In the documentary Leaving Neverland, detailing years of Michael Jackson’s alleged abuse of young men with firsthand accounts of the victims, we’re confronted with the question of “Do you care?”. For those who didn’t have the mental real estate to process whether or not the king of pop was a depraved monster, there was a narrative sold to be easily bought: Michael Jackson didn’t have a childhood so he’s making up for lost time by surrounding himself with children. In retrospect, the company line of reclaiming lost childhood hangs together as tightly as the 3rd act of a bad action movie; barely functional, don’t think about it too much, have fun.
I’m fortunate enough to have never experienced any major or minor form of sexual abuse. But as a kid I did experience the validation of an older man. Not nearly as significant an age gap as typical one between Jackson and his victims, much more a big brother than a benevolent uncle, but enough to create a potentially dangerous power dynamic. What I was struck by during Finding Neverland was, up to a certain point, the feelings Robson and Safechuck had for Michael were identical to mine for my guy.
When you’re a young and an older guy has sincere affection for you, the validation is THRILLING. It feels like you’ve become a whole person overnight, because a man saw you and thought you were special, and made you feel that way. There was no romantic or sexual curiosity in me for him, but he might’ve been the first man I loved. There was maybe even a time in which if he asked me to walk through fire for him I would’ve ran full stop. But he didn’t. The level of unchecked adoration I had for him meant he could’ve crushed me or lifted me. Thank God he chose the latter. The ghost of his friendship hangs over me to this day, a flawed but friendly specter.
Having the knowledge of this counter-script fills me with a different kind of sadness for maelstrom of trauma Jackson created. There’s an alternate timeline in which Jackson takes a predisposition for caring for young people and channels it through philanthropy, healthy mentorship, even good fatherhood. Imagine a world in which Jackson’s legacy is regarded in death as warmly as Mr. Rogers. It feels impossible, but it could’ve happened.
We’ll never know the internal alchemy that led to Jackson’s pedophilia. It’s likely the compass inside his heart was smashed in pieces by a childhood none of us would want, maybe even before then. I don’t doubt that there were parts of Jackson’s relationships with those young men that were marked by genuine love. But whatever was pure became, in every sense of the word, perverted. We shed so many tears for things that are evil but not enough for things that fall short of virtue.
There’s no shortage of archival footage and photos of Jackson with his victims in the documentary, a handful of which are returned to over and over again by director Dan Reed to punctuate the creeping horror of the world Jackson trapped the boys in. The easiest reaction would be to lament the collective ignorance of the families and the culture at large. But in that snapshot of a seven year old Wade Robson dressed as his hero, meeting him eye to eye, with true kindness exchanged, if that’s where the story would’ve ended and how far it went, how wonderful that would be. We should angrily mourn what happened, but maybe make space to mourn what didn’t happen. Because when I look at those photos all I can think is “this was almost good”