I was ten when Michael Jackson died. I remember coming into my primary school and people talking about it. I knew the name of Michael Jackson, but did not really understand who he was. For many people my age, an understanding of Michael Jackson only developed after his death. From the extravagant funeral at the Staples Centre to the This is It documentary, Jackson’s legacy was secured and cemented as the King of Pop.
I remember he looked weird. I found it odd that no one even mentioned or talked about that. His weirdness was accepted, especially among those who had grown up with Jackson and witnessed his dramatic physical transformation. His pale face, black rimmed eyes and impossibly slim nose was accepted as part of his weirdness. His pet monkey, Bubbles, maybe raised some eyebrows, but was also accepted as part of his persona. So to were his close and public friendships with young children.
The excuse that surrounded Jackson’s friendships with young boys was the narrative Jackson put out into the world, that being he was a lonely man who had been robbed of his childhood and remained a child at heart. With his high, soft voice and talk of love and peace, this was peddled as the reason for his holding hands with young children, his revolving entourage of young children, his openness about sleeping in the same bed as young children and his creation of the Neverland Ranch.
This facade was truly shattered by the premiere of ‘Leaving Neverland’, a two-part documentary that told the stories of James Safechuck and Wade Robson and their relationships with Michael Jackson. Both talk of harrowingly similar tales of grooming and seduction and the sexual abuse suffered at the hands of Jackson. Some of the most interesting parts of the documentary is when the families of Safechuck and Robson can be seen to be undergoing the same manipulation as their boys. Both the children and their families are starstruck, in awe of this mega-star who has chosen them to be their closest friends.
However, this is not the first time such allegations have been made. In both 1993 and 2005, charges of sexual misconduct of a minor were brought against Jackson, and on both occasions, Jackson was acquitted. The families of the defendants were said to be out for money and jealous of the relationship Jackson shared with their children. These acquittals have formed a major part of the defense of Jackson in the aftermath of ‘Leaving Neverland’, along with the fact that Robson himself testified in support of Jackson during the 2005 trial and repeatedly and publicly denounced any claims of wrongdoing in his relationship with Jackson.
The documentary portrays the cycle of trauma, of the systems in place that protect the powerful and the perverted impact that fame holds. With a star as bright as Jackson, it is difficult to simply write him off and is unrealistic to assume he will be simply ‘cancelled’. So much of Michael Jackson is imbedded in our culture, in our understanding of music, celebrity and race. His influence can be found in the music and performance style of Beyoncé, Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake. At the end of the documentary, film is shown of Robson burning the memorabilia he acquired from Jackson, a note to the audience that they should also follow his lead.
Jackson wielded his power to seduce children and hoodwink families. After watching the chilling and disturbing four hours of ‘Leaving Neverland’, it seems impossible to ever listen to ‘Billie Jean’ or ‘Bad’ again. It is a a relief and a comment on how often abuses cases are handled, that the documentary remains so firmly centred on the stories of the two men. It was not about Jackson, but instead about the destruction and harm that he caused and the manipulation that was able to be put in place from so many years of acceptance weirdness and overlooking of odd behaviour
This is not a call that we should all be weary of every person who seems a little strange. But it is a cautionary tale about the consequences of celebrity worship and is an awakening to the harsh realities of child sexual abuse. As young boys, and even as young men, Robson and Safechuck did not have the language to explain to others or themselves of what had happened to them. The documentary is most impactful in conveying to the audience that the notions that surround abuse and sex abuse are often misguided. Restorative justice cannot be put in place, their childhoods cannot be returned to them, but ‘Leaving Neverland’ is a valuable in showcasing true nature of sexual abuse and the deep-rooted consequences that are so often misunderstood.