By Katy Butler
To develop a mature perspective on the child molester.
THE IMPOSITION OF ADULT sexual desire on the bodies of children is a garden-variety event in every town. It respects no boundaries of class or time, of country or color. Before the French Revolution, a contemporaneous writer indulgently described how Louis XIV’s nurse played openly with his penis. Virginia Woolf (whose later marriage was sexless) was secretly fingered in childhood, much to her revulsion, by both of her older, upper-class stepbrothers. Marilyn Monroe (who later committed suicide) was “interfered with” by a caretaker in a cheap Los Angeles apartment when she was a neglected child named Norma Jean. Oprah Winfrey was molested by a relative, and Maya Angelou by her mother’s boyfriend.
Fifty years of demographic studies and quiet kitchen-table conversations confirm that this happens not only to the famous but to millions of the obscure. A quarter of Alfred Kinsey’s 4,000 female informants told the Indiana sex researcher that they’d either had sex with adult men when they were children, or had been approached by them.
The Social Organization of Sexuality–the landmark 1994 study of American sexual practices spearheaded by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) and University of Chicago professor Edward Laumann–found that 17 percent of its adult female male informants and 12 percent of the male informants said they’d been touched sexually (90 percent genitally) by at least one adult before they turned 14.
Extrapolating from the study’s 3,500 respondents to the U.S. population as a whole–using NORC’s stringent and narrow definition of abuse–this suggests that at least 23.8 million adult American women and 14.7 million men were sexually abused as children.
The sexual misuse of children, in other words, is ordinary as well as horrifying. It will touch, in some way, every sixth or seventh house in which children live. Yet many Americans continue to perceive these acts as outside the realm of normal human experience–known only to the monster and his victim–neither of whom does anyone actually know. The details of their interactions stay secret, leaving the rest of us to rely on images distorted by cliche and caricature, denial and fear.
Despite two decades of confessional memoirs and talk-show appearances by victims, the stigma that sociologist Erving Goffman called a “spoiled identity” still clings, not only to offenders but to the children involved. Blinded by what we don’t want to know as well as what we imagine, our sympathies swing wildly from decade to decade. Sometimes we demonize the accused adult and sometimes the child. We don’t see people, but flip-flopping archetypes of evil and innocence–the sexual predator, the false accuser, the railroaded man, the innocent and violated child.
These swings trace an arc between two cultural and political viewpoints–“better-safe-than sorry,” which sees the world as a dangerous place and would rather risk harshly misjudging an adult than endangering a child, and “therapeutic empathy, ”which is slow to judge, suspicious of “repressive” institutions like the criminal justice system, reflexively optimistic about people and their ability to change, and hesitant to label anyone. Two recent works, a book and a movie, represent the clash between these viewpoints.
The book is the chilling Predators, by psychologist Anna Salter, an international trainer and Harvard-educated psychologist who’s spent 25 years interviewing, filming, and treating convicted sex offenders, most recently as a consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Her book is an attempt to break what she sees as a culture-wide denial.
Salter details the tactics, psychology and modus operandi of men who maintained secret lives as rapists, child molesters, serial murderers, and sadistic beaters of women and children. The book’s credibility derives in part from the fact that most of its insight and advice is based on extensive quotes from the real experts–the men themselves, all imprisoned for predatory crimes. In her comments, Salter dissects these men with cold clarity, like an entomologist examining a bug before pinning it to black velvet.
Warmer, and much more naive, is a recent film shot from the liberal, empathic viewpoint: the much-discussed documentary Capturing the Friedmans, perhaps the most nuanced and sympathetic portrait of a child molester since Vladimir Nabokov penned Lolita. Made by Andrew Jarecki, the millionaire cofounder of MovieFone, it uses an archive of expertly edited home movies, along with current footage, to record the unraveling of a lovably neurotic Great Neck, New York, family after more than 100 counts of child sexual abuse are lodged against the father, Arnold Friedman (an award-winning high school teacher), and his teenaged son Jesse, a college student. In plea agreements in 1988, the two men admitted molesting and photographing 17 young boys who attended, over the course of four years, after-school computer classes in the basement of the family home. Arnold committed suicide in prison; Jesse, only 19 at the time of his sentencing, served 13 years.
Jarecki doesn’t dissect the Friedmans or pin them neatly to black velvet, and his film forces the viewer to abandon categories, too. We first meet Arnold Friedman not as a criminal defendant but as a human being–a mild, bespectacled, balding jokester, playing the piano in a Catskill mambo band, making kreplach, clowning around in a rec room chorus line with his three sons. Then we see him in news footage, led away from home and family in handcuffs under the klieg lights as reporters shout into the darkness, “Are you guilty?” and Arnold mumbles, “No comment.”
Is he guilty? This unanswered question provides the film with its narrative tension without limiting itself to it. Almost everyone remains human, not only Arnold and his three sons, but the police investigators and Arnold’s wife, Elaine, the only immediate family member to seriously entertain the notion of her husband’s guilt.
The viewer continues to empathize with Arnold (and Elaine) even after learning that Arnold collected child pornography and admitted to having had sex with several young boys, including his own younger brother and the sons of two friends at a summer resort. Equally heartbreakingly human is his son Jesse, shown mid-film as a handsome, glossy-haired 19-year-old, clowning hysterically in front of the courthouse where he’s about to be sentenced. In the closing minutes of the film, he appears again after 13 years in Dannemora–a pallid, dumpy, ravaged ex-con.
Were the charges fabricated? The film marshals evidence that investigators coercively questioned some children. Several former students appear onscreen, saying they saw no abuse in their classes and were pushed hard by investigators to say that they had. One outspoken young man calls Arnold not a monster but a “nebbish.” And former Village Voice writer Debbie Nathan, author of a book debunking child sex abuse prosecutions, wonders aloud onscreen why–if the purported abuse was, as the police suggested, so widespread and violent–no child told his parents or came home in tears or smeared with blood or semen.
A molester is never a nebbish like Arnold Friedman, right? Bungled investigations mean that there was no real abuse. Children must be violently coerced to have sex with adults.
In Predators, Anna Salter explodes these stereotypes, describing men who operate in a nether-zone between seduction and rape. One of Salter’s subjects is “Mr. Raines,” a clean-cut musician in his twenties, formerly married, with a child of his own. Shortly after his release from prison, Raines went to see the minister of a church in a nearby town.
“Father, do you take ex-cons?” asked the young man meekly, and went on to explain that while in prison “for passing a bad check,” he’d rediscovered his faith and become deeply attached to a certain Christian hymn. He’d walked by the church and, through the open doors, heard the organist playing the very same hymn.
Within weeks, Raines became director of the children’s choir. When his parole officer checked up, he found that Raines was supervising not one local church youth choruses, but two–in violation of the terms of his parole (for child molesting, not check fraud), which forbade unsupervised contact with children. The minister of the second church, when asked why he’d trusted the man so readily, told the officer: “There was this hymn that he dearly loved when he was in prison. And when he walked by our church . . . . ”
There was another side to Mr. Raines, one that Salter had seen months earlier, when she had videotaped him in prison (prior to his probation) for a training film. He told her he’d molested between 30 and 100 young boys, starting when he was 13. He’d “never victimized a stranger,” he told her. All his victims were friends. “You don’t just go up and get the child and sexually molest the child. There’s a process of obtaining the child’s friendship. You take them places. You buy them gifts. . . . The child has a look in his eyes–it’s hard to explain–you just have to kind of know the look. You know when you’ve got that kid.”
Raines searched for vulnerable children with the dedication that birders bring to bird-watching and stamp collectors to stamps. He didn’t succumb to temptation. He arranged it. He became a Little League coach and a choir director. He played a numbers game and a waiting game.
Raines–like the Friedmans–didn’t look dangerous. Yet he’s far closer to the “typical” child molester than is the knife-wielding stranger or twisted father of popular imagination. Only 7 percent of the survivors in the NORC study were molested by their fathers, and another 7 percent by strangers. For 51 percent, the adults responsible were family acquaintances–friends of the parents, school coaches, parish priests, babysitters, plumbers, neighbors, kayak instructors–men like Mr. Raines.
Nothing on the surface, Salter writes, set these men apart except an unusual interest in children and an absence of adult friends. Many went to great lengths to create personas above suspicion, clipping the lawns of the elderly or joining the Rotary Club. Every day in every state, parents who vehemently shield their kids from suspicious strangers entrust them blindly to such men.
Salter suggests that the only solution to the problem of the abuse of children by adults they know and trust is to hold a default position of suspicion–to apply the precautionary principle and return to old-fashioned chaperonage, attending a child’s every Little League practice (as she does) and saying no to overnight field trips unless the parent goes along. Her obsessive subtext is the blindness and naivete of liberal, empathic adults, with their optimistic faith that they can recognize a pedophile by a shambling gait, a dirty raincoat, or a shifty gaze. Her predators comb their hair and press their shirts. They maintain eye contact and open doors for women. And they lie well.
“It seems impossible to convince people that private behavior cannot be predicted from public behavior,” she writes, as though trying to shake her readers awake. “Kind, nonviolent individuals behave well in public, but so do many people who are brutal behind the scenes.”
Sentences like these reverberated when I watched Capturing the Friedmans this past summer, looking for a muttered sentence or clue that might settle my questions about the two men’s guilt once and for all. The documentary contains no smoking gun. Neither Arnold or Jesse say, “I did it!” And neither makes an impassioned, spontaneous declaration of innocence, either.
Each time I watched, it became clearer to me that in this polarized culture we don’t know how to integrate optimistic liberal empathy with the pessimistic clarity that effectively protects children. Few of us can hold a complex, layered reality in which people like the Friedmans are molesters from whom children need protection, and still human beings capable of redemption.
This is a struggle that Jarecki himself didn’t master. In his eagerness to make his viewers empathize with the Friedmans’ humanity, he stacked the deck to conceal significant evidence of their guilt. He filmed one high school buddy vouching for Jesse. But he didn’t mention–perhaps because it would have damaged the movie’s dramatic uncertainty–19-year-old Ross Goldstein, a schoolmate of Jesse’s who helped out at the computer class and admitted that he, too, had participated in sexually abusing some of the younger boys.
Nor did Jarecki include footage of a Geraldo! program in which Jesse, by phone from prison, pled for a reduced sentence and described his own prior sexual abuse by his father. Jarecki has said in interviews that Goldstein didn’t want to be included and that he couldn’t obtain the Geraldo! tape.
Jarecki’s film makes much of the fact that investigators charged that Jesse had banged children’s heads against the wall, photographed them sexually, and threatened and coerced them, but no photographs or evidence of violence were ever found.
If the Friedmans were anything like “Mr. Raines,” however, coercion would have been unnecessary. The boys involved in the computer classes were between 8 and 12–a liminal age, when boys conduct solitary erotic experiments, take part in secret, giggling “circle jerks” in the woods, and spend hours poring over Dad’s stolen Playboys. Most of us can barely recall our inner world of that time, nor do we remember our desperate attempts to simultaneously learn the baffling rules of the adult world and preserve our secrets from it.
At such an age, pornographic games on computers–and even the first group sex games–might have been experienced as naughty pleasures. Having kept one set of secrets from their parents, might it have been hard for the few boys chosen for deeper mischief to talk when things really got out of hand? And when the worst came out, could it have been less shameful for the children–and more understandable to their parents–if the kids exaggerated the violence?
Virginia Woolf’s stepbrothers didn’t threaten her with physical harm. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to have sex later, even when happily married; after several nervous breakdowns, she killed herself by walking into the river Ouse with stones in her pockets.
Abused respondents in the NORC study had more anal sex, more varieties of sex, more homosexual and bisexual sex, and more sexual partners. They were also significantly more likely to report pain during sex, emotional problems that interfered with sex, difficulties with erection or orgasm, and other life problems.
Jesse Friedman now wears a surveillance bracelet and must register as a sex offender and attend therapy as a condition of parole. He’s a college student living in New York City on the proceeds of a large insurance policy paid out upon his father’s suicide. He insists that his guilty plea was his only option in the late 1980s, considering the social hysteria that engulfed Great Neck at the time of his arrest.
Many empathic liberals who’ve seen the movie, including an editorial writer for The New York Times, are ready to declare Jesse innocent. But as the Academy Awards approach and Capturing the Friedmans is more than likely nominated for best documentary, perhaps the cold, open eyes of “better safe than sorry” feminists like Salter have something to offer us, too. We have a long way to go before we integrate empathy and clarity well enough to effectively protect children without writing off their abusers as inhuman. In the meantime, it’s worth considering that perhaps the prevailing emotion in Great Neck in 1988 was not hysteria, but outrage.
©Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.