In the 80s America awoke to the menace of sexual abuse of children, and the watchword was “Believe the children.” One of the first journalists to question that watchword, freelance reporter Debbie Nathan, studied notorious prosecutions such as the McMartin case in Manhattan Beach, California, and concluded that America hadn’t just opened its eyes but lost its bearings.

The McMartin case dragged on from 1984, when a grand jury indicted seven adults on 115 counts of child abuse, until 1990, when it ended without a single conviction. Other prosecutors did better. In 1987 Arnold Friedman, a retired schoolteacher in Great Neck, Long Island, was arrested and charged with multiple counts of sodomy, his alleged victims being grade-school boys who’d attended a computer class in his home. By then Nathan had made a name for herself as a critic of the McMartin case, and Friedman wrote her asking for help. His son David said in the 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans, “She has been the only person outside the family who said, ‘I believe you.'”

The 80s revulsion against the idea of trusted adults sexually molesting children led to a counterrevulsion against the era’s hyste-ria. Time eventually brought the ambiguity of art. Had Friedman, who admitted to improperly touching boys earlier in his life, actually violated these students? Was his teenage son Jesse guilty of the same crimes? Arnold eventual-ly pleaded guilty, telling his family he hoped this would make things go better for Jesse. But in the end Jesse pleaded guilty too, explaining in the movie he felt tainted by his father’s admissions and was terrified of the massive sentence a conviction would bring. He spent 13 years in prison. His father died there. Director Andrew Jarecki constructed Capturing the Friedmans as a house of mirrors, whose audience is never sure what to think. If anyone in the film represents objectivity, it’s Nathan. She appears from time to time to discuss the case, and she believes the Friedmans’ crimes didn’t happen.

Last summer a California supermarket manager named Kyle Zirpolo rented Capturing the Friedmans from Netflix and watched it with his wife. As soon as it was over he located Nathan on his computer and e-mailed her. “You are right! I lied about everything!” he told her.

Some 25 years earlier, when he was four years old, he’d been one of the children allegedly abused at the McMartin preschool. Nathan told Zirpolo’s story in the Los Angeles Times on October 30. She introduced him as someone the police had considered an “exceptional witness” back when he was eight and former McMartin kids began telling stories about nude sex games and satanic rituals. But Kyle was making his up.

“I felt special, important,” he told her. “I would listen to what my parents would say if they were talking, or to what someone else would say if we were being questioned at the police station or anywhere. And I would repeat things. Or if it wasn’t a story I’d heard, I would think of something in my head. I would try to think of the worst thing possible that would be harmful to a child.”

A couple years after he told those stories, Zirpolo said, his mother found him lying in bed sobbing and asked what the trouble was. “I told her she wouldn’t believe me, and she kept assuring me she would. I remember finally telling her, ‘Nothing happened! Nothing ever happened to me at that school.’ She didn’t believe me.”

Whenever prosecutors take a beating in America, the person to go to for the other side of the story is Joshua Marquis, an Oregon district attorney who’s his profession’s most visible champion. I asked if he’d seen Nathan’s story and wasn’t surprised to hear he’d already e-mailed a friend at the Times to challenge it.

“I was stunned to see the piece about McMartin,” Marquis wrote the friend. “I remember the case well because I was the speech writer to California AG John Van de Kamp in 84-85 when the LA DA’s office was in the middle of McMartin. What bothered me was that the piece was ‘as told to Debbie Nathan,’ with almost no disclosure of Nathan’s major role as an abuse denier.”

Marquis identified Nathan to his friend as the “house ‘expert'” in Capturing the Friedmans–a “stunning bit of revisionist propaganda which claims that two people who confessed and pled guilty maybe weren’t really guilty. These people just don’t want to believe child abuse happens and have done enormous damage to the justice system by planting the idea that most kids probably make up these stories. If so, why the hell should we believe what this 30-year-old says today now that there is no down side to his ‘confession’? I’d love to have the tapes of his conversation with Nathan.”

For several days I exchanged e-mail with Marquis and Nathan (who in the early 80s wrote for the Reader). Marquis wrote that he “found it stunning” that Jarecki would imply Jesse “was bullied into pleading guilty.” Jesse, after all, had gone on Geraldo Rivera’s show and talked about why he did it–because he’d been abused himself. (Jesse explains in the film’s DVD special features that he was after sympathy and a lighter sentence.) In Marquis’ view, “Nathan and Jarecki seem intent on denying that white middle-class men can commit serious child abuse even when they plead guilty, evidence is abundant, and they are represented by competent counsel.”

Nathan told me that if Marquis wanted the Zirpolo tapes all he had to do was ask her. She wrote that she grew up with stories of incest and child abuse ringing in her ears–“not to mention my own tales of what happened to me.” She continued, “I’ve sat through sex abuse trials that are so ho-hum in their incestuous ordinariness that Marquis will never talk about them on TV because he’s right: they’re so common that no one cares except the jury who hears the particular facts.” But the famous 80s cases such as McMartin and Friedman were nothing like that. “The scenario resembles less a bedroom than Grand Central Station,” she wrote. “Adults running around, kids running around, the same schedule of horrors on the same days of the week, for months. . . . But somehow, despite all the people and time and violence involved, no kid ever tells, and no adult caretaker ever notices any physical evidence.

“You should see the kids of Great Neck! They are smart, willful, almost overly articulate, mainly affluent Jewish children who argue about anything and everything with their parents. Even if Arnold and Jesse HAD been brutalizing them so that they were afraid to reveal the truth, they could have escaped the abuse by saying, ‘Hey Mom, I don’t want to do computer anymore. I want hockey or camera club.’ But none ever did! Kids just signed up and signed up again.”

Nathan wondered if Marquis knows that Arnold Friedman also gave piano lessons in a small room in his basement. “These were PRIVATE, one on one–unlike the computer classes, which had many kids per class. The other difference: Arnold never kept records of the names and contact info for piano students.”

In other words, the piano lessons were a perfect opportunity for pedophilia. “The cops put out a call to the Great Neck community: ‘Piano students, if you were molested by Mr. Friedman, please call us.’ Not a single child stepped forward.”

Marquis wrote, “Most child abuse is not ritual or as notorious as the Friedmans’ but otherwise is very similar, i.e. the victims often DON’T tell even when they have an opportunity–particularly teenage boys for whom the stigma of being involved in homosexual sex is a big deal. . . . The victimizers are often trusted members of the family or community who have no criminal record.”

He went on, “I’m not claiming that people like Nathan are insensitive. I’m claiming they want so hard to believe that such things just don’t happen that it’s preferable to believe in the caricature of the overzealous prosecutor bundling the innocent schoolteacher (Arnold Friedman) off to prison, largely because the scenario of wrongful convictions is easier to deal with than wide-spread sexual exploitation of children.”

Marquis distinguishes genuine abuse “from the right-wing nut case ‘satanic ritual abuse’ that was popular in the mid-80s.” But it was the tragic absurdity of those cases that finally made America think twice. “In my county and many others,” Marquis wrote, “we have medically based child abuse assessment centers–autonomous non-profits staffed by trained interviewers and volunteer physicians. The idea is there is exactly ONE interview with the child and it’s done on videotape so there is no question about suggestibility, etc. The medical exam (as Nathan points out) rarely finds physical evidence of abuse but is important also because the child often makes disclosures to the doctor. In my experience our success rate has skyrocketed from about 60% to 95% when these cases go to trial, which they often don’t because the evidence is so damning.”

McMartin–to judge from the stories kids like Zirpolo were telling therapists–was one of the satanic nutcases. Investigators in the Friedman case claimed they learned from the mistakes of those therapists. Nathan isn’t so sure. She wrote, “Interviewers in both the McMartin and Friedman cases suggested details of abuse to the children, and when they said nothing happened the adults kept pushing.” She sent me a summary of the presentation police officers and therapists in the Friedman case made at a conference in 1990. They talked about the “use of hypnosis in the treatment of dissociation in victims” and endorsed group therapy as the “treatment of choice” for the victims. “Of the 15 children seen in the two groups, six children had no memories of being victimized even though other group members witnessed their abuse.” But “those children who remembered, who initially had dissociated, were able to reassure those with amnesia that the process of remembering would not be painful.”

Nathan commented, “All research now regarding trauma and memory indicates that trauma like what supposedly happened to these kids is remembered intensely, not forgotten. The theory of traumatic dissociation that informed investigations like McMartin and Friedman has been virtually completely discredited.”

One therapist in the Friedman case reported that the “victimization of the children included repeated sodomy, oral sex and numerous sexual games. The abuse was recorded by the perpetrators on videotape and numerous photographs.” So kids said, yet no tape or pictures turned up when police raided the Friedman home–though child pornography did. No tape or pictures had turned up by the 1990 conference. None ever turned up.

“If the kiddie porn charges had been handled conventionally,” Nathan surmised, “he would have gotten about a year’s probation and state-mandated therapy. . . . His marriage probably would have broken up, and he wouldn’t have worked with kids again. I think he’d have gone back to writing computer manuals (did you know he did one, early on, with Steve Allen?) and playing music. He was a wonderful musician–actually quite prominent in the 1950s on the mambo scene in New York.”

She told me, “After Jesse was released I took him to a gathering of old musicians from Manhattan and the Bronx. They hadn’t followed the Friedman case on Long Island, so they didn’t know about Arnold’s pedophilia. What they remembered was what a good band leader he’d been back in the day. Now they were graying, infirm, and their mambo had long since been supplanted, first by disco then hip-hop. But at least they were still respected as people who made a contribution to the world. Arnold was too, as a father, teacher, and entertainer. He was also a deeply flawed human being. But a human being nevertheless.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.