The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
Leaving Neverland is a horror story that you wish was a work of fiction. It portrays the systemic abuse, mentally and sexually, that at least two men attest to having lived through as children, along with their families, at the coercive hands of pop legend Michael Jackson. There comes a point in its near four hour runtime, as we reach its crushing crescendo, that we’re forced to make peace with the fact that the men in this documentary are reliving a harrowing experience in order to help them exorcise it, and it is the audience’s responsibility to approach it as the truth. The generally one-sided nature of this story doesn’t seem to matter, because what you’re being exposed to is so grueling and heartbreaking that to discount it as lies (as so many already seem to have), would question how you process stories of child abuse, whether the perpetrator was a cherished legend or not.
Since it premiered at Sundance Film Festival three months ago, it has spawned a thousand think pieces and controversies aplenty. Leaving Neverland, directed by Dan Reed, hones in on the lives of Wade Robson, an Australian dancer whom Michael met at the age of five, and James ‘Jimmy’ Safechuck, a former child actor who starred in a Pepsi commercial with Jackson at the age of 10. There are similarities between their two cases: both admit to having been abused by Jackson for a prolonged period of time, but similarly, they both testified on Jackson’s behalf during trials related to his alleged acts of sexual abuse against children in 1993 and 2005. They were once shining beacons of MJ’s innocence, proof that the star could spend time with children without intentions that could be considered seedy or inappropriate. But of course, that angle changed. As time passed, as they grew older and had children, both Wade and Jimmy fully processed what had happened to them. They realized what was once a declaration of admiration and friendship was, in fact, a dirty tactic to convince them to stay quiet.
In cases of Stockholm Syndrome, the connection between an abuser and the child they target is a complex one, sometimes rooted in a mutual love for each other that, at the time, feels comforting and correct. When you’re an international megastar – selling out stadiums, winning Grammys, and quickly ascending into a tier of pop royalty that we have yet to see replicated in the 21st century – the unquestioned power and agency that comes with that is horrifying. It’s that very power that Michael Jackson, his accusers believe, led him down this path of systemic abuse, and the wealth that he shared with those families (giving them tens of thousands of dollars, inviting them on all-expenses paid trips, buying young boys diamond rings) which forced them to associate his generosity with human kindness. When your first encounters with intimacy are shaped by a person far older than you, the boundaries of trust are bent to that person’s will. It’s the kind of behavior that permitted him to wreak havoc on the lives of the Robson, Safechuck, and their families for so long.
Anybody who has ever heard first-hand encounters of sexual abuse, or has experienced it themselves, will struggle to see how the two boys at the heart of Leaving Neverland’s stories are liars. The details of what they claim to have endured, as well as the correlations between their two cases, are vulgar, vivid, and damning. To fabricate stories for the purpose of strengthening their careers or earning money makes little sense. Neither Robson nor Safechuck were paid for their participation in Leaving Neverland, and the emotional states they have wound up in as a result of their experience – hampered by depression and anxiety and forced into therapy – hardly paint them as ideal candidates for any sort of flashy and lucrative reality TV gig.
To capitalize on child abuse is pretty much unheard of, and doesn’t seem worth it when you consider how hideous recounting those experiences truly are. Alongside that, think about how difficult it would be to allow your parents or siblings to feel partly responsible for what occurred if you were creating this story as part of a publicity stunt. Of all the ways that people whose careers on the rocks can bounce back and try to become relevant again, doing so by painting yourself as a victim of sexual abuse as a child is not the most convenient way to do it.
The documentary stands to throw everybody’s opinion of a beloved musical icon into disarray, forcing them to question and reexamine his past behavior, but it’s worth noting that the purpose of Leaving Neverland is not to bring down Michael Jackson in a time when #MeToo is often spoken of as a trend as much as a political movement. It exists to point out the way powerful people, talented people, can do completely abhorrent things. Michael Jackson ‘truthers,’ as they’re now called, are prevalent on Reddit threads, MJ fan forums, at protests outside Leaving Neverland screenings and, as Wendy Williams showed, on national daytime television. They’ve gathered an abundance of evidence to try and disprove the claims made against Michael, but there are fatal flaws in their logic.
For one, it is ineffective to judge this case as one about an accused abuser and his victim; the fact that he’s a legendary musician, considered soft, kind, caring and untouchable for so long, automatically throws off everybody’s judgement. Remove his character from the equation, and the conclusions are suddenly much easier to reach. We also can’t discount the fact that, no matter how many deep dives of court documents and conspiracy theories people do, they were never Wade Robson or Jimmy Safechuck in a room alone with Michael Jackson.
It’s this reckoning with the reputation of an enigma that shakes people so much, but at the same time, maybe the knee-jerk reaction of muting Michael Jackson’s back catalog isn’t the most productive long-term answer. Dismantling a deity does little damage to the artist when he’s dead. Michael Jackson is a flawed and problematic part of popular culture now, and these accusations are important, but the only people who feel the repercussions of him being silenced are the innocent people, particularly his children, he left behind. Separating the art from the artist is a tough, if not impossible, task, but it feels almost as impossible to completely remove Michael Jackson’s own music from the world when its influences are still ingrained in culture a decade after his death.
But to anyone who finds themselves actively supporting Jackson in the controversy surrounding Leaving Neverland, remember this: one in five girls and one in 20 boys will be a victim of child sexual abuse in America. The statistics for those who lie about child sexual assault are so miniscule the figures don’t even exist. Those who suffer prolonged sexual abuse – as Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck have – will go on to experience low self-esteem, a sense of worthlessness and, in many cases, suicidal thoughts. The depravity of what they claim happened to them should never be discounted based on the idea of Michael Jackson being a lucrative, sensationalized target to topple. The bravery required when coming forward, no matter how delayed that was, is difficult to articulate unless you’ve been in a victim’s shoes before.
What Leaving Neverland teaches us is that we have a duty to believe survivors of sexual abuse. We shouldn’t forget about Michael Jackson, nor how capable he was of creating brilliant art. Instead, it should be etched into our minds that these figures we paint as gods are capable of being bad people, and that idolizing anybody to the point of delusion is dangerous.
If you or someone you know is a victim of violence, threats, or abuse at home, there are organizations you can contact for help and advice. Visit The Hotline in the US and the National Domestic Violence Helpline in the UK for more information.