‘Capturing the Friedmans,’ and Unspeakable Crimes

Why does society consider child molestation the most heinous crime imaginable?

  1. We can all agree this is true, right?
  2. In my opinion, murder is still more heinous. I’ve never had anyone close to me commit murder or molest a child (something I am very thankful for). I would guess that if someone close to me did commit one of those two things, I would find it easier to forgive the murderer, or at least to continue my relationship with him or her. But in an abstract way, murder is absolutely worse than sexual abuse of a minor. You have deliberately ended someone’s life. It’s a frickin’ Commandment.

Child molesters are inflicting grievous physical, psychological, and perhaps spiritual harm on the most vulnerable members of society. Murderers are taking life. We still consider the former a worse crime. I think this is because it’s very difficult to account for the humanity of a child molestor. The human element seems to disappear once sex and children enter the equation. They instantly become monsters.

I watched the documentary Capturing the Friedmans a couple of days ago. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2003. The film is about how an upper-class Jewish family in Long Island was torn apart by charges that the father and one of his sons molested dozens of neighborhood boys in the ‘1980s.

Immediately after the film screened at Sundance, a reporter asked the film’s director, Andrew Jarecki, whether he thought the Friedmans were innocent. He said he didn’t know. The film maintains a relatively impartial tone as to their guilt or innocence—relatively, only because the subject matter incites such strong feeling that an audience is likely to be pulled in one direction or the other, and the filmmakers basically allow the pull to happen. The fascinating thing is that most people who watched the movie–myself included–were pulled in multiple directions at once.

Something about the investigations is seriously off. All of the incidents of molestation occurred while Mr. Friedman was teaching computer classes in his basement. Some of the accusers claim they were molested three times a week, in groups of five or six people, for months at a time. At least one person claims he was never molested, never suspected anything of the sort, and does not believe it would have been possible for such activities to have occurred. The police evidently pressured almost all of the accusers into their testimony—one later admits he didn’t even remember any abuse until he received hypnosis therapy; another says he outright lied to the police to make them happy.

There is at least an equal amount of evidence that the father was guilty. But that’s not the point of the movie. The most compelling element of Capturing the Friedmans is the home-video footage taped by the elder son, which captures moments in the family’s life as they attempt to deal with an event which is impossible to deal with. We get to see the Friedmans gathered in their living room the night before their father is set to go to jail for the rest of his life—he plays a song on the piano to entertain them, they fight, quip jokes, eat—at one point the father gently admonishes his son “not to talk to your mother that way,” as if brief lessons in civility still matter. And strangely, it does seem to matter.

These scenes are remarkable because on one hand they’re so understandable and even banal, but at the same time they’re completely shocking because people are still behaving like human beings after something has happened which we assume strips them of human-being status. We get lots of information about Mr. Friedman’s past, his family history, his relationship with his wife—none of it should matter if he is a child molestor. But it does, somehow.

The Penn State scandal inevitably comes to mind. Jerry Sandusky is a monster right now. I feel at this point it would be impossible to feel any sympathy towards him, no matter what other information came out.

What of those who knew (they knew something, to some degree) and didn’t stop him? Why did they choose to stay silent? To protect the institution from scandal? Quite likely. To protect a long-time colleague? Perhaps. But maybe also because the idea of a two-time national championship defensive coordinator of Penn State football raping boys in the shower was so cosmically unacceptable that the only acceptable way for the universe to right itself was to ignore the issue. At some point our concept of monstrousness becomes counterproductive—it encourages silence and shame.

What if the very first boy Jerry Sandusky attempted to fondle ran away and told his parents everything? And what if those parents immediately brought charges against him, and the police believed them? And Joe Paterno told his friend, hey, you have a problem, and Jerry Sandusky was put on probation and monitored while he went to therapy? There are no perfect solutions, but it would have given everyone involved a fighting chance, wouldn’t it?

All child molesters (and to a lesser extent, every sex offender of any stripe) use society’s judgment of what constitutes a “monstrous” act to their advantage. They know their victims have a powerful incentive to stay silent, and they know even adults have the same incentive. We consider the act so “monstrous” that anyone affected by it–even the victims– get a stigma attached to them.

People do awful, awful things. Some of them are impossible to understand. But there should be no unspeakable crimes.

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About hubzbubz

Currently residing in Brooklyn.
This entry was posted in Movies, Society and Politics, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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