Michael Jackson was one of the most famous men who ever lived, a star who burned out of the stratosphere in terms of his reach, his impact, and the length of his time in the spotlight. It’s hard to describe to those who aren’t familiar with that kind of thing, because they never will be. Stars like that don’t really exist anymore, and it’s too hard to imagine the kind of power they had over not just ordinary people, but society as a whole. His lifetime of celebrity and scandal is not new information. We were familiar with the allegations of child molestation which surfaced in 1993 (a case that he settled out of court) and again in 2003, resulting in a trial where he was acquitted of all charges. His unsettling relationships with young boys played out in the public eye and was late night fodder for years before his death led to the burying of those negative stories, when everyone decided they just wanted to remember the music again.
But we never reached a reckoning with the truth that was (barely) hiding in plain sight, and that was because during his life, whatever charges were filed or accusations made, the magnitude of his own bizarre image made everything about him- the spectacle, the gossip, the rumors, whatever made him the alien-like creature from another world that every facet of him seemed to be. There was no real face to the victims, no humanization of these children, these boys who actually went through this nightmare, as the circus surrounding the tabloid megawatt celebrity tends to hog all the media attention, both in life and death. Until now. Dan Reed has made a four hour documentary called Leaving Neverland that asks us to bear witness to two men, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, who were friends of Michael Jackson and claim to have been sexually abused by him as children for years in the late 1980’s and early 1990s. We are asked to listen as they tell their stories and put their lives on display, as we find out the methodical steps of how a child’s innocence are taken from them by a man who becomes their entire universe and convinces them that they are safe and loved by him, as he proceeds to indulge in the behavior that will ruin their lives, as well as those of their families.
This is not a normal talking heads documentary, as simply listening to these men recall every detail of their relationship with Jackson is a strikingly personal, effective and brutally devastating way of conveying this truth. They speak and we listen. James was a 10-year-old when he met him, a child actor in commercials who starred in Jackson’s 1987 Pepsi commercial. Soon MJ was calling him, giving him presents, coming over to his house and befriending his parents in equal measure. James’s mother Stephanie, also interviewed, recalls how starstruck she was, how welcoming and kind and childlike Michael seemed, how caught up she was in this life of luxury he was wiling to extend to her and James as he offered them trips, took them on tour and methodically groomed them into trusting him, loving him, accepting him as a member of the family. And then when that trust was complete, how he exploited Jimmy’s love to begin abusing him, convincing him that it was normal, that it was their way of “showing their love for each other.” Jimmy wasn’t scared because he loved him by that time, but he also believed Jackson’s warning that it had to be a secret, because if anyone found out they would both go to jail and their lives would be over.
Wade Robson was a five-year-old Australian boy who won a dance contest as a Michael Jackson impersonator. His mother was a stage mom who was desperate to help her son meet his idol, which happened after a concert while Jackson was on tour in the country. He offered to meet them if they ever came to Los Angeles, which two years later, they did. By that time he’d bought his notorious Neverland Ranch and invited the whole family to come visit, showering them with attention and gifts, and quickly started molesting Wade, whose mother was convinced that it was safe for him to spend the night alone with this man. The two boys separately recount eerily similar patterns of abuse, which started with mutual masturbation and progressed to kissing and oral sex, and the film does not skimp on the details, which are incredibly uncomfortable to watch and hear as Wade and James go over every part of it. Jackson operated in the guise of forming a romantic relationship with these boys, making them think they were in love (even holding a mock wedding ceremony for himself and James, who still has and shows the ring that was used) and forming separate relationships with their mothers to retain their trust and allow him to be alone with their sons.
After a certain point, he’d prepare them for separation as they grew closer to teenagehood, collecting another new boy as a replacement (Macaulay Culkin is named), making them both feel jealous, angry and hurt as they were slowly discarded in favor of a younger child. This horrifying reality was played out more or less in public, as the news images of Jackson traipsing around the world, holding hands with one boy after another for years remind us just how much the collective planet turned a blind eye to what was so glaringly obvious. There are endless messages from him to the boys played, faxes, letters, pictures and videotapes produced, testimony to his constant attention and efforts to cultivate these friendships and these families.
As testimony, it’s hard to understate the importance of this film, which takes so much time explaining how child sexual abuse plays out and the devastating psychological effects it leaves on kids, as they grow into adults and slowly begin to process what happened to them. The second half of the movie describes this process, as Wade and James both begin to experience anxiety, depression, insomnia and panic attacks as they grow into their twenties and thirties, only able to divulge their long buried secret in the wake of Jackson’s 2009 death. It explores the impact of confessing the abuse to their wives and family members, and mothers, who rightfully bear the brunt of the blame for not protecting their children. That Jackson was a monster is undeniable- a serial pedophile who used his power to indulge his sickness in the kind of way that inspired his victims to show loyalty even after the abuse was over. Both describe how they defended him against the charges in 1993, saying the kind of hold he had over them inspired them to want to “save” him (he bought the Safechucks a house at the time). Even though by 2005 James was disillusioned with it all, as Michael had disappeared from his life, only to re-emerge when he needed him to testify, (which he refused to do a second time, telling his mother that Michael was a “bad man”), Wade was still under his spell, agreeing to defend him in court once again.
The devastating impact of the abuse revelations on the families is heartbreaking, as it’s hard, nearly impossible (as Wade’s brother admits) to forgive the mothers for allowing this to happen. The structure of this film in allowing four hours of solid testimony from the victims themselves, puts a face and a voice to these men whose lives were destroyed in a manner that’s harrowing to experience. It’s a difficult and necessary watch, a revelation on the lingering effects of child sexual abuse throughout a person’s life, and also a lesson on how it works in general. Most people still do not understand that child molestation might not feel like abuse to a child, that it might take place in the context of a loving relationship with a trusted friend or family member (as the boys’ mothers say Michael felt like) who then manipulates them with months and years of effort into burying the shame or guilt that will resurface later in life. A skilled manipulator and a seemingly gentle soul, Michael Jackson played on that illusion to create a world that he could hide in, and the world looked away because they didn’t want to believe it was real. Because what do you do with him if it is? He’s been dead for years, but his victims are not. Who knows how many there are, how many still hide in shame, how many still believe that they loved him, that he loved them, the way he said he did. And what do you do with his music now? Can you ever hear Bille Jean or Man in the Mirror the same way? How can you separate the art from the artist when the art is so ubiquitous, so embedded in our culture, so long-lasting in its influence on a generation of pop stars and performers and entertainers to this day?
I can’t answer how you reconcile that, but I do know that we cannot look away from the truth. Not this time. He can’t face justice anymore. But his victims are out there, and they deserve to be heard, and supported, and believed. We owe them that.