An Open Letter to Wade Robson and James Safechuck on Child Sexual Abuse and Forgiveness
Trigger warning: this open letter discusses explicit sexual abuse of children. Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist or therapist. My background is in trauma-informed yoga and advocacy research.
Dear Wade and James,
After watching Leaving Neverland and your interview with Oprah, I wanted to offer some science behind childhood sexual abuse, and possibly lay some more groundwork that could contribute to your healing.
No doubt your mothers have withstood a public lashing for their lack of action over the course of years, but this might supply some context.
Grooming, as Dan Reed mentioned, is a critical piece of predation, but there is something that happens beforehand: selection. It’s so clear to me in watching your stories that even at a very young age, both of you always had artist hearts. As a starmaker, Jackson gravitated toward your sensitivity and creative spirit as well as your beauty. He also targeted you because you both had loving-but-naive mothers who were easily enrolled in his world.
What Jackson did with the gifts and the faxes is referred to in psychology circles as “love bombing.” It’s not simply expressing joy and affection for the person, it’s really about leveraging all of their charisma and bombarding the person with a sense of unique specialness. The love-bombed brain is a brain high on euphoric oxytocin, a brain in a state of more or less constant arousal. It’s like a drug and the dealer is the predator.
It’s a technique that works very effectively on adults, and just like a drug, it has the quality of diminishing the other loving relationships around the victim. However, as was the case with both of you, the predator applies these techniques to not just the target, but the target’s whole family, and so your mothers were love-bombed by Jackson too.
This is the reason that cult leaders and conmen are able to sway people so easily.
Along with selection and grooming comes normalizing. Once the love bomb spell is cast, the predator can now stretch the bounds of what we consider to be normal. When the public asks, “How could these parents let their children sleep in the bed with him?” I’d like to remind said public that we watched Michael select his victims publically, bringing young boys into the fold, dressing them in his clothes, doing the photoshoots, and being unusually affectionate.
None of us thought this behavior was normal for a full grown man, and yet it was Michael, he was “robbed of his own childhood,” and he’s the king of pop who wouldn’t hurt a fly. As you of both stated, normalizing started with the public making a huge exception for this man’s this behavior.
Oprah was quick to point out that the public tends to equate “abuse” with “violence,” and she’s right, it is anything but. Love bombing is reinforced physically by sexually arousing the child (often for the first time) and it’s clear that Jackson took great care not to injure any of his victims. There are no marks except the mark on the brain and the heart. The child’s amorous response to the perpetrator is interpreted as a signal that the child is safe and happy.
It might help too to understand what is going on developmentally in the seven-year-old brain, Wade’s age at the time the abuse started. This is a time when emotions and relationships start to play a much bigger role, especially for boys. It’s also a time when right and wrong really start to solidify, and it’s the perfect time to imprint a kid with the us-vs.-them narrative, as Jackson did. The threat of having this all-encompassing love taken away is a threat that the developing brain records and experiences as true terror.
Setting aside the horror of the physical acts, it’s this deep interplay between the predator and the child’s nervous system that really set the stage for lifelong mental health consequences. When Wade came forward and James had a panic attack, that is entirely consistent with the way an abused brain and nervous system reacts. It’s the reason that Jackson could still “activate” Wade at the age of 22.
The other side of love bombing is what I like to call “the void.” Jackson withdrew his love from you strategically. No explanation, and again the very public display of being tossed aside for a new target. This has the effect of bonding the child to the predator that much more because the absence of the predator activates the panic so carefully installed during the grooming and training process.
I want to say this carefully because worded wrong, it can imply that I am justifying the horror, and I’m absolutely not: there is a good deal of research that suggests childhood sexual abuse is a cycle. There are interviews with Jackson describing how his father, Joe, would strip the Jackson boys naked, oil them down almost like a ritual, and beat them with belts or iron cords when they got dance steps wrong. Joe doesn’t deny this, he just downplays it and attributes it to his own upbringing.
Michael was an easy target for Joe’s rage: he was the youngest, the most talented, delicately beautiful, and gay.
There is no cut-and-dry link indicating that victims will become perpetrators, but perpetrators were often victims themselves. One thing is very clear; child abuse warps that child’s sense of love itself. When we are systematically made powerless by violence, the psyche seeks ways to restore its sense of control. Arousal gets all mixed up in that, and for someone like Jackson who suddenly had a great deal of control and power at a very young age, acquiring the tools of manipulation was relatively easy too.
So in the same way that both of you jumped to defend Michael, the Jacksons jump to defend Michael, and by proxy, Joe. The Jackson patriarch likely used this same lovebomb/withdrawal technique on all of his family and is still exerting that control.
It’s probably not a stretch to say that the excessive plastic surgery, the physical pain resulting from such athletically strenuous work, and of course the drugs, all contributed to Michael’s death at 50. But I believe you when you say he was a wonderful human being in so many respects, and in my mind, his body gave out after living with a brain and heart warped by intergenerational abuse. That self hate that James talked about is baked into abuse, and it’s a killer.
Something I learned from a friend in AA: forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean a face-to-face reckoning with your perpetrator; it can be an unhooking of your emotional and spiritual self from that person. I love the way you described it, James, “forgiveness is a road.”
In the interests of healing all this anguish, and according to everything I’ve studied on the topic, I’d add that both of you that you have done the single best thing you could do to stop the cycle. You faced that implanted darkness head-on by telling your stories with such eloquence. You came to recognize that this was not your fault and you both refused to let it kill you like it has so many other victims who simply self-destruct.
Your sons will one day know how brave you are.
Sincerely, and with immense gratitude,