Runstedler’s DVD Pick of the Month: Leaving Neverland

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I believe the boys/men in this documentary, and bravo to HBO for having the courage to air it in its entirety despite the backlash from MJ “superfans” and the Jackson estate. I love Michael Jackson’s music; Thriller was one of the first albums I ever bought (I think everyone has their own precious memories with Thriller and listening Michael Jackson over the years) and this was heartbreaking to watch but it’s so important to listen and hear the truth. The film details the alleged sexual abuse of two men (Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck), who were boys when the King of Pop befriended them in the late ’80s/early ’90s. The documentary enables them to have a voice and tell their story as it happened as well as examine the impact of sexual abuse not only for them, but also on their families and relationships. Growing up in the ’90s, it was hard to know what to believe about MJ as a person, except that he was super famous and a bit creepy. I remember hearing all the crude jokes about him (e.g. “What do Michael Jackson and McDonald’s have in common?”) and despite the allegations being settled out of court in the ’90s, I think we all knew he was still suspicious and guilty.

Robson and Safechuck tell their own stories in graphic detail (Jackson taught them how to masturbate and regularly performed oral sex on them and attempted anal sex, and there are other disturbing rites mentioned such as MJ buying a ring for Safechuck when he was a boy so they could have a mock wedding); the director holds nothing back from their confessional, which I think adds to their credibility) and you can tell from the detail and their reactions to their stories that they are genuine, and the disturbing parallels between them suggest that MJ knew damn well what he was doing; he was emotionally manipulative, calculating, and strategic. He groomed them and their families, winning their trust and their family’s trust by giving them attention and gifts and a taste of stardom, and the closer he got to the boys, the further away their parents’ accommodation was. One wonders how many other boys MJ groomed and then dropped. I believe Jordie Chandler and Gavin Arvizo too, and I am grateful that Martin Bashir launched his excellent documentary Living with Michael Jackson when he did in 2003 (it opened the floodgates for the MJ trial). In Bashir’s documentary, you can tell that his behaviour is off, and when questioned, his story keeps changing (about his plastic surgery, about spending time with the children). I think MJ was a compulsive liar too, and we also see this in this new documentary, when he pits a “me vs. them” attitude between he and the boys and their families. At the very least, MJ is guilty of mental abuse, and we see in the documentary how his selfishness broke up families and indirectly led to the death of Robson’s father, who committed suicide after his family left him.

There’s a final scene in the excellent film Mysterious Skin (which is one of the best indictments of child sexual abuse that I’ve ever seen), in which the two boys (now men) break into the house of their abuser years later and laying together on the couch and crying together they realize they were sexually abused, and this reminds me of Safechuck and Robson and hit me really hard. Detractors of Leaving Neverland, in particular the “superfans” who won’t even watch the film or know absolutely nothing about child sexual abuse, complain that both men lied in the past about the sexual abuse (Robson defended Jackson both times in 1993 and 2005). It’s true that both men have flawed stories and have lied in the past, but when you have a mother and grandmother and his wife talking about the impact of this trauma and both men graphically retelling the horrible abuse that went on (it functions as a catharsis) and the circumstances around it, I believe every word. Many of these superfans (more like witch hunters) are so blind in their devotion is that they won’t even listen to other sides of the story or reconsider their own love for the pop star, and when there’s this ignorant, spiteful, malicious kind of thinking, I think it’s really problematic. I am so glad that HBO and Channel 4 have given a platform for these men to speak out, and hopefully more men will find the courage to speak out against Jackson too. Shame on the superfans and the estate for not evening trying to listen.

The question, I guess, to other fans of MJ’s music is where to go from here? Can we still listen to his music as we did before, knowing what we know now? Should we still listen to his music? Michael Jackson’s legacy has always been different than other famous pedophiles such as Gary Glitter and Jimmy Savile. He has an almost Christ-like following, and the enduring mythology is that he never had a childhood so he surrounded himself with children. We now know that this is a lie and he did this because he had an unhealthy relationship with them. His publicized relationships and marriages in the media were a sham. It’s a hard pill to swallow and it changes everything we once felt for Michael Jackson. I think I’ll still listen to his music from time to time but I’ll never think of him the same way ever again. The truth hurts but I’m glad to open my eyes and ears to it.

Michael Jackson was a great musician and a great philanthropist, but he was also a pedophile who hurt many people. He helped both men’s careers and financially benefited their families but left them with all with a lasting trauma that will never go away. I hope everyone watches this or at least tries to and comes to their own conclusions about what happened. I strongly believe and this issue is very important to me. These two men have opened up completely to us and we should listen to survivors.

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