I have been a writer for most of my adult life. I’ve covered a cross-section of day-to-day entertainment; which can mean deep dives into music history, fervent dissection of socio-political issues — all in the name of what is most vaguely referred to as “pop culture commentary.”
But I am not a journalist.
To be clear, I’ve never pretended to be. But it’s never been more strikingly obvious as it has been for me over the past two weeks. I never would have guessed that it would be a documentary like Leaving Neverland that would make me face the idea that I’d become a hack.
Despite my desire to offer a tempered-but-clear-eyed review of a documentary I found to be emotionally-charged but journalistically lacking, my initial take on Leaving Neverland was presented in a way that suggested I believed the film to be a damning final nail for the horrific allegations that have dogged Michael Jackson for the better part of 25 years. While harrowing to watch, I did not feel that this project was that — not after watching a screener in the week before it aired; nor do I now; having watched the Oprah special that followed its premiere on HBO and read commentary on …Neverland in the days since. I believe that the general public is conflating graphic testimony with detailed exposition; but most importantly, I am alarmed that commentators and journalists have been just as egregiously under-thought.
The intense reactions to that documentary — which details allegations from James Safechuck and Wade Robson that they were molested by Michael Jackson — have left me confused and frustrated. Entertainment writers and commentators have offered steadfast belief in what this documentary alleges along with scathing indictments of Jackson and his fans. There are so many declarations, from pundits to longtime Jackson defender Corey Feldman, that they can no longer support Jackson in the wake of this particular documentary. To be clear, I have no vested interest in exonerating Michael Jackson and am not writing this in an attempt to save anyone’s legacy or to defend indefensible behavior. I believe my track record shows that I have been consistent in addressing the heinousness that sits alongside the talents of our most celebrated music legends from Chuck Berry to John Lennon to Dr. Dre. I have no qualms about doing the same with Michael Jackson.
I read Dustin Siebert’s take on the documentary and realized he’d written more blatantly what I’d only alluded to. “But after enduring the slow, patience-testing four hours that is Leaving Neverland,” he wrote. “I feel no rage. I’m disturbed, but I’m also left with way more questions than the documentary answered.” But I found myself surprised that seemingly so few had any misgivings or questions about what they’d just watched.
Because I certainly did.
When I wrote about Leaving Neverland, I was convinced of only one thing: that we as a culture had to face the ridiculousness of our celebrity worship. We couldn’t go back to that willfully ignorant place we’d enjoyed bittersweetly since Michael Jackson’s 2009 death; once he died, the world collectively went into mourning, ignoring the fact that so many people had become disillusioned with him over the better part of 15 years. Since the initial 1993 allegations, superfans have devoted themselves to elevating Jackson-as-martyr — something he encouraged. We conveniently downplayed how inappropriate and strange his behavior with children had been to so many observers for so many years. I believe that we still have to face how we pretended it was normal when it was always wrong and possibly damaging. As I wrote:
“There was never a time when the biggest star in the world jet-setting with what seemed like an endless line of young ‘traveling companions’ should have been endorsed or normalized. There was never a time when him admitting he slept in beds with them should have been defended. As so many fans rage against what they feel is defamation, there is a sad obliviousness to how so many allow their adoration to make them cheerleaders for behavior that would be the most crimson of red flags were it not for their fandom.”
However, I was not convinced that this particular documentary was sufficient to be the final word on Michael Jackson and molestation. Leaving Neverland feels cloying and sensationalist, relying heavily on graphic anecdotes from Robson and Safechuck and the emotional toll related by their mothers and families. It’s affecting — but again, it’s insufficient. Director Dan Reed has stated that he took that approach because he wanted this project to be about abuse and the survivors of abuse; but that rings disingenuous when you consider this documentary was purchased because it’s about Michael Jackson and the conversations that were going to be had once it aired were going to be about Michael Jackson. Reed has asserted that there is no “journalistic value” in interviewing other Jackson family members or Jackson associates because they wouldn’t be able to speak to the details that Safechuck and Robson have presented — and that’s a very valid explanation, on its face. But there would be significant journalistic value in talking to former Jackson employees or people who knew Safechuck and Robson at the time. Who else could corroborate, for instance, driving Jackson and Safechuck to a jewelry shop to purchase wedding rings (one of the film’s most disturbing moments is Safechuck describing a mock wedding to the star); or former girlfriends who could describe emotional or sexual problems the boys may have shown as adolescents/young adults? Was there no attempt to talk to anyone?
Reed also dismisses the idea of interviewing anyone who had a “vested interest in smearing these two young men and discrediting them.” But that ignores all of the pertinent commentary that could’ve come from a host of individuals with no such investment.
In contrast to the Bryan Singer allegations detailed by The Atlantic back in January (allegations that barely dented Bohemian Rhapsody’s Oscar push and didn’t lead to any Oprah sit-down with the director’s alleged victims), or the just-as-explosive Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly — this project, as many have pointed out, comes across as far less journalistic and thorough. There was no expertise of any kind presented in the four-hour …Neverland doc; no detectives, investigative reporters, child psychology experts, etc. appear in it. There are no professional or tangential associates of Jackson, no outside observers of anything over the periods of time in question. Everyone interviewed is either Robson and Safechuck or someone reacting to what they’ve been told by Robson and Safechuck. Oprah’s post-broadcast conversation with the two seemed to try and address this by including an abuse expert and abuse victims such as actor Anthony Edwards; but it was mostly soft questions in front of a sympathetic audience — and a lot of very general commentary about abuse that, while acknowledging the extraordinary specificity of this story of abuse victims, rarely faced how such extraordinary specificity may render any general comparisons inapplicable. The audience was filled with abuse survivors who no doubt empathized because they had suffered at the hands of abusers. And it was made very clear to anyone who didn’t already realize, a person can and will disassociate from that abuse, especially if it came from a person they loved, admired and/or respected. But considering the specifics of being abused by Michael Jackson, how does said abused person — particularly someone abused as a child — repress that and/or disassociate from that? Does it look the same? In the case of …Neverland, truths about disassociation and abuse are being applied even when the abuser is the most famous man in the world — who would subsequently become the most famous accused child molester in the world. Varying degrees of disassociation have been the standard explanation for why Wade Robson, in particular, suddenly changed his story on Michael Jackson after defending him for two decades. We often bury the most awful childhood experiences. Would that be harder with all the media coverage for the better part of 15 years? It’s as if we’re just to assume the likelihood that a person — actually, two people — can repress something that they’re being bombarded with constantly across popular culture. It feels like that kind of specified question hasn’t been answered or even asked.
According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies:
“At the time of a traumatic event, the mind makes many associations with the feelings, sights, sounds, smells, taste and touch connected with the trauma. Later, similar sensations may trigger a memory of the event. While some people first remember past traumatic events during therapy, most people begin having traumatic memories outside therapy. A variety of experiences can trigger the recall. Reading stories about other people's trauma, watching television programs that depict traumatic events similar to the viewer's past experience, experiencing a disturbing event in the present, or sitting down with family and reminiscing about a terrible shared episode - for some people, these kinds of experiences can open the floodgates of frightful and horrible memories.”
It would seem, then, that as common as disassociation is, it’s just as common that outside stimuli should/would trigger an abuse survivor. When both Robson and Safechuck indicate that they only regained awareness/full acceptance of their childhood traumas around 2013, I found myself wondering how such repression could withstand being bombarded with constant outside stimuli — i.e. two media-heavy legal battles; constant reminders of Jackson and abuse in virtually every facet of said media; in the case of Robson, being in virtually the same field as your abuser and working with professionals (Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, etc.), whose very careers evoke your abuser. It would seem that all of those things would likely be triggers for past trauma. But they weren’t for these men. I kept waiting for something to explain this in a more specific way than “it doesn’t always look how you think.” I am still waiting.
The “After Neverland” special featured Oprah Winfrey asking Safechuck and Robson what many deemed were tough questions — and they were fairly probing. That the two men’s answers were so gray-hued and lacking is what gave me pause about this particular addendum to HBO’s Neverland saga. She asked Robson why he would want to produce a Michael Jackson tribute show in 2011 (Wade sent emails to Cirque du Soliel CCO, Jean-François Bouchard, seeking to participate in Michael Jackson: One), to which Wade responded that he was still blinded by his forever-benevolent view of Jackson (“I only saw him as love,” he asserts.) But I was hoping there would be a follow-up question addressing the awkward timing of his initial lawsuit and his molestation reveal; both of which happened shortly after this denied production job with the show. That lawsuit was filed in May 2013, one month before the world premiere of Michael Jackson: One at Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas. This is as pertinent to the proceedings as why Robson would want to participate in the first place — as it addresses what could be interpreted as questionable motivations for filing that 2013 suit against the Jackson estate. If he only filed a lawsuit to force the singer’s companies to listen — as he stated in “After Neverland” — what does he expect now that the lawsuit is pending appeal? The whole world is listening to him now.
Also in “After Neverland,” Robson continually refers to his training at the hands of Michael Jackson when Oprah attempts to understand how he felt about lying on behalf of Jackson. It’s an uncomfortable fact of this story that Robson, in particular, is culpable in committing perjury to help an abuser evade justice. While both Robson and Safechuck defended Jackson in 1993 when they were 11 and 15, respectively; only Robson took the witness stand in Jackson’s defense as an adult. He seems intent on ascribing this solely to his abuser’s psychological hold on him: (“As a soldier, I couldn’t think of anybody else…”); but I admit that I have trouble making such grand allowances for an adult who was complicit in a predator’s acquittal, victimization or no. Victims can hurt other victims, and Wade Robson most certainly has, by his own admission, with his actions. I can only see how it would behoove one involved person to easily dismiss that. When he declares it “beyond his control,” I find that to be wholly irresponsible, but an understandable disavowal considering what else it can call into question in terms of his character.
There were inconsistencies in some of the men’s answers to Winfrey that neutered some of her probing questions in a way that it would have been uncomfortable to address in “After Neverland”s setting. In one of the documentary’s most quietly fraught sequences, Safechuck describes Jackson calling his mother in the wake of the 2005 trial, seeking to get James to testify on his behalf. Safechuck explains that he told his mother Jackson was an evil man — and his mother vividly recalled how her son wept and begged her “Please don’t tell anyone.” During “After Neverland,” when Oprah asks Safechuck “When did you realize it was abuse?,” he explains that it was only after he saw Robson come out with his story that he realized the horror of what he’d endured. Safechuck is clear that his reason for not testifying in that case wasn’t due to him understanding he’d been abused. “I didn’t think of it as good or bad. It was that old wiring of sort of — if you’re caught, your life will be over,” Safechuck explained, reiterating that he only declined to testify out of self-preservation. “To be thrown into that would be too much to handle.” But that seems to contradict the timeline of 2005 events he and his mother described in the doc, when he states that “I told my mom then, that…he wasn’t a good person.” His mother adds that James told her “Michael’s an evil man.” It’s a confusing bit that warrants some clarity. What could’ve made Michael “evil” in 2005 were it not the abuse you’d endured? If you were revealing this trauma to your mother then, how does that connect to you not realizing what you’d experienced until 8 years later? It’s a question that gnawed at me. And it appears that none of the principles involved with Leaving Neverland have offered anything to answer such questions. These questions lingered long after I watched this documentary days prior to its broadcast.
In the aftermath of Leaving Neverland, I was surprised to see that so many others had no such questions — that this documentary was enough to convince them that we’d finally gotten the truth about Michael Jackson. A documentary that arrives on the heels of two men changing their stories, one superstar dead in the ground, and lawsuit appeals pending. We’re asked to believe everything, even with no clarification or corroboration in what’s being presented. I was shocked that this was all anyone needed. So many people seemed to retreat to the most naïve parts of their reasoning, while wielding sanctimony like a blazing sword — tearing into anyone who dared not jump to co-sign this project’s claims as a morally-defunct celebrity worshipper. Social media is often as politically performative as Capitol Hill and as reactively bloodthirsty as Game of Thrones.
For all of my experience as “a cultural commentator,” I am not much of a journalist. I have never felt comfortable calling myself one. Journalists are relentless fact-finders who probe and prod; journalists aren’t afraid of seeking an uncomfortable truth. In the age of contemporary pop culture commentary, there are so many incentives to pander — not the least of which is the immediacy with which the general public can heap scorn upon what you write. For many years, I believed that my commentary was me speaking truth to power; in actuality, I’d long been preaching to the choir for easy “amens.” I am not a journalist, but I’d never considered myself a coward. At least not before last week. There is a lot of loud silence in the wake of Leaving Neverland, and I myself likely would not have written this had I not written something so spineless as my initial take. It may sound like an over-inflated sense of self-importance, but I lost sleep wrestling with the idea that my words helped fan the flames of internet hysteria.
I am not ruminating on Michael Jackson’s guilt, but I am stating definitively that this particular project does not come close to confirming anything. Forget your preoccupation with a star’s legacy. Forget ideas about conspiracies designed to attack beloved Black figures. Such chatter has only become a din of misinformation and hyperbole; someone needs to be more thoughtful than that. Instead of making pronouncements, someone just needs to ask better questions. That’s what journalists do.
I am not a journalist, but if all I am good for, as a writer, is churning out Woke Nigga™ rhetoric for white liberal consumption, then I have failed in every way that matters. Mastering the jargon and slogans was never my goal; they sit in service to larger ideas that will sometimes be messy and complicated in application. Many have consistently stated over the past few days that victimhood doesn’t always look the way you’d expect it to; well, standing up for victims won’t always look the way you expect it to, either. If you are of the mind that “regardless of whether these guys are right — I know he did something,” then I need for you, as Reed himself has intimated, to de-center Michael Jackson. Your need for cultural closure on a 25-year scandal may be blinding you to the fact that this particular saga isn’t going to end with a pedophile in handcuffs. Michael Jackson is dead and his legacy has already been tarnished. No — this story is going to most likely end with a lawsuit settlement that will no doubt look like a victory — now that the men who filed said lawsuit have the visibility and push of public opinion behind them. I don’t know how anyone’s idea of justice can include persons possibly exploiting abuse survivors and an entire movement to support victims, then getting a huge payday for it. That’s why questions can’t be shuttered for the sake of pseudo-empathy. Fighting for the oppressed should never require weaponized naiveté. I don’t know when that has ever helped anyone.
Some will read this and be greatly disappointed in me for writing it. That’s unfortunate and I hate that we’ve come to this as our “all or nothing” reality. But I don’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded room — and I don’t feel guilty about asking questions when I’ve already been lied to.
Thank you for reading.