Why the controversial Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland is an unavoidable cultural earthquake
(This article contains references to child sexual abuse and predatory behaviour. Reader discretion is advised.)
By Gaurav Jain
2019 might be the year we finally face up to the possibility that Michael Jackson was a serial pedophile. It's hard to read the previous sentence, but it's time we did.
A harrowing new four-hour, two-part documentary called Leaving Neverland premiered at the Sundance Film Festival a few days ago and immediately created worldwide controversy and cultural upheaval. It has been acclaimed for its careful and convincing narration of the accounts of two boys (now men) who say they were groomed and sexually abused by Jackson over many years, starting when they were only 7 and 10 years old.
Wade Robson won a MJ dance contest and, at age 5, was invited to perform on stage with Jackson at a concert. Child actor James Safechuck was cast in a Pepsi ad with MJ in 1986. Both boys (and their families) were groomed and brainwashed by Jackson and convinced to trust him, and let him sleep alone in the same bed with the small boys, after which the abuse started. Robson and Safechuck recount various sexual acts in the documentary. Jackson would ask Safechuck to ‘sell’ him sexual acts in exchange for jewelry, and even organised a mock wedding with the 10-year-old boy with vows and diamond ring. The film apparently left audience shellshocked and Sundance had healthcare professionals on hand to help those affected by the graphic descriptions. It is scheduled to show on HBO and Channel 4 this spring.
Now, sexual abuse allegations against Jackson have been around a while, but it's startling to realise that they've been around for more than 25 years. And instead of going away, they've persisted even after his death, including new ones just this week by author Michael Jacobshagen.
In 1993, allegations of sexual abuse by Jackson meant cancelation of several endorsement deals, including his celebrated decade-long Pepsi endorsement. That same year, his sister La Toya Jackson publicly claimed that Jackson was a pedophile. A number of Jackson's former employees told the media over the years about his sexual misconduct with underage boys. A decade later in 2003, he was charged with seven counts of child sexual abuse and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent to commit child sexual abuse against Gavin Arvizo, a boy with cancer in remission (this went to trial in 2005, which Jackson won). Another decade later in 2013, Robson filed a complaint against the Michael Jackson Estate for “childhood sexual abuse”. And in 2014, Safechuck filed charges against Jackson's estate alleging the star sexually abused him. And on it has gone.
In a 2003 documentary on the BBC, Living with Michael Jackson, Jackson actually blithely said that he had slept in a bed with many, many children, including actor Macaulay Culkin and his brother Kieran. “It's not sexual, we're going to sleep,” he claimed. “I tuck them in...It's very charming, it's very sweet.”
Maybe the flood of allegations and stories had exactly the opposite effect and made us numb to them. We stopped paying attention or engaging much, leaving the distasteful stories to the tabloids. Most people lost track of the details, and due to Jackson winning in court perhaps many may have assumed the charges must have been fabricated to extort money from the rich superstar.
In the film, Safechuck says that Jackson would train them to do “emergency drills” and dress as fast as possible in the event someone approached them during sex. Jackson would select certain inaccessible areas like an attic, lawn tents or a game room for these acts with his underage victims. And he would use a mix of coercion, flattery and threats about going to jail and, worse, to convince the kids never to reveal the truth to the outside world. Experts say Jackson’s pattern and methodology fit that of a typical and longtime pedophile. To its credit, the film itself apparently says very little about Jackson, focusing instead on the two victims and their families and how they are finally coming to terms with what happened.
In a recent interview the film's director Dan Reed said, "[The film is] part of this era where we’re suddenly having our eyes opened about all sorts of people to whom we looked up. Institutions that we thought would always be there to protect us are being challenged. It’s a time of reevaluation...I’m kind of astonished that this film hasn’t been made before."
Allegations of drugging and raping women had similarly swirled around Bill Cosby for years but never stuck, including in a 2004 trial, till stand-up comic Hannibal Buress made a joke about it in 2014. His joke went viral and prompted dozens of women to accuse Cosby of sexual assault, and finally made the public take the accusations against ‘America’s dad’ seriously and forced a private reckoning among his fans. (There was also much-deserved criticism that the culture didn’t take women accusers seriously till another man stood up to point a finger at Cosby.)
Musician R Kelly too was accused of various sexual misdemeanors for decades, from creating child pornography to running a sex cult with underage girls, but nothing seemed to stick. But then the #MuteRKelly campaign last year finally pierced through his defense, resulting in places like Spotify and Apple Music refusing to recommend his music anymore. And now this month has seen the release of a six-part documentary series called Surviving R Kelly detailing sexual abuse and misconduct allegations against him. (Incidentally, Kelly wrote and co-produced two songs for Michael Jackson, including his 1996 hit You Are Not Alone and Cry in 2001.)
Some stars’ fame seem like Teflon that can resist the craziest behavior and embolden the person even more. During his 2008 child porn trial, R Kelly apparently met a 15-year-old fan called Jerhonda Pace who he proceeded to seduce into his abusive cult—she has since alleged, among other horrific things, that he “slapped, choked and spit on her when he caught her texting a friend”. As activist Kenyette Tisha Barnes, the founder of #MuteRKelly, says, “We protect problematic black men in the black community, and we discard black girls in all communities.”
As in the cases of Cosby and Kelly, Leaving Neverland seems like an unavoidable cultural earthquake, a Damascene moment for Jackson’s fans when we realise that it's time we too came to terms with the musician’s deeds.
Reading accounts of Leaving Neverland has been like having heaps of acid thrown on fond childhood memories. Some parts of us are grateful for the truth, but some other parts of us are angry, some are feeling cheated, and some just sad. Many of us, like this writer, were of the age of the film’s two boys when we worshipped MJ. Like it or not, the value of what he means to us is changing, and will change more in the coming years.
Gaurav Jain is the co-founder of The Ladies Finger (TLF), India’s leading online women’s magazine.
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Updated Date: Jan 31, 2019 17:11:20 IST