TRIGGER WARNING: this article contains themes regarding sexual, emotional and mental abuse that may upset some readers.
Since it’s premiere at Sundance late last year, Dan Reed’s four hours HBO/Channel 4 documentary Leaving Neverland has been a polarising piece of work that once again delves into the “ambiguous” claims of child abuse levied towards Michael Jackson.
I say “ambiguous” with all the objectivity in the world given that one of the focal points of the documentary, Wade Robson, had previously defended the King of Pop during in 2004-2005 trial.
At that stage, Robson under oath stated that nothing untoward had occurred with Jackson but has since recanted his story explaining that the nuances in which Jackson manipulated him emotionally – going as far as to state the pair of them will end up going to jail together – had clouded his judgement and now he can reconcile the fact he was abused at that young age.
There are varying people who believe Robson, who himself has a glittering career as a choreographer, is using this as a cash grab with a litany of theories as to why he is doing it (one of which being that he was spurned from providing choreography for a Jackson retrospective), while others don’t feel it’s fair that Jackson is part of a “smear campaign” which due to his death he can’t defend himself.
The Jackson estate as usual are none to enthused, wheeling out the “cash grab” argument and going as far as to offer Jackson’s 1993 Bucharest concert for free on YouTube for a limited time – 2 hours and 20 minutes, the same length of time part one of Leaving Neverland, and originally screened by HBO back in the day.
The Jackson estate is using the idea of the documentary and the original allegations taking place during the Dangerous tour as HBO breaking a non-disparagement agreement from their original contract for the Bucharest set. This isn’t the estate’s first rodeo in terms of dealing with the allegations – they’re often a dab hand at damage control because they’ve done it one too many times before.
Rallying The Mob.
For fans of Jackson, they are once again arming themselves with every piece of knowledge in order to quell these latest narratives regarding Jackson’s penchant for younger boys. Their tactics stem from intentionally sandbagging the rating for the documentary on IMDB (they cite this will hurt the credibility of the documentary) through to trawling social media and responding to any negative comment under “#leavingneverland”, directing them to MJ Innocent.
The waves of “apple-heads” (what die-hard MJ fans refer to themselves as) have already infiltrated the many chasms of the internet armed with their info-graphs to debase any form of conversation with those who believed the abuses occurred or, equally as frustrating, bombard forums, comment threads and sub-reddits snuffing any real form of discussion.
Their rhetoric is almost a copy-and-paste style response to any and every damning comment about their idol; that this once again was for money, that Robson is on a personal vendetta because of his lack of involvement in a Cirque du Soleil show themed on Michael Jackson and the stories from both Robson and James Safechuck have continually changed over the years.
Furthermore, that Jackson has died the law prevents any form of slander or libel to be stopped from accusers and therein lays the narrative some MJ fans have taken upon themselves to state this is only happening because Jackson cannot defend himself, hence the graphic nature of Leaving Neverland‘s claims.
To the fandom, Jackson could do no wrong – at no point could someone who loved children and espoused the principles of world peace, love, understanding and caring be capable of the monstrous acts alleged against him.
Clearly the parents of Robson and Safechuck themselves thought there was nothing untoward taking place. Just their children hanging out with their hero – a megastar who surely wouldn’t do anything given his large public persona.
But as Leaving Neverland‘s four hour odyssey divulges, Jackson’s moments of abuse and coercion have many of the tenets of other child abuse cases where the culprits were found guilty.
Reed’s documentary is broken into two parts; Part One focuses on the budding friendships between Michael Jackson and the two boys. Both brought to Jackson’s attention by almost serendipitous circumstances (winning competitions to meet the singer), and both whisked away with their families to Neverland Ranch, giving them a taste of the high-life.
Again, the idea of Jackson being private and inconspicuous led the families into thinking nothing untoward would take place and there was a continual framing that the singer didn’t have much of a childhood so he was in a state of arrested development. At no stage did it occur that this was perhaps Jackson’s take on a whirlwind romance – perhaps dazzled by the fame of the singer, the parents felt the pressures of not wishing to disappoint their child whose dreams are coming true.
All of which are forms of coercion, not just with the children but with the families. We are informed by Reed’s work about the gifts the mothers would receive, while the boys themselves have fallen in “love” with Jackson, demonstrating this “love” with sexual acts.
Jackson, we are told, had a catalogue of sexual “kinks” he would get the boys to do; french kissing, mutual masturbation, at times attempting anal sex with the boys and backing away when the boys didn’t like it. For Robson and Safechuck this was a love that transcended the idolisation of the singer and instead became a heated, passionate affair away from the eyes of the public… and the families involved.
What Jackson did, the documentary’s first half revealed, was groom these two boys both physically and emotionally. There came a reliance, Robson especially, on Jackson and when he shunned Robson for a newer “playdate”, be it Macaulay Culkin, Brett Barnes or someone else. This lead to one of the many harrowing moments in the film where Robson revealed he cried himself to sleep, calling out for his mother, sleeping on a couch at one of Jackson’s “hideouts” while the singer was upstairs in his room with another boy.
It’s Jackson’s cult of personality which led to so many of the accusers to have their stories quashed by the court of public opinion… well, the Jackson fanatic opinion anyway. This even included Robson’s own sister, who in Part Two breaks down into tears that she herself, at such close proximity of the abuse, would derail accusations merely as cash grab ploys.
Jackson loyalists have always utilised the concept of greed in order to diminish the severity of the continued abuse allegations the personality faced and that he was never found guilty in a court of law (neither did Jimmy Saville, Louis Theroux has recently reminded the public.)
Part Two of the documentary focuses on the lives of Robson and Safechuck as they enter adulthood, with their own relationships and families they have started in the shadow of their sexual abuse from Jackson. To witness the fandom outright pour their hatred towards the victims (or “victims” if you were to believe the fandom) is hypocritical given the message of “peace and love” their idol extolled throughout his music.
In the face of hard evidence, many still require convincing.
Even I found myself sceptical going into the documentary, having always felt that Jackson perhaps was in a state of arrested development due to a lack of childhood and holding Joe Jackson as the monster for his aggressive coaching of a 6 year old MJ.
This was a very popular celebrity, who had the eyes of the world on him at pretty much all times, from a young age. Of course he would be the target of extortion, especially with something as damning as child abuse allegations given his close relationship he had with younger fans. Many of us thought he was asexual despite his marriages, and though we joked about it, none of us thought he was really capable of the abuse because he just seemed too odd in nature for that to be a thing.
Evidently we were wrong and in today’s climate of “believe victims”, such damning reports would be treated with an incredible amount of outrage in the court of public opinion because we know the systematic ways child and sexual abuse can occur. Back then it almost felt like it wasn’t as common an occurrence and we didnt know how to process it. Perhaps because we were young or perhaps it’s because of the completely mystery Jackson always shrouded himself in.
This was, after all, a pop idol who allegedly bought the bones of the Elephant Man, or slept in a hyperbolic chamber, or his obsession with Elizabeth Taylor. We got older and thought Lisa Marie Presley was a bed, and his second wife fell pregnant through artificial insemination, but why exactly we didn’t know.
There had always been a sense of misdirection with Jackson, be it a carefully skilled legal team or series of publicists. We lapped it up in time because given the rise of smash-mouth television in the ’90s, we ate up any celebrity scandal because it wasn’t commonplace. It’s how Hard Copy made a name for itself.
That’s perhaps part of the problem with Leaving Neverland; the never-ending spin and campaigns of misinformation that continue with Jackson to this day.
The documentary focuses intrinsically on Robson, Safechuck and their families so there is already an established narrative and agenda we should anticipate. By no means is this going to be an objective look about the abuse allegations that dogged Jackson even now after death – but with the evidence provided, it’s by no means a case of yellow journalism either.
The frantic, child-like hand written faxes the boys received when they were not in the vicinity of Jackson and the long phone-calls the boys had with him. We are informed at one stage by Robson’s mother that Jackson asked if he could have him for an entire year, which the mother wouldn’t allow and instead the family broke up as Robson, his sister and mother moved to the United States.
It was a case of emotional domination and submission, the documentary points out. Jackson’s calculated actions demonstrated he knew what he was doing and was predatory in his relationships that were discussed here. This initially was viewed as a worrisome infatuation with a friend rather than the sexual relationship both men revealed.
So if these abuses took place, why wasn’t anyone at Neverland Ranch ever to come forward or any of Jackson’s security detail. Were they all complicit and paid off? Had they all agreed to sign non-disclosure agreements or non-disparaging agreements before working with the singer? Anytime someone close has come out against Jackson, they immediately have been refuted by the Jackson Estate or legal teams – even Jackson’s own sister, La Toya, was exiled from the family and subject to rumours of a forced marriage.
Which, if their are Jackson fans reading this (because let’s be honest, they are on a huge crusade online at the moment), I know was admitted by La Toya at a later stage – timed nicely with her reconciliation with the family…
But we don’t get those aspects too much from the documentary. We are informed about the number of hideouts across the United States and Neverland Ranch alone had where the abuses took place, along with the lengths Jackson would go to for security (a security system that monitors people walking up to his bedroom). But fans can play this off as just added security for a celebrity the media were keen to virtue flag.
Let’s not lie that virtue flagging is a recent thing – in a world of news that feeds off the salacious aspects of society (man bites dog sells more papers than dog bites man), the ’90s saw the rise of our obsession with celebrties falling from grace. National Inquirer, Hard Copy, a lot of early Fox News and Rupert Murdoch owned media; only in these cases it was to earn audience figures rather than the merits of being socially aware.
However despite the one-sided narrative (and this is a necessary evil in documentary film making), the evidence demonstrating Jackson’s infatuations are damning. The testimonies of both Robson, Safechuck and their families are harrowing that you can’t truly believe this is being made up.
They say there is no smoke without fire and if there really is no fire, it’s hard to determine given how thick the smoke has gotten. As Theroux pointed out, Jimmy Saville was never charged with the crimes that later proved to be true.
But therein lays a huge flaw with law and order – we should view people as innocent until proven guilty. But people’s belief in the justice system is sceptical (both sides of the argument, where the wrong person has gone to jail or been let free) and thus the court of public opinion has become incredibly vocal in recent times.
But it still doesn’t equate to the legion of Michael Jackson fans who do their upmost to protect the cult of personality of their hero. Which perhaps, if they were to take a step back, is indicative of the very powerful, very controlling nature of Jackson.
If Jackson has managed to cultivate a huge legion of supporters, followers, dare I say acolytes in his name by mere virtue of his music, appearances and public persona alone, then in the very close, intimate proximity of a relationship could he not have easily subverted the families and those he has allegedly abused?
All the hallmarks we have been informed of in this day and age what constitutes grooming, coercion and sexual abuse are recounted implicitly by Robson and Safechuck and currently we are told to “believe victims”, yet the Jackson fandom cannot. Why?
The end of the documentary gives some light to perhaps the stubborness to believe Jackson was capable of such horrific crimes. “People like his music and like to think he’s a good person.” They know Michael Jackson, the entertainer. These families got to know Michael Jackson, the human being.
I admittedly have my own opinion on the matter; I use the words allegedly and the use of parenthesis to try and remain objective on the matter, but I would be lying if I didn’t think having seen the documentary that he acted inappropriately.
We know now that childhood traumas can affect us at later stages in life, and if the pair only feel comfortable doing it now outside the remit of slander and libel, then that is understandable.
But why lie in front of a court of law and in front of the eyes of the entire world in Santa Barbara? Because of love – the incredibly young and intimate sexual relationships Jackson fostered were, for the most part, a “shared” (I use that term very loosely here) experience of love the boys felt for their hero.
For them, this was the first time they may have felt this kind of love or affection. To see a former lover going through hell, perhaps it was that “first love” mentality that saw Robson in particular lie to the jury.
Did Michael Jackson do it? It’s pretty hard to say he didn’t – but for many months to come, there’s going to be a lot of misinformation and spin coming out of the Jackson camp. Which only just adds fuel to their fervent means of maintaining the cult of Jackson and rallying the fandom to the ever closer endgame of perhaps rationalising why it was OK for Jackson to do it.
Because the internet is full of very, very strange mindsets.
If you have been the victim of sexual abuse or assault and you have been affected by this article or by the documentary itself, there are so many outlets now that are here to help you. You’re not alone by any margin.I
- you can contact Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999 (12-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm every day of the year)
- the free, 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247
- The Havens – https://www.thehavens.org.uk/
- The Lantern Project – https://lanternproject.org.uk
- The Survivors Trust – http://thesurvivorstrust.org/