witch hunt. They ran as far as they could get from it. The opposite is also true. It attracted a certain type of person — people who wanted to believe in monsters, people who liked the excitement that came from the hysteria.”

There is one comment

  1. Lonnie Soury

    Excellent piece describing the struggle of Jesse Friedman to clear his name. The prosecution, the writer describes, was intent on obtaining a conviction at any cost. They essentially forced false confessions from these children and coerced, cajoled and lied to them and their parents until they made the most horrendous and completely unbelievable allegations imaginable. With no evidence Jesse was himself forced to accept a plea after the judge in the case made it clear she would sentence Jess to life in prison.

    The police, prosecutors and the psychologists at North Shore University Hospital were responsible for this injustice and the tragedy that continues not only for Jesse but for the 14 children, now adults, and their parents who for 25 years believed that these horrible things happened, even though they never did.

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