Note: Leaving Neverland features graphic descriptions of sexual abuse, some of which I discuss in the below review.
Here are some words from the pages of notes I took while watching Leaving Neverland, the documentary from filmmaker Dan Reed that roiled Sundance when it premiered there earlier this year. It also aired on HBO earlier this week, on March 3 and 4. These words came up over and over again, both when Wade Robson and James Safechuck share their stories about the sexual abuse they suffered for years at Jackson’s hands and also when their mothers, Joy Robson and Stephanie Safechuck, speak about how Jackson charmed them into traveling around the country and world to bring their families to him:
Larger than life
If Surviving R. Kelly was about an entertainer who was able to wield his considerable influence on certain communities of young women — in Chicago, where Kelly was from, or Atlanta, where he had another home — then Leaving Neverland is about the whole entire world, the entire goddamn universe, all the places that a megastar like Jackson could roam freely. In the Oprah-hosted After Neverland special that aired Monday after the second installment of Leaving Neverland, the entire audience nods when she describes Jackson in the ’80s and ’90s as a god.
Everywhere was open to him, and Leaving Neverland demonstrates how every person was open to him. Everyone wanted to please Michael, everyone wanted to be close to Michael, everyone turned a blind eye to what Michael was doing. As often came up in Surviving R. Kelly, a person can be two things at once. They can be a musical genius and they can be an abusive monster. And so it goes for Jackson, who Wade and James describe as gentle, as kind, as generous; and also as the man who asked them to suck on his nipples, to bend over and spread themselves open, to give and receive oral sex to him and from him. They were children, 7 years old, and he was a grown man, and their mothers and siblings were often in nearby rooms. How did this happen? Why did this happen?
I want to say it’s because our culture — and this isn’t just an American phenomenon, I don’t think, but everywhere — defers to famous people, to powerful people, to those who we somehow perceive to be better than us. How lucky we are to even be in their presence! And celebrities are the beneficiaries of this, yes, but religious leaders, too, and movie producers, and coaches, and doctors, and parents; any person who for any reason has been given a level of status that is above someone else.
Who are the people with the least power in the whole damn world? Children. And so Leaving Neverland is another documentary this year, along with Surviving R. Kelly and Abducted in Plain Sight, that focuses on the victims in these narratives and prioritizes their accounts and their voices, and those of the people who love them, over defenses from the accused.
No one from Jackson’s family participated in Leaving Neverland, which Reed says was purposeful. Instead, he includes footage of fans crying and rejoicing outside the courthouse after Jackson was cleared of sexual abuse charges in June 2005, people collapsing in the street in tears when Jackson died in June 2009, YouTube clips of people attacking Wade and sending him death threats after he sued the Jackson estate in 2013. Did Reed really need to interview people in Jackson’s inner circle to hear persistent claims of his innocence? We’ve lived with all of that for decades now. We’re seeing it in the days since the documentary aired, as those same zealous Jackson fans go after Oprah and Wade and James anew.
Wade and James are the focus of Leaving Neverland, but Joy and Stephanie are right there alongside them, and their behavior as parents raises the same questions and judgments in me as the parents in Abducted in Plain Sight. (Kate’s piece for us about the Mormon community that enabled the abuse in Abducted in Plain Sight was very insightful, if you haven’t read it already.)
Jackson became close to Wade after the 5-year-old participated in a dance competition, forging a friendship with Wade’s mother Joy that revolved around hundreds of faxes where he told him he loved them and promised to fund Wade’s career in Los Angeles, hours and hours of phone calls, video messages where he called Wade “little one.” The Robson family shattered apart as a result. With the Safechucks, he made similar pledges and pleas: He was lonely and sad, he needed the love of a family, he needed their help, he needed them. He claimed to create Neverland for James, and his mother had no idea Jackson was sexually abusing the boy in nearly all areas of the wondrous estate. Every kind act wrapped around something corrupt, every generous offering a veil for something horrendous. And the inherent narcissism of everyone — our desire to be seen as helpers, sure, but also our desire to be close to fame and wealth — played a part in this, too, and Jackson knew it.
Leaving Neverland makes it practically impossible to ever listen to Jackson’s music again, yes, but what else it does is outline how this sort of abuse makes not only enablers complicit — Wade’s and James’s families, Jackson’s staff, the media (the numerous clips of Matt Lauer throughout are a reminder that he, too, was a monstrous piece of shit), and us — but also seduces those who are being taken advantage of and manipulated.
Wade and James talk about liking the attention Jackson heaped upon them — who wouldn’t? — and feeling some sort of physical pleasure from some of the activities they were forced to take part in; struggling in their adulthoods now, as fathers, of thinking that their sons are the same ages that they were when Jackson began hurting them. It took another child to help them realize how defiled they were as children. And there’s something so shattering, so utterly heartbreaking, about that distance and denial of self, and that leaves an impression as traumatizing as any of the other horrifying truths of Leaving Neverland.
Leaving Neverland is available on HBO Go and HBO Now.
Image sources (in order of posting): HBO Media Relations, HBO Media Relations, HBO Media Relations