What Does it Mean to Grow (Up)

Reflections on Leaving Neverland

Still from ‘After Neverland’, sourced from Rolling Stone

“People may now look at me and see a grown-up, but you need to see we are mentally little kids who have just gotten older”, describes James Safechuck, towards the end of part 2 of HBO’s two-part, four-hour long documentary Leaving Neverland. His comments are in the context of living as an adult with the memories of sexual abuse that he alleges he had undergone as a child, at the hands of one of the biggest pop stars of the twentieth century, Michael Jackson. The documentary comprises interviews of him and Wade Robson, another such survivor, and those of their family members. After prolonged periods of abuse that both reveal they had been subjected to — performing and receiving sexual acts, being shown pornography — and after years of living in denial and even defence of their alleged abuser, both men decided to confide in their families, seek help, and speak out their trauma in public. But what does it mean to be trapped in one’s childhood, especially if it’s a soul-scarring nightmare, which people around make out to be a fairy tale? Stripped of its supposed innocence, what does childhood retain, and what promise does adulthood hold? What are the implications of indulging an adult’s childishness, and failing to perform the duties of a parent and guardian? Alongside its several other huge implications involving the particular individuals — reassessment of Jackson’s prodigious legacy, the future of his estate, the outcome of lawsuits both survivors are appealing — the documentary, through its exhaustive accounts, constructs a vitally detailed profile of child sexual abuse, fundamentally complicating connotations of childhood and adulthood, maturity and immaturity, responsibility and impunity, power and blind faith.

The child: As both men narrate their stories of abuse, they are evidently keen to emphasise the happiness that Jackson had brought into their lives, repeatedly separating the genuinely affectionate and the predatory sexual, in an attempt to salvage the innocence of their childhood from the darkness of its corruption. As Oprah Winfrey later explained in the hour-long interview After Neverland that she conducted with the two men and the film’s director Dan Reed before an audience of survivors and their family, the distinct nature of child sexual abuse lies in the specific form of manipulation that evades recognition of the act as abuse. The abuser obfuscates the undeveloped understanding that children have of concepts of pleasure, happiness, affection, and of course sex, and takes advantage of their inclination towards loving and trusting adults and seeking the approval of those they admire. As children, Robson and Safechuck seem to have so internalised the belief that the sexual touch is just another on the spectrum of expressing ‘love’, that they never thought of questioning it. Safechuck’s hand trembles as he touches the pieces of jewellery that Jackson had allegedly given him at their ‘mock wedding ceremony’ and enticed him with to perform sexual acts, showing the operation of the different layers of manipulation — emotional, sexual and economic. It is the ambiguity of consent which complicates the tragedy of child sexual abuse, for what may seem to the abused as participation in his own abuse, is uniformed consent at best, which is not consent at all. But that is the perspective only another adult can bring. As teenagers and then young adults, both feel dissociated from their childhood selves, resisting the realisation that their childhood had not been normal, even as they attain sexual maturity and become aware of allegations of sexual abuse made against Jackson by other boys. Their instinct is to come to his rescue, stand in his defence in court (after another round of grooming), which both do, deflecting all blame and shame away from him, and onto their own selves. They grapple with mixed emotions of memories of pleasure, and guilt and self-loathing at that recollection, which is symptomatic of such abuse, and continue to suffer from depression, much after the man is dead, and they themselves have found loving partners with whom they are building their own families.

Importantly, it is when both become fathers, that the full awareness of their childhood trauma hits them with full force, as their protective instinct towards their own vulnerable children kicks in. Robson lays down the paradox of the absolute clarity in his emotional response to the very thought of his child’s potential victimisation — pure rage — and the lack of the same towards his own childhood self. Safechuck echoes that it is by having one’s own children, that the memory of trauma is intensified; confronting the new, innocent version of oneself restores to the adult his repressed memories of a traumatic childhood. It is to process these conflicting emotions that Robson seeks psychiatric help, and at long last, confides in his family. His 2013 public allegation against Jackson, despite having twice before been his star defence, unwittingly extends solidarity to Safechuck, who too is now emboldened to face his own demons. Neither feels completely healed, nor do either of them forgive their parents, especially their mothers, for their failure in protecting them. For them, the journey from lack of awareness of abuse to its recognition, is to question the memories they once thought were happy, scratching open wounds they didn’t know existed. Both have built their careers on the dreams that Jackson had showed them and the opportunities he opened up for them, and to realise the hollowness of that foundation, has to be a profoundly unsettling transition to adulthood.

The parent: In this documentary, as well as the recent Abducted in Plain Sight, it is not just the child who is preyed upon, but the parents too who are just as, if not more, gullible. The children and the parents are both groomed separately by the alleged paedophile in bizarre ways beggaring belief, and the neglect and wilful blindness of the parents has been consistently come under scathing criticism in all three contexts since the release of the films. (In two cases, the mothers were willing to abandon their families/did leave their partners, under the spell of the abuser.) The adult parent seems to be as much in need of attention and being made to feel special, as the child whose protection is their responsibility. In both films, a similar modus operandi emerges — the charming abuser who detects the family’s weak points, wins their trust, woos first the parents, then the children, only to effectively isolate the latter from emotional affinities with the former. In Leaving Neverland, the mothers are further seduced with the power of fame and wealth, and a promise of a better future for their talented children — the disarming lure of material success that forms the ultimate middle-class ambition. That the parents are charmed so successfully and completely and against their best instincts of protecting their children, is further proof of how skilled such manipulators are, and conjunctly emphasises, the much deeper vulnerability of children at the hands of such practised (or as Winfrey says, ‘good’) manipulators. All of this also serves to underline that fears and insecurities, desires and dreams, don’t vanish with the passage into adulthood, that we are all, in a sense, bigger versions of our childhood selves. There is no magical bridge that takes one across from childhood to adulthood, equipping one with the emotional and psychological strength required to shoulder the many responsibilities of a grown-up. Joy Robson declares that though one day she may be able to forgive Jackson due to his ‘sickness’, she would never be able to forgive herself. The adult does not have the same excuse of blind faith as does the child, though both live through comparable guilt.

The child-adult: “All children, except one, grow up”: thus begins J M Barrie’s iconic Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. The idea of the eternal child has had considerable favourable purchase in western popular culture, and the affinities of adult male authors with children not their own, have spun into legends in their own right. Whether mired in controversy or not, these authors have been credited with having a special access to the thinking and reasoning of children, that have charmed children and adults alike. This is why when Michael Jackson fashioned himself as Peter Pan, the androgynous, pre-pubescent boy trapped within childhood, it was found more touching than disturbing. Especially in the light of the emerging youth-centric pop culture of the time, his physical repugnance at ageing that made him resort to multiple surgical procedures, were put down as the quirks of an eccentric, dubbed as the Peter Pan syndrome, rather than being seen in the disconcerting light of a Dorian Gray. He was the man who had never had ‘a real childhood’, who was gentle and softspoken, speaking in a child’s sweet voice, surrounding himself with his version of ‘the lost boys’. He was seen in the frequent company of young boys, holding hands, and freely admitting to having them for stayovers and sleeping in his bed. The alternative physical reality that he built for himself was fittingly named Neverland (his ranch), after the imaginary island from Peter Pan. It is here that he invited all kinds of children (the ill, the underprivileged, the talented) and inundated them with all the staples of childish pleasure — unlimited candy and popcorn, amusement park rides, home theatre, wild animals — the very realm of the fairies that children have been taught to fantasise about. Grotesquely, it is this fantasy world that is alleged as the location of abuse, much like the dark antecedents of the many sanitised happily-ever-after fairy tales that today find their way to the ears of children at bedtime. Robson’s graphic details of the precise and prolific locations of sexual activity and details of the abuse leave nothing to the imagination and the viewer feels as trapped inside the nightmare as the children, and the stunted mindscape of the alleged abuser. Ultimately, as the title suggests, it is not about finding Neverland, which is also the name of the popular film based on the story of Barrie’s inspiration for his books (the Llewlyn Davies boys) but, about leaving it, which is by no means a physical event alone. In After Neverland, Safechuck speaks of the shadow that still haunts him, the guilt that he continues to feel over ‘hurting’ Jackson and letting him down somehow, even as he recognises that it is his faith that has been abused. Both survivors and their mothers narrate how the alleged abuser impressed upon them his own loneliness and his desperate need for their ‘friendship’, thus invoking their pity and protectiveness; the abuser lays out his vulnerability to win trust . This posing as a child was so immaculate, that any evidence to the contrary was summarily dismissed — for how can a child himself in need of nurture, be culpable for such thorough exploitation?

The spectating public: Hannah Gadsby forcefully argues against the pedestalisation of Picasso and other powerful abusive men in her stupendous Netflix special Nanette: “We don’t give a shit… about women or children. We only care about a man’s reputation. What about his humanity? These men control our stories! And yet they have a diminishing connection to their own humanity, and we don’t seem to mind so long as they get to hold on to their precious reputation.” Indeed, it is by propagating the mythology of the tortured genius, and by insisting on separating the art and the artist, that the community is complicit in enshrouding such violence in silence, emboldening further predators. The impunity with which Jackson was exonerated in the public eye much before the court verdict in the high-profile 2003 trial, or the serial and escalating abuse allegedly perpetrated by musician R Kelly despite the many women who accused him of it, and the belittling disbelief and harassment of survivors who have chosen to speak out, gestures towards a lack of maturity at another level — the societal. Icons of Jackson’s or Kelly’s stature are by no means individual entities alone, and are sustained by a whole machinery of a fiercely protective and defensive multitude in direct employment or indirect influence, working in cahoots to smoothen the way for such regular abuse and help hush it up. The abuser, surrounded by yes-men only too eagerly at his beck and call, rapidly loses moral perspective and all restraint. And then there are the fans who have emotionally invested in him and his art to the extent that they are primed to magnify all his achievements and thus prize his reputation, and diminish the accuser’s credibility and thus instinctively disbelieve them . It is important to understand that the parents of the survivors who were oblivious to the ongoing victimisation of their children emerged from the same fanatic fandom that holds up different standards for ‘successful people’ who are in the public eye and thus enable his invincibility. It is through the public’s participation in a toxic celebrity culture, that a ‘brand’ with such an aura emerges, and it is with their connivance that it successfully maintains the charade of its childlike, peace-loving, humanitarian image, despite the visible faultlines in it. A cognitive bias towards the cult of the individual has steadily grown in the popular sphere across pop culture, politics, sports, etc., such that we increasingly evaluate public figures in terms of polarised binaries, and not as complex individuals who can be both abused and abuser, champion of world peace and paedophile, immensely talented, but morally reprehensible. As Robson puts it, “He was one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, caring people I knew… and he also sexually abused me. ” In Surviving R Kelly, a six-part documentary series, this cultivation of a public image to hide in plain sight, is even more apparent, and a similar pattern emerges: R Kelly strategically recording transcendental, spiritually uplifting songs to cloak and distract from his private deviance. In this case too, the alleged abuser flaunts his predilections by declaring himself as ‘the Pied Piper of R&B’. But again, no one is willing to recognise the pattern.

With the MeToo movement gaining momentum over the last two years, it is survivors who are helping build a safe and conducive environment to support and encourage other survivors to come forward. The attention the afore-mentioned documentaries are receiving is no coincidence, and also worth noting is the contemporary trend in American and British television culture, of crime and detective shows where the victims are overwhelmingly children — as those abducted, abused, murdered, or missing for years at end. (The Missing, True Detective, Broadchurch, Stranger Things…) Such narratives suggest a growing preoccupation with the safety of children in a world of adults, and have paved the way for reception of real-life accounts of violence directed at children; except in this case the stories aren’t as neat, and the mysteries are different in nature. And there is noone appointed to ensure justice, entrusted with the responsibility of putting the world back in order. We should expect many more such stories to emerge in coming times and once we hear them, some of the responsibility of it in a way passes on to us; the knowledge of it may bring with it a certain fall, but also leads one towards certain maturity. As survivors summon the courage to question their own dearly-held truths, we must learn to question our own, and not react with knee-jerk disbelief and condemnation at such revelations. (The documentary has predictably received backlash and the survivors have been issued death threats by Jackson’s fans; it’s as if their nightmares of being penalised for their own abuse on speaking out, is turning out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy). We must fight against our strongest biases, learn to question our deepest beliefs and ask the right questions, and from the right people, especially if they happen to be in positions of disproportionate power. (After all, the Roman Catholic Church is giving serious attention to the epidemic of clerical sexual abuse, supposedly its biggest crisis since the Reformation.) To be prepared to do so, even if that means deep disillusionment, or the disintegration of whatever edifices we imagine to be holding up the worlds we inhabit, is growing up.