HBO’s documentary Leaving Neverland is a tragic story more than thirty years in the making. In the #MeToo era, when new stories of sexual assault seem to come at us daily, we can become numb to them and always feel a sense of detachment. But because this involves the man who was the biggest pop star in the history of pop stars, we are not detached. We are connected.
We are connected because we’ve all danced to Thriller on Halloween. Because we’ve all raised our voices three octaves to sing the letters P-Y-T. Because, depending on your age, we’ve all downloaded his songs or bought his CDs (or cassettes or albums). Many of us went to Epcot and did Captain EO.
Leaving Neverland tells the intimate, graphic details of two people who say they were selected by Michael Jackson to be in his inner-circle, and then groomed from day one to be sexually assaulted for years. Their story is compelling and, most importantly, believable.
Wade Robson says the abuse began when he was seven and selected to meet Jackson after winning a dance contest when he was seven years old. Jimmy Safechuck was a young commercial actor who met Michael on a shoot for one of his iconic Pepsi commercials in the 80s.
Groomed With A View
Both men tell, essentially, one story. How they were made to feel special, how they were given rarefied access to the most inaccessible man in the world. Their families were brought close so that, when the time came, they could be kept at a distance.
Once the bond was established the abuse could begin. Both Jimmy and Wade told of how Jackson would touch them and tell them it had to be their secret because no one else would understand, and they would all go to jail forever if anyone found out.
Jimmy says Michael went so far as to hold a “wedding ceremony” and exchange vows and gave him ring, all to cement his hold on them.
All the while there are tours to perform in, carnivals to attend, private jets to ride. The parents got caught up in the flashy lights while their children believed they were truly being loved.
Though the details obviously vary, the story is nearly textbook to what millions of others have endured.
Meanwhile, the parents believed their children were hanging out with the guy they see on TV. The man behind We Are The World. The guy visiting sick kids, donating money and granting wishes. And the one selling out stadiums to tens of thousands of adoring fans on a nightly basis.
But that is a persona. No public figure is confined to what you see in public. There are good deeds that go unrecognized, and dark sides that are hidden away. But rather than look for the dark sides, or shine a light into the unknown, the families went along for the ride.
In Robson’s case, his mom and sister took him from Australia to Los Angeles because Michael said it should be done. The reality was never as good as the promise of a dream. And even though Wade became a successful choreographer, due in large part to his connections from Jackson, you get the feeling he would give it all up to have never met the man.
For Jimmy, his family was based in southern California. Michael would use them to hide out at their house, make them feel like he needed them and becoming a de facto member of the family.
There Are No Words
Over time, Michael was accused twice of sexual abuse. He bought off one of the accusers, and was acquitted at trial a decade later in 2005. Both Jimmy and Wade had grown and “aged out” of Jackson’s target age. But he reconnected, and preyed on their emotions to get them to support him and stick to their well rehearsed story.
By the second time around, Safechuck had had enough and refused to go along. Robson, though, was still under Michael’s spell, hoping for a real, adult friendship, and testified. His adamant denials that anything sexual happened when he was sleeping, night after night, in the same bed with a grown man was key in swaying the jury.
Jackson’s supporters say that those were the times for the boys to stand up and say something, and that they are clearly lying now.
But children, and even adult victims, of sexual abuse don’t have a vocabulary. They believe what is going on is normal. And, if they were really well indoctrinated, they retain a sense of loyalty.
Oprah On the Scene
After watching the documentary, Oprah does a one hour special with the men and the director, Dan Reed. Everyone in the audience is a survivor of sexual abuse.
The most striking thing you notice right away is that Jimmy looks like he has been crying. Though he has seen the documentary several times, each time it clearly hits him hard.
Oprah tells us she’s done 200+ shows on sexual abuse, but Reed gets the message across in only four hours. The documentary lets the men tell their stories. Oprah pushes them further. Asking the questions their critics would ask, like why did they wait so long.
She also goes into detail about their recovery, family, and forgiveness.
Both are still estranged to some degree from their mothers, for not being more aggressive and protecting them as kids. Jimmy said that forgiveness isn’t a line you cross, it’s a road you travel.
Listening to them in this additional hour gives you almost as much, if not more, insight into where they are today, and how much more road they have to travel.
Watching them with Oprah, you also get the feeling that Wade is further along the road to stability (he’s suffered two nervous breakdown) than Jimmy. Watching Jim you feel like he is one bad memory away from just crumbling. You really just want to hug him.
If you are a viewer of this doc and a fan of Jackson, you are faced with hard choices. Do you continue to listen to his music? Support his estate? During the Oprah hour, they point out that bad people can do good things. We Are The World wasn’t some elaborate, A-List event to give Jackson a lifetime of cover. It did a lot of good. But it doesn’t mean the person doing good isn’t capable of extreme evil.
I personally don’t have an answer. Jackson was, and is, so ubiquitous that when his songs comes on I automatically start singing along, or remembering where I was in life when the tune was popular.
At the same time, I believe these men and their stories.
Leaving Neverland and the post-show with Oprah is five hours of hard to watch television. But it is worth your time. Bear witness to their pain, because the odds are you know someone who has gone though something very similar.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
Nothing. Their story is sobering and deserves your full, sober attention. The ironic thing is, few things will make you want a drink more.