When I turned 11, I used my birthday money to buy a portable CD player. A Walkman or off-brand equivalent was a common purchase for young people back in 2002, but buying mine felt extra special. Having my own CD player meant that I finally had access to my dad’s music collection, which lived in a black tower in our living room and was packed with hundreds of jewel-cased albums.
The first album I snatched from the shelves for private listening was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I pressed play and his music felt like electricity.
At the time I didn’t know I was listening to the best-selling album of all time, only that the music was the good kind of good. I moved quickly onto Bad, hopped forward to the then-recently released Invincible, and fully incorporated Jackson into my sonic world. My 8th grade book report on S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders included a performance of “Beat It.” I learned the “Thriller” dance with my mom for Halloween. And I endlessly parsed the harmonies of “Smooth Criminal” in music theory.
As I grew to love Jackson’s music, his reputation was degrading. In 2005, when I was 14 years old, Jackson’s second court case for child sexual abuse dominated newscasts and tabloid headlines. The case was both interesting and confusing. Forming an opinion on Jackson while I still loved his music felt like more than was expected of teenage me, but the dialogue around him felt moral, not musical.
I tried, likely quite briefly, to understand the nature of his crime, but the vocabulary for that kind of pain was beyond me. When Jackson was acquitted amongst doubt from his detractors, something split inside my mind; forever after the case, I maintained a double consciousness about him. I lived in a world where he both did and did not do what he was accused of, a kind of Schrödinger’s abuser who could be loved and suspected simultaneously.
I lived in a world where he both did and did not do what he was accused of, a kind of Schrödinger’s abuser who could be loved and suspected simultaneously.
To me, in my youth, Jackson was a strange man who did strange things, whose own upbringing perhaps warped his understanding of boundaries and consequences. He caused pain but did not mean it, and perhaps never did so at all.
Leaving Neverland destroyed the comfort of that mental framework, which I now recognize as cowardly and childish.
After watching Wade Robson and James Safechuck describe the details of their alleged sexual abuse at Jackson’s hands, I’ve found it impossible to entertain any duality about his character, for there was none in his actions. Jackson’s behavior, as described in Leaving Neverland, is not that of a loopy eccentric who took back his stolen childhood by surrounding himself with children. It is the behavior of a calculated serial abuser who was one hundred percent aware of the wrongness of his abuse.
There are many moments in the HBO documentary that made me shake with horror, both for the abused men and for my own fractured complicity in supporting the accused abuser. Robson’s description of feeling Jackson’s adult penis in his seven-year-old mouth is an overwhelming detail I cannot erase from my mind. So is the sight of Safechuck’s diamond ring from his heinous “wedding” with Jackson, so small he can only balance it now on the tip of his adult finger.
Through it all, there is the realization that Jackson not only abused these boys, but created around himself a system that ferried more children into his bed. Jackson calculated his personal image to appeal to little kids, turned his victims against their parents, practiced drills wherein the a young boy could quickly dress in case his rape was interrupted, and instructed a victim to destroy evidence of his anal rape.
It goes without saying that I believe Robson and Safechuck. I also believe all of Jackson’s previous accusers who came forward in court and had their truths cruelly invalidated. I will believe those who come forward with their stories, and I will believe hypothetical others, even if they remain silent.
It’s stupid to believe at this point that anyone would lie about what Robson and Safechuck have revealed. There is little to be gained materially from their appearances in Leaving Neverland, and the lifelong effects of sexual abuse explain much of why these two men spent so many decades defending the man who stole so much from them. Looking into their eyes as they recount their abuse and seeing how even now they cope with what happened to them, it’s impossible not to see the children they were and the violations they suffered.
Everything about Michael Jackson’s life served his apparent habit of abuse. His pop kingdom was built on the backs of traumatized babies. I can’t feel like a good person and see any nuance in that.
Anyone can take anything they want from Leaving Neverland. Anyone can watch it, or not watch it, believe it or not, protest it or not. But my perspective is that of someone whose ideals of celebrity and conscience have been shaken by its existence.
I can’t take back the thrill of being younger, innocent, and enamored with the music of Michael Jackson, but I can as an adult recognize that he removed the youth, innocence, and love of life from his victims. It shouldn’t have taken until Leaving Neverland to dethrone the King of Pop, but its horrific, honest detail of Jackson’s crimes absolutely changed my own allegiance.