Deep Dives Level Up Newsletters Saved Articles Challenges

Leaving Neverland, what Michael Jackson’s story can teach us about sexual abuse culture

It’s been hard to evade the shockwaves generated by HBO’s two-part four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson and Me, in which filmmaker Dan Reed exposes the heart-wrenching testimonies of Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 41, who allege Michael Jackson sexually abused them for years when they were children.

As the controversy surrounding the film continues to inundate every possible media outlet, Jackson fans from across the world cry out in support of the late star—defending his innocence and depicting the accusers as opportunists who are out to make a buck and tarnish Jackson’s reputation. Even those who do not blatantly smear Robson and Safechuck have a hard time reconciling their accusations with the image of their beloved idol.

It seems that in the vortex of sensationalism and celebrity, key issues and lessons from the documentary are being left unaddressed. Leaving Neverland extends far beyond Michael Jackson, and whether people choose to remove his tracks from their playlist or continue to be inspired by his talent is irrelevant. The film should encourage us to look past the circumstances of Jackson’s career and engage in some hard conversations about sexual abuse and the reasons behind our society’s attitude towards this toxic phenomenon.  

The sad truth is that when it comes to sexual abuse, including that of children, we remain willfully ignorant—both in terms of our understanding of the scope of the problem, and in our methods of tackling it and supporting survivors. The National Center for Victims of Crime estimates that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys in the U.S. are victims of child sexual abuse. The centre also argues that the actual number of cases is significantly higher and that the majority of cases never get reported—often due to shame or fear experienced by the victim. It is further reported that many victims fail to recognise that they were victims of sexual abuse until much later in life, which explains why so many of them come out about their experience decades after the fact (or never at all). In the film, both Robson and Safechuck confess that while the abuse took place they had no concept that Jackson’s actions were wrong, and that only later in life certain events and ongoing depression had led them to face the uncomfortable truth.  

It is time that individuals, communities, and governments around the world take serious steps to educate the public about the facts surrounding sexual abuse practices and prevention methods. We must become more aware of early signs such as grooming, institute more comprehensive sexual consent modules in schools, expand our support facilities for victims, and learn how to better embrace and empower them to work through their trauma and heal.

In order for this to occur, however, we must delve deeper and further deconstruct our collective psyche. What prompts our proclivity to believe some survivors and not others? What propels many of us to engage in victim shaming and dismiss their compelling testimonies? I would argue that the answers to such questions lie in much more profound societal dysfunctions—of which our attitude towards sexual abuse is merely a symptom.

One is our misguided perception that a person can only be either good or bad; a belief that has been adopted and bolstered by our court systems. According to this tragically popular view, one cannot be a mega-talented artist who donated millions of dollars to save children’s lives around the world and simultaneously be a child molester; a person can’t lie on the witness stand once and then be considered even remotely credible, regardless of what may have propelled them to lie in the first place (many dismiss Robson’s current claim due to his defence of Jackson in previous trials). Why do we refuse to recognise humans for the complex, nuanced beings that we are? Because our binary labelling of ourselves makes us feel safe and provides a clear definition of right and wrong, while preventing us from having to face the contradiction that we ourselves embody.

Yet, when it comes to categorising people as good or bad, powerful figures are often held to a different standard, as Leaving Neverland reveals. This isn’t merely a function of their ability to purchase their innocence, but also a result of the widespread support they receive from a public that has constructed an entire identity around them and the values and institutions they came to represent.

In that sense, the reaction of Jackson’s fans to Robson and Safechuck is no different from Republicans’ steadfast defense of Trump in the face of the countless accusations he faces, or people’s decision to take Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s word over that of Christine Blasey Ford. If one’s idol or priest or president is found to be profoundly imperfect (not to mention—a criminal), what does it mean about the world they’ve been part of creating? Has it all been a lie? And what consequences will such a realisation bear on their self-image?

The downfall of a figure or a group that plays a significant role in our collective story is tough to grapple with, and the exposure of their flaws resembles nothing short of the apocalypse for those who were so deeply invested in their world. Whether it’s child abuse, government corruption, consumer culture or climate change, we witness people across the globe desperately clinging to old paradigms and ideals, dreading the first step into the abyss. But it is this very place from which genuine change can sprout.