What struck me about Leaving Neverland, the harrowing, two-part, four-hour HBO documentary about Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck’s sexual abuse allegations against superstar performer Michael Jackson, is the mechanical similarity of the men’s stories. Almost play-by-play, their accounts of what happened, how they, along with their families, became dazzled and then ensnared in Jackson’s web, hauntingly mirror each other. I noticed the same thing while watching both Surviving R. Kelly and Kidnapped in Plain Sight — predatory techniques to woo most often follow a similarly uncreative, toxic formula. During Oprah’s follow-up interview special, Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed called the film a deep look into “what grooming child sexual abuse looks like.”
Unique to Robson’s and Safechuck’s dilemma is the sheer magnitude of their accused perpetrator’s fame. As Robson said to Oprah, “the grooming started long before we ever met him.” Michael Jackson entered the national spotlight as lead singer of the Jackson 5 in 1969. Thriller, from 1982, remains the second best selling album of all time in the US. After 50 years in entertainment, the reach and influence of Jackson’s music cannot be overstated: it is difficult to listen to any pop radio and not hear him in its melodies or harmonies, to watch any pop star dance and not see his movement in the shadows.
After a police investigation into allegations brought forth by then 13-year-old Jordan Chandler in 1993, Jackson wasn’t formally charged, and he was acquitted on multiple counts related to child sexual abuse in 2005. In both cases, he settled out of court with his accusers. Before his 2009 death, Jackson denied all allegations of misconduct. His estate and family have issued vehement denials in Leaving Neverland’s wake. Still, no one defending Jackson would go as far as to say he did not behave inappropriately with children: he admitted to some unconscionable behavior himself. Robson’s and Safechuck’s accounts are detailed, credible, and difficult to bear in one sitting. To make sense of the story, and to begin to make sense of how we, the public, fell short, a selection of readings follows, about Jackson, Leaving Neverland, genius, and the toxic cult of celebrity.
1. A Complete Timeline of the Michael Jackson Abuse Allegations. (Kyle McGovern, February 28, 2019, Vulture)
McGovern details every public allegation against Jackson dating back to 1993 — Robson and Safechuck appear and reappear multiple times among many other young men in Jackson’s orbit.
2. ‘Leaving Neverland’ Reveals the Monster We Didn’t Want to See in Michael Jackson. (Niela Orr, March 1, 2019, BuzzFeed)
Orr, a Jackson fan while growing up, says watching Leaving Neverland produced “the shock and pang of betrayal,” and was “a visceral reveal of insidious behavior.” She reckons with Jackson’s duality: the harmless childlike mythos versus his ability to shapeshift into monstrosity.
3. It’s Too Late to Cancel Michael Jackson. (Carl Wilson, February 27, 2019, Slate)
Wilson says Jackson, “was to modern popular music and dance what Dickens was to the Victorian novel” and ponders whether he is “too big to cancel.”
4. Michael Jackson Cast a Spell, ‘Leaving Neverland’ Breaks It. (Wesley Morris, February 27, 2019, New York Times)
I’ve stared at a lingering shot of a photograph of Jackson, who would have been around 30 and Safechuck who was about 9 or 10, and Jackson is beaming in sunglasses and a military jacket, flashing a peace sign, and James, in a too-big baseball cap, is turning to the camera, looking alarmingly ruminative for someone whose life should be rumination-free.
5. He’s Out of My Life: Letting Go of Michael Jackson. (Kierna Mayo, March 6, 2019, Afropunk)
Eye-spying racism should never be the reason we don’t call a predator by his name.
Mayo reckons with the denial and protectionism offered to Jackson and his memory by some in the black community.
6. ‘Leaving Neverland’ Asks an Uncomfortable Question: How Culpable Are the Parents? (EJ Dickson, March 4, 2019, Rolling Stone)
Some have interpreted Leaving Neverland and Abducted thusly, arguing that the parents of Jackson’s victims are just as culpable as Jackson in perpetuating the abuse. And to a degree, Robson and Safechuck seem to share that view: as Safechuck says, he has never fully forgiven his mother for allowing the abuse to continue. “Forgiveness is not a line you cross, it’s a road you take,” he said at the Sundance Festival earlier this year.
Yet Leaving Neverland and Abducted can be seen less indictments of bad parenting than as a condemnation of the cultural mechanisms that allow the individual power of personality to go unchecked. Even though Jackson was a pop superstar hailed as a musical genius, and Berchtold a small-town salesman and Mormon dad of five, both were, by all accounts, men who knew exactly how to wield their charisma as a weapon; both were highly skilled at disarming and seducing adults (in Berchtold’s case, literally) in order to gain access to their children.
Dickson teases out some of the similarities between Leaving Neverland and Netflix’s Abducted in Plain Sight.
7. She Wrote the Book on Michael Jackson. Now She Wishes it Said More. (Anna Silman, March 7, 2019, The Cut)
So if he is guilty — what do we do with the music? What do we do with Michael Jackson?
There are two aspects. One is what kind of restitution is needed. If it’s financial, that’s fine by me, but is that sufficient? I just don’t believe the art should be quote “banned” forever. But if banning, let’s say, R. Kelly’s work for a certain amount of time from the radio, is a way of getting money from his estate, to help give those girls and young women some kind of settlement, that’s absolutely fine with me. I feel the same way about the Jackson estate.
As for what we do with the music — that “we” splits into just millions of people, doesn’t it? There’s no one way to answer that. I got an email from an editor who just said in passing “My God, I’ve loved him all my life. I still do. Would I feel comfortable buying his videos or even his music around my 8 or 9-year-old child? Right now, no.” We’re all sifting through that.
The larger question with every one of these artists is how do we simultaneously keep in our heads and hearts this information and this material and at the same time continue to respond as we feel their art justifies. Those two processes aren’t mutually exclusive at all. And it’s going to keep happening so we need to start finding language and feelings as well as practical, legal ways of coping with it.
The Cut speaks to Margo Jefferson, author of On Michael Jackson, two days after she watched Leaving Neverland.
8. No One Deserves as Much Power as Michael Jackson Had. (Craig Jenkins, March 1, 2019, Vulture)
It’s hard to explain the relationship between the superstars of the ’80s and their fans to people who weren’t alive or old enough to remember the decade. They were like demigods. They sang about love, peace, politics, and matters of planetary significance. Their art paused time and advanced culture. Their shows incited hysterics. It all seems religious in retrospect. Belief was the core of the bond, belief that these figures acted in the interest of bettering the world no matter the cost, belief that people who do good aregood. Their methods and their presentation were questioned, but the idea that pop stars were out to save the world was quite often taken at face value. This was not wise. We didn’t know any better.
More on the art and crimes of dangerous men:
- “Mad at Miles,” from Mad at Miles: A Black Woman’s Guide to Truth, Pearl Cleage, 1990, Cleage Group
- What Do We Do with the Art of Dangerous Men, Claire Dederer, November 20, 2017, Paris Review