Last night, the first part of the Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland aired on TVNZ. Katie Meadows looks at what it means for the popstar’s legacy.
This piece involves descriptions of child abuse, sexual assault and grooming.
Since Leaving Neverland first aired, one of the first questions to be asked in a world where Michael Jackson is an abuser is “Can we still listen to his music?” As perhaps the biggest recording artist of all time, how do we erase Jackson’s music from our lives? And do we disentangle that music from the life events that his songs were backed by? Birthdays, graduations, weddings; first dances, first kisses, losing your virginity?
The rise of people publicly speaking out about their experiences of abuse has also seen a rise in the public pushback against victims, especially in cases involving pop culture idols – they’re lying, they’re doing it for money. If there’s no money involved, it’s for attention. People lament society for elevating celebrities to an untouchable status, then apply the same status as evidence that they could do no wrong.
As detractors scoff at the idea that any parent would be gullible enough to leave their child alone with a grown man just because he was famous, they subconsciously fall under the same spell that was vital to the grooming of his young victims and their families: the cult of personality of the King of Pop, the power and the talent, the messiah image.
How could someone who brings so much good do the worst thing imaginable?
Leaving Neverland was always going to be controversial. The two-part documentary is a four-hour collage of detailed descriptions by accusers Wade Robson and James Safechuck of the years of sexual abuse they suffered as children by Michael Jackson, a man they saw as their idol and best friend. Director Dan Reed, a British filmmaker whose body of work prior to Leaving Neverland includes documentaries from the frontline of war zones, says he had no prior interest or stake in the historic allegations of child sexual abuse against Jackson, and became invested in the story after reading online of Robson and Safechuck’s 2013 civil lawsuit against the Jackson estate.
Perhaps it is Reed’s familiarity with trauma that allows him to present the four hours of Leaving Neverland with an unflinching, almost relentless look into the depths of the damage dealt by child sexual abuse.
While the sexual abuse detailed by Robson and Safechuck is extremely graphic – allegations of molestation, mutual masturbation, oral sex and penetrative sex between Jackson and each boy – Leaving Neverland exists as a thorough exploration and explanation of how the more covert grooming of child abuse victims functions, and the insidiousness of the seduction that takes place.
When we think of child sexual abuse we think of the physical violence. But in cases where the abuser is well known to the victim, abusers often employ behaviour similar to a romantic courtship, making their victims feel special and loved while convincing them that the sexual abuse is a part of that. Both men admit to feeling in love with Jackson, to a point that even now they feel like they’re betraying him by speaking out.
The brazenness of Jackson’s inappropriate relationships with the young boys is so apparent it seems beyond hiding in plain sight. Both describe the betrayal when Jackson prioritised spending time with other young boys as they grew older, akin to being suddenly dumped by a long-term partner and lover.
The emotional aspect of Michael Jackson’s grooming also extended to the families of his victims. A friendship with Jackson held the promise of lucrative and successful careers for those he took under his wing – an alluring prospect that coerced his victims’ parents into disregarding red flags at the risk of losing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for their children.
The mothers of Robson and Safechuck recall feeling like Michael was their son and someone they could trust implicitly, and how that trust was used to manipulate them for exclusive access to their sons. A pattern is established of Jackson gradually isolating the children from their families by housing parents in lodgings further and further away from their sons, whom Jackson insisted stay with him. Both families also report a sense of feeling like they were “saving” Jackson from the misery and alienation of his extreme fame.
Defenders of Jackson are quick to hit you with their “facts”. A glance through the comments on any article about the film’s allegations provides a ton of links to videos with titles like “What Leaving Neverland Doesn’t Tell You”. This is all a conspiracy they say, to take down a man who was too big to be controlled. They will tell you Jackson was found innocent on all charges when he was acquitted in 2005 on charges of the molestation of 13-year-old accuser Gavin Arvizo.
In his 1993 trial for the sexual abuse of 13-year-old Jordy Chandler, Jackson settled out of court with Arvizo’s family for an undisclosed sum. Similarly to Jackson, singer R Kelly was also acquitted in 2008 on 14 counts of child pornography; at the time of writing Kelly is currently on bail having been arrested on new charges of aggravated criminal sexual abuse following the January airing of Lifetime’s six-part docuseries Surviving R Kelly.
They will tell you that a 10 year FBI investigation into the allegations produced no evidence that Jackson molested children or had inclinations of paedophilia. This is incorrect, as a 2003 raid of Neverland Ranch returned several items of physical evidence, including photo books with portraits of nude children, materials used to desensitize children to grooming and sexual abuse, pornography containing beastiality, and nude photographs of a young boy who was close with Jackson.
They will tell you that both Safechuck and Robson testified under oath that neither were abused by Jackson, and that as men in their twenties they had the mental capacity to recognize what sexual abuse was. This view is inconsistent with the characteristics of the behaviour of child sexual abuse victims, who may take decades to finally realize that what happened to them was inappropriate and violating, with many never confronting the truth of their abuse at all.
Disclosing abuse is difficult enough within a victim’s personal support network, especially when the abuser is within the family, let alone any kind of law enforcement or to pursue legal action. The additional shame and confusion felt by victims when they recall the abuse as feeling “good” or making them feel special also stalls the process of disclosure, out of a fear this validates the victim’s internal narrative that what happened was their fault.
They will tell you the film’s release is unfair given that Jackson is not around to defend himself, and claim the film is one-sided by not reaching out to remaining members of Jackson’s family. Director Reed’s response is that the film includes audio of Jackson’s responses to his prior allegations while he was alive, and that Leaving Neverland is about the stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, not the Jackson family nor Jackson himself.
Jackson’s fatal cardiac arrest in 2009 also means he’s unable to acknowledge his crimes and apologize to his victims. Having seen the film, when I hear the validity of Safechuck and Robson’s allegations questioned, I’m unable to forget Safechuck’s thousand-yard stare as he visibly wrestles with every word that leaves his mouth over the film’s four hours runtime.
When we take Michael Jackson down from his pedestal of celebrity, it forces us to see him as a fallible human like ourselves, like our family and friends. It forces us to reckon with the possibility of what could lurk within our communities is a whole other process to begin.
Michael Jackson making huge contributions to charity and having done horrible things to young boys don’t have to be mutually exclusive concepts. It’s important in these moments of cognitive dissonance to ground yourself in perspective. The shame and guilt that you’re grappling with currently for having so highly revered someone capable of such horrible things pales in comparison to the shame and guilt felt by the men who experienced them.
Like the descriptions of the abuse itself, how we proceed from here is a hard pill to swallow. Insisting that we separate art from the artist and continue to uphold Jackson’s legacy prioritizes his voice over those of his victims and it says that their abuse was worth it.
For all the talk that we’re living in a revolutionary new world, the era of the #MeToo movement, victims still don’t feel safe to tell their stories. Beyond the monumental task of even acknowledging being a victim, the effects of sexual assault and the scope of trauma is near impossible to fully communicate to someone who hasn’t experienced it. In processing how sexual assault and trauma has shaped my own life, I try hard to find a middle ground that can give the most insight to those who, thankfully, can’t personally relate, but often at my own detriment.
I find engaging with this content difficult and triggering. Right now I feel for all survivors of abuse, particularly child sexual abuse, as they’re forced to remember every touch that broke them as coverage of the film amplifies. Beyond this, reconciling the influence and presence of Michael Jackson’s legacy isn’t simple, nor is it without its own confronting process. It’s scary to admit when we’re wrong, and it’s even scarier to begin to make things right.
If the men of Leaving Neverland can be brave enough to tell their stories, perhaps we can be brave enough to face our uncomfortable feelings of accidental complicity and give victims the opportunity to heal.
Leaving Neverland Part One is available on TVNZ OnDemand. Part two will air tonight on Monday March 11th on TVNZ1.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of child sexual abuse or sexual assault, or found any of the above content triggering, please contact any of the following organizations for support:
Help // helpauckland.co.nz // (09) 623 1700
Lifeline // lifeline.org.nz // 0800 LIFELINE or free text to HELP (4357)
Te Ohaakii a Hine – National Network Ending Sexual Violence Together // toah-nnest.org.nz
Wellington Rape Crisis // wellingtonrapecrisis.org.nz // (04) 801 8973
Women’s Refuge // womensrefuge.org.nz // 0800 REFUGE