My Response to ‘Leaving Neverland’
Truth is a real thing. And it’s a simple thing. It emanates beyond the words and images that are used to deliver it. This phenomenon in a creative work is what distinguishes it as art, rather than craft or a mindless regurgitation of ideology.
But despite its reality, and its simplicity, truth is also a fearful thing. In itself, it is beautiful, but what it uncovers is not. In fact, what it uncovers can be so awful that it jeopardizes truth. I felt the truth coursing through Leaving Neverland, which made it well worth the unnerving watch. Because truth is invisible, yet tangible, I don’t know a good metaphor— a refreshing breeze or a cool blast of rain? But it’s more like light than anything else. Lies, on the other hand, are visible, but intangible: crafty and cunning shadows that dance in the forms of persuasion, comprising an infrastructure that grows more elaborate as it decays. But, if you try to grasp it, you find nothing there. The structure of lies decays because truth is the actual, if hidden, foundation of all that is, and truth moves, pulsates, thrashes against the fixed wall of lies, testing denial’s durability with a force that threatens to topple the phony structure all at once. This is the inner conflict at work in the documentary’s victims when they describe the experience of self-loathing and depression for no reasons they could consciously discern. Were lies to win out, they would go on with their lives having denied their souls for whatever material advantages they gained under Michael Jackson’s influence, a little like Martin Landau’s character, Judah, at the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors (a telling example, for reasons I won’t unpack in this short essay). Though Judah is the abuser and not the abused, he never pays, because he never honors the truth, and there are no consequences to this whatsoever. This is the fairy tale aspect of Crimes, which is intended to present the world through an existential lens, to show the unsavory and inherent brutality of existence. Regardless of whether there is divine justice that enacts an external punishment, what I find wholly fantastic is the final expungement of any inner suffering within Judah. He is free, because his lie beat the truth within his psyche. I just don’t think this is possible. Somewhere in the deepest, darkest depths, truth stirs.
I admire this documentary’s subjects, the two victims and their families, for exposing and navigating all the ugliness that lies are designed to hide. They are no longer dazzled by the amusement park of Hollywood super-stardom. They have begun a new narrative, a new story, a new life path. The force of this newness, propelled by commitment to truth, is what allows the victims to retread the unthinkable, that abandoned carnival of the repressed. Now that they have exposed it by simply willing to revisit it, they see it for the phantom that it is.
Backlash against truth (and there is a lot of it in the conversation surrounding this film) is a desperate scramble to keep ugliness buried. It’s a natural response, considering the repercussions. Unearthing and acknowledging ugliness destroys the structures on which false selves are constructed, and the prospect of destruction, as we know, is terrifying. As one of the victims in the documentary says, he didn’t know whether sharing the truth with his wife would be the right thing to do or not, only that it would mean “no going back.” This is the sensation that precedes the crucial leap into the unknown, the last moments before the metaphorical death that alone engenders the healing process. Even if the trauma is too vast to fully overcome in this lifetime, it’s ultimately worth the risk. To paraphrase the other victim, the hateful reactions to his sharing of truth hurt, of course, but the painful backlash feels a whole hell of a lot better than a life built out of lies. This documentary is about “leaving” such a life, about that brave and perilous step that finally instigates the death of a false self and its narrative. The false self spends its life begging to die, through supplications that manifest as anxiety, depression, self-imposed isolation, and an overall shrinking from life.
This documentary is about two men who follow truth, reclaiming lives out of which they had been swindled by promises of wealth and fame (and this was the fault of their respective parents, though the parents take full responsibility and, in doing, honor the truth without hesitation). To conclude my thoughts on this film, I return to the simplicity of truth. It’s so simple, but so difficult, to make this transformation. I fumble with my own attempts to heal, every day, and I often get lost in storms of emotion. As this documentary has shown, however, it is easier to see the right thing to do in the stories of others than in our own lives. Using the faculty of empathy, we can finally understand the roots of our own afflictions. To recall the wisdom from an episode of Douglas Rushkoff’s podcast, humans comprise one giant and gyrating organism, instead of separate individuals that adhere exclusively to the Darwinian notion of “survival of the fittest.” With this perceptual shift to we, from the deceptions of I, it makes sense (indeed, is ludicrous to do anything otherwise than) to tend to the sick parts of the organism. It’s not an act of self-sacrifice, just an expression of the selflessness that we always-already are. Empathy is our most powerful tool in matters of emotional sickness, when to feel the pain of others is to feel our own pain. This realization neutralizes the conflict between self and other in this equation, eradicating the need for any moral justification as we tumble in the sudden tautology of we = us. Futile to do anything other than heal ourselves — our-self. But how can we send empathy to our ailing areas if we don’t know where and how we are ill? This is why we need stories to alert us. We have a real responsibility to keep creating; keep telling stories; keep shooting films; keep painting paintings. I’m thankful to this documentary for the reminder.