This month, HBO began airing the controversial documentary Capturing the Friedmans, about the Great Neck computer teacher Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse, who were both convicted in 1988 of sexually molesting Arnold’s students. Arnold died in prison in 1995. Jesse, now 35, was paroled in 2001 after serving thirteen years, having pleaded guilty, he says, only to avoid a possible 300-year prison sentence. In January, Friedman filed a motion in Nassau County court to vacate the conviction—outraging several of the victims’ families. Now Friedman and his older brother, David, have made Jesse’s Last Night, a 55-minute film culled from home-movie footage shot during the fifteen hours before Jesse went to jail. As a convicted felon, Jesse cannot profit from anything related to the crime of which he’s convicted; the film is available only to people who donate to the Jesse Friedman Defense Fund. Alicia Zuckerman spoke with him about the movie.
Why did you and David make this film?
My idea was, Show it as it happens. It’s kind of interesting, the conversations we’re having—especially in the context of knowing that I’m going to prison in the morning. I need to raise money for my legal bills. I’m not trying to prove my innocence—it’s really just a thank-you gift.
Your mother comes off as even angrier than in Capturing the Friedmans. Has she seen it?
I wouldn’t even think to ask her if she wants to see it. She has no reason to want to relive December 1988. David isn’t making it up when he is so openly angry with her. His mother was a bad person, and you get just a tiny taste of that in Capturing the Friedmans. She’s not that person now.
There’s a scene of David writing in his journal looking profoundly forlorn. He seems to carry the weight of a lot of what happened.
David always felt there was a way to win the trial. Mom’s position is that there’s nothing that anybody could have done, so why bother fighting it? She’s in complete denial. Whereas David is almost self-flagellating.
At one point you say, “This is just as much Daddy’s fault.” What did you mean?
If my father wasn’t stupid enough to engage in correspondence with an undercover postal inspector and send child pornography through the mail, then theoretically none of this would have happened. It’s not in dispute that child pornography is a bad thing, and he should certainly not have been spending his afternoons teaching 10-year-old boys computer programming. It’s not a question of what my father did; it’s a question of my father’s very poor discretion.
What are your feelings about him now?
That’s something I work on in therapy, with David, with my girlfriend.
You have a girlfriend?
I’ve dated lots of women since Capturing the Friedmans came out.
Women who have approached you because of the film?
Yes. But in my defense, I have no other social networks to meet people.
You were dating someone when you were first arrested. What happened?
We were at SUNY–Purchase together. We met a few weeks before I was arrested. She was as supportive as she could be, but the case just kept getting uglier. Her parents were none too pleased with the fact that she was dating me. She broke up with me. I did write to her from prison. She didn’t write back, and it was very upsetting for me.
You caught a lot of flack for doing Monty Python shtick the morning you pleaded guilty. Why did you include that in the film?
Those were my last fifteen hours before I went to prison. How else was I supposed to deal with the situation? Was I supposed to be sitting there crying?
Some people would say yes.
Some people would get to prison, tie a rope around their neck, and hang themselves.