In the past 48 hours, I watched the entirety of Leaving Neverland, director Dan Reed’s two-part, four-hour documentary about two men who claim to have suffered sexual abuse as children, and how they grapple with that trauma to this day. To say I have an emotional hangover would be an understatement—I am sad in ways I didn’t know I could be. While sob-emoji texting my friends, though, I noticed a pattern. When someone hadn’t heard of Leaving Neverland, I clarified: I was watching “the Michael Jackson documentary.” And it’s true—the man accused of sexual abuse in this doc is Michael Jackson, and “Neverland” in the title refers to Jackson’s 2,800-acre ranch, where he allegedly abused an unknown number of prepubescent boys in the ‘90s and 2000s. But having seen the film, I bristle at the idea that this is a Michael Jackson documentary. This is a documentary about child sexual abuse.
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Leaving Neverland premieres tomorrow night, 8pm on HBO. The two-part documentary explores the separate but parallel experiences of James Safechuck and Wade Robson, who were befriended by Michael Jackson when they were just 10 and 7 years old, respectively. We are glad to be among the network of organizations (@1in6org, @rainn, @childhood.usa, @d2lorg, MOSAC, @safehorizon, @itsonus, @worldchildhoodfoundation) who contributed to the viewing support guide, produced by @HBO. Before watching, please consider reading the guide (the link is in our bio) and creating a personal care plan. Regardless of where you stand, this is an important topic that deserves our attention. We need to talk about men as survivors of sexual abuse. We need to talk about child sexual abuse, grooming, and trauma. We need to show up for each other. #disruptsexualviolence #endsexualabuse #believesurvivors #leavingneverland
Wade Robson and James Safechuck are the two men who tell their stories in Leaving Neverland. Both are indisputably connected to Jackson: Safechuck appeared in a Pepsi commercial with him at the age of 8, and Robson met him at age 5 in Australia, after winning a dance competition. Jackson took a special liking to Safechuck and Robson, and both boys’ relationships with the singer went down similar paths. Jackson would invite the boys’ families on trips, paying for their transportation and lodging, and opening up a world of fame and money they’d never seen before. He told the boys’ mothers that their children were special, that he loved them, and he wanted to help their careers. He said he saw himself in them—and these mothers, dazzled with the vision of raising the next Michael Jackson, struggled to deny Jackson anything.
What Jackson wanted was extended, unsupervised time with their young children. While Robson and Safechuck’s mothers were brought along for many visits to Neverland, they slept in a separate house, and allowed their children to share a bed with Jackson. Safechuck accompanied Jackson on tour; Robson was left alone at Neverland for days at a time. In a 2005 trial for Jackson’s alleged assault of a different 13-year-old boy, it came to light that Jackson would call Robson’s mother at 1am, saying he needed to see Wade right away. Joy Robson (Wade’s mother) would drive him there promptly, and send him straight to Jackson’s bedroom. At the time, the boys insisted that they loved Michael, and he loved them. It wasn’t until they had children of their own that they were able to see the sexual experiences they describe with Jackson—and they describe many—as abuse.
It takes days to recover from this documentary. Five minutes in you will think to yourself “oh my God, every word they are saying is true.” https://t.co/JMoA6Y0dEo
— Judd Apatow (@JuddApatow) March 2, 2019
In this moment, it feels surreal to report on these men’s stories of sexual abuse and name the abuser as Michael Jackson. Beyond the shock of hearing these accusations about any beloved celebrity, it feels surreal to name him now because the film focuses so little on the figure of Michael Jackson himself. When you hear “Michael Jackson documentary,” even knowing it’s about allegations of sexual abuse, you expect the film to take on Jackson’s legacy. You expect Jackson to be presented first as an icon: to hear Jackson’s music, or accounts of his persona and cultural impact. Maybe a narrator hyping up how adored he was, before smashing down the hammer of these accusations. But Leaving Neverland does nothing of the sort.
Instead, Leaving Neverland addresses Jackson’s celebrity only in the context of the effect it had on Robson, Safechuck, and their families. It’s important to these stories of sexual abuse to know that Jackson was famous and powerful, because that status informed the parents’ decisions to give him that access to their sons. Similarly, it’s important to hear about how Robson and Safechuck personally admired him: his impact on them as a performer, before they ever met, informed how ecstatic they were when he showed an interest in them; how predisposed they were to admire him and want him in their lives.
As a former child actress, I can’t help but watch this documentary and think about how wrong it is for children to be put in the position of performing for the soul purpose of pleasing adults. It’s such a slippery, dangerous, often abusive slope. #LeavingNeverland
— Amber Tamblyn (@ambertamblyn) March 4, 2019
Even clips of Jackson’s performances, or screaming fans, are limited to instances that highlight the trauma it caused to these men. The swarming fans attending Jackson’s tour compounded Safechuck’s sense of being overwhelmed and alone. The line of protesters attending Jackson’s trial played on Robson’s sense of obligation to protect his friend. Leaving Neverland never gives us those images solely to show us that Jackson was beloved, and thus entirely avoids the expected structure for a documentary accused of being “posthumous character assassination.” If Reed’s intention had been (primarily) to shatter the world’s impression of Michael Jackson, I would have expected to first be shown what that impression is—then see it darkly juxtaposed with these men’s stories. Neverland doesn’t feel like the dismantling of a celebrity’s reputation. It feels like two deeply personal accounts of childhood trauma in which their abuser happened to be famous.
#LeavingNeverland isn't about the spider or the fly. It is about the web.
Listen to survivors. Learn about grooming. Understand that victims have complex feelings. Share 800-4-A-CHILD or 800.656.HOPE! Promote help. pic.twitter.com/2JOxWlDI3y
— Jenn (@8675309Carson) March 4, 2019
Of course, the fact that Leaving Neverland doesn’t explicitly state “here’s proof that Michael Jackson was a child molester” won’t do much to change people’s reactions to the film. Those determined to believe in Jackson’s innocence will do so anyway (though I struggle to understand how, if they take the time to watch the film). And those who believe the stories of Robson and Safechuck will effectively have any lingering fond doubts extinguished. Nonetheless, I think it’s an important and correct choice that Reed focused the film so tightly on these two men and their stories.
Painful as it is for Robson and Safechuck to continue seeing Michael Jackson celebrated, they didn’t strike me as crusaders for his worldwide vilification. They struck me as two men still actively, painfully grappling with the trauma they suffered as children, talking through both what happened and how they behaved in the wake of it. What Leaving Neverland does best, in my opinion, is provide a road map for how this type of abuse can affect people through adulthood, and shed some light on why it’s so difficult for child victims to come forward. And frankly, that’s a much more important story than whether or not a late pop star is deserving of our love.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual abuse, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE
Images: HBO; metoomvt / Instagram; juddapatow, ambertamblyn, 8675309Carson / Twitter
Last month, a new Michael Jackson documentary aired at Sundance, called Leaving Neverland. The documentary is specifically about the allegations of child sexual abuse against Michael Jackson, featuring detailed accounts from two of his accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck. The documentary will air in two parts on HBO: one two-hour segment is coming out Sunday, March 3, and the other Monday, March 4. Those who have seen the film describe it as “powerful and convincing,” a “bombshell,” and “more disturbing than you could imagine,” all of which makes me want to go to sleep right now and not wake up until I can watch it for myself. Somewhere in a Chicago jail cell, R. Kelly is reading these reviews and breathing a sigh of relief. Michael Jackson’s family, however, is neither thrilled nor convinced by what this documentary brings to light—and they’re making their feelings known.
Earlier this week, four members of Michael Jackson’s family—brothers Tito, Marlon, and Jackie, plus Michael’s nephew Taj—went on CBS This Morning to decry the documentary and defend Michael Jackson against its claims. While none of them have seen the film, they’re certain that what’s described by Jackson’s alleged victims is nothing more than a series of lies. “He’s my little brother,” says Jackie Johnson. “He’s not like that.” Oof.
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Jackie Jackson explains why he won't be seeing "Leaving Neverland" – Watch the full interview on CBS This Morning today, 27 February. #leavingneverland #truth #liesrunsprintsbutthetruthrunsmarathons #tajjackson #jackiejackson #titojackson #marlonjackson #fightback #defend #michaeljackson #thejacksons #JacksonsLegacy
Most of the family’s defense of Jackson centers on that point: the man they knew couldn’t have done these things; the media has always misunderstood him. Jackie describes him as “a kid at heart,” while nephew Taj laments “naiveté” as Michael Jackson’s “downfall.” While admitting that stories of Michael’s sleepovers with children could sound odd “to the outside world,” Taj insists it was innocent—and that Michael simply “didn’t have that bone in his body to look at it the other way.”
To be clear, the Jackson family does not view the alleged victims featured in Leaving Neverland as benevolent third parties who got confused, or otherwise misunderstood things, but rather, money- and fame-hungry liars. On the day of the documentary’s debut, Taj Jackson tweeted the following.
After years of coaching and studying for these roles, I’m sure Wade (self proclaimed “Master of Deception”) and Jimmy both gave Oscar winning performances today. Media, please do a 10 minute google search before you condemn an innocent man who is no longer here to defend himself.
— Taj Jackson (@tajjackson3) January 25, 2019
Doubling down on his claims that this is a long con for personal gain (even though the filmmakers insist the Robson and Safechuck were not paid for the documentary), Taj affirmed on CBS This Morning that “it’s always been about money,” and that people see his uncle as “a blank check.” He’s since set up a GoFundMe page to produce a documentary of his own—one he hopes will “destroy decades of salacious myths” about his uncle. (The stated goal is $777,000, which seems oddly specific. Almost $64,000 has been raised so far.) While Jackson’s other family members are less vocal online, they add in the interview that there’s “not one piece of evidence” corroborating the alleged victims’ stories. As Deadline points out, they don’t offer up “what, exactly, such evidence might be.”
Finally, the Jackson family is emphasizing the fact that both alleged victims featured in this documentary—Robson and Safechuck—testified to Jackson’s innocence during his first criminal trial, and swore he’d never behaved inappropriately toward them. This is, of course, addressed in the film—but I’ll let you watch that for yourselves. When Robson was asked if he had anything to say to Jackson’s fans, and those who believe the documentary is a lie, he offered the following quote:
I understand that it is really hard for them to believe…Even though it happened to me, I still couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t believe that what Michael did was a bad thing, so I understand.
Wow. I’ve been less understanding about a mixed-up coffee order. Please note, I have not yet seen the documentary myself and would like to withhold full judgment until after the fact. Enjoy that objectivity while you can, because I am expecting my forthcoming review of the film to be…opinionated, put lightly. Whether you’re a Jackson fan, or someone who’s believed the allegations for a long time and has been waiting for something like this, suffice it to say this documentary will capture your attention. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have start practicing my voice for when I call in sick on Monday.
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