Leaving Neverland Offers a Devastating Glimpse at How Predators Operate
Every alleged offender of the #MeToo era has had his defenders. Lindsay Lohan “felt very bad” for Harvey Weinstein. Javier Bardem was “shocked” by the treatment of Woody Allen. Erykah Badu professed her unconditional love for R. Kelly. But no accused celebrity offender has had as large and as vocal a pool of supporters as has Michael Jackson. Remember the rapturous fans releasing a dove for each charge Jackson was acquitted of during his 2005trial? These people are still around, and they’ve directed their attentions at a new target: HBO’s two-part documentary, Leaving Neverland.
The film tells the story of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men who allege that Jackson molested them on countless occasions from grade school until their teens. (Jackson’s family and estate vehemently deny all the allegations, and are suing HBO for airing the doc.) The late pop star’s most avid supporters are out in full force, crowdfunding ads on the sides of London buses proclaiming Jackson’s innocence and slapping “#BoycottHBO” signs on the Great Wall of China. Some are slinging death threats at those who speak ill of their idol.
With decades to hone their talking points, such supporters flood comment sections and social media with supposed proof that the five men who have accused Jackson of assault are anything but credible. Much of this narrative—promoted by the singer's lawyers during his lifetime, and by his family and estate since his 2009 death—rests on of a profound cultural misunderstanding of sexual predators and sexual assault. Large swaths of the public, including the 12 members of Jackson's 2005 jury, could easily be convinced that the singer's accusers were not “perfect” victims. This makes them, of course, perfect victims.
Finding Neverland tells the story of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men who allege that Jackson molested them on countless occasions from grade school until their teens.
The most common barb hurled at Safechuck and Robson is that they’ve changed their stories. As children, both testified in Jackson's defense during the 1993 civil suit brought by another’s accuser’s family (and Robson testified for Jackson once more, as an adult at the 2005 trial). But in a country in which nearly 75% of sexual assaults go unreported, it’s unsurprising that victims—especially child victims—would feel reluctant to come forward.
In Leaving Neverland, both men describe the complex feelings Jackson fostered within them. He was friend and playmate, host of endless movie nights and possessor of a limitless candy supply. And according to them, he was also a brutal abuser who made sustained and successful efforts to instill in them suspicion of law enforcement and of their own parents. Both men say it took years for them to grapple with the sexual and emotional abuse afflicted upon them.
Another defense frequently invoked on Jackson’s behalf is that his most well-known child companions have firmly denied that he ever molested him. Macaulay Culkin was the most famous of the singer’s young supporters, and is shown in Leaving Neverland going to court to testify on Jackson’s behalf in 2005. And during a January podcast appearance, Culkin said that, despite their 22-year-age difference, he and Jackson had bonded over their experience as child stars. "It's almost easy to try say it was like weird or whatever. But it wasn't because it made sense," said Culkin. "At the end of the day, we were friends." Corey Feldman, another young friend of Jackson’s, has similarly reiterated his support for the late singer in recent weeks.
Culkin and Feldman seem just as credible as Safechuck and Robson, and in fact, it makes a great deal of sense that Jackson would spare his famous, powerful companions and victimize the unknown and relatively powerless ones. From a dollars and cents angle alone, Jackson would have known that it would cost a great deal more money to pay off the family of a child who’d earned a reported $4.5 millionto star in Home Alone 2 than to buy the silence of a middle class clan.
One issue Leaving Neverland grapples with is the criticism that Jackson’s accusers' parents have faced for allowing an adult man a truly disturbing level of access to their children. Just as he befriended their children, Jackson cultivated relationships with parents—that included lavish gifts and promises of help with the kids' careers in entertainment.
The men and their families have struggled to reckon with this. "I don’t care who some guy is,” says Safechuck’s brother in the film, speaking of his own mother. “How do you leave your seven-year-old or eight-year-old kid to have sleepovers at their house? That’s just fucking crazy. As a parent, I don’t understand how that is even possible.”
These grave lapses in parental judgement have been frequently used against Jackson's accusers, whose families are depicted as grubbing stage parents willing to do and say anything for money and fame. Families this base and neglectful, the logic goes, would probably be capable of fabricating sexual abuse allegations.
But what the demonizing of Jackson’s accusers ignores is that the factors that increases a child’s risk of sexual abuse—such as having parents who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction—are exactly the sort of evidence often used to paint families as being less than credible. One major risk factor for sexual is limited parental supervision; Jackson frequently engineered occasions on which children would be alone with him, such as taking them on tour. Another risk factor for sexual abuse is the presence of familial mental illness. Two of the fathers of Jackson's accusers have died by suicide.
Jackson built a murky world around himself, one that attracted families seeking fame for their children and willing to suspend disbelief amid the singer’s flood of lavish gifts and promises. This is how predators operate, and these facts don’t weaken his accusers claims—they only strengthen them.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.