'Leaving Neverland' Proves Monsters Rarely Create Themselves: Guest Essay

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Michael Jackson circa 1986.

Leaving Neverland was for me a grueling and stomach-churning watch. Over the course of the four hour-long HBO documentary, Wade Robson and James Safechuck reveal astonishing details of Michael Jackson’s alleged abuse, ranging from shared nudity to oral sex beginning when the boys were 7. One sits and watches these two men tell their stories as images of them as children appear onscreen. The only proper reaction is rage. But the rage is not one-dimensional.

As I sat and watched the film, I found myself contending with what it meant for me to stay up, at the age of 9, to watch MTV -- a network whose existence Jackson arguably justified, and which was at the time just coming into its own -- waiting night after night for the extended cut of the “Thriller” music video. I thought about what it meant to tune into network TV as a teenager, watching as Jackson’s undeniable star power demanded that we all watch him dance around Eddie Murphy dressed in Pharaoh garb for his “Remember the Time” video. And I thought of just a year ago finding myself watching a YouTube clip of Jackson’s historic performance of “Billie Jean” for the Motown 25th anniversary televised special. I grew up with this man, like millions of others.

But as I watched Leaving Neverland, I instead saw Michael Jackson as a monster. The filmmakers don’t say it. The two accusers -- Robson and Safechuck -- remarkably refrain from using that epithet, as do their parents. But that is the right word for a man who, according to the allegations in the film, systematically preyed on society’s most vulnerable and innocent members. I also realized that monsters rarely create themselves.

My rage, as I watched the film, was not only directed at Jackson’s alleged acts. I was stunned by just how publicly Jackson appeared to live his life with these boys. The documentary includes copious footage of Jackson hopping out of one limousine after another with a little boy in tow; popping his head out of hotel windows with a little boy by his side; attending events with a little boy at his hip. I found it impossible to believe that the public, millions of adults, actively paid no attention to something as alarming as a reclusive superstar who hung out so consistently with almost no one but little boys.

And then there are the parents. Neverland is a one-sided documentary aimed at posthumously indicting Jackson rather than at genuinely revealing the circumstances that allowed Jackson to operate. But it makes space to focus the light of accusation on two mothers who effectively gave Jackson their children in exchange for family trips to awards ceremonies, recording sessions, the Grand Canyon and free apartments and houses. Stephanie Safechuck describes the moments she allowed James to sleep in Jackson’s bed and with a straight face says she didn’t think much of it at the time. Skilled predators know who is vulnerable, but rich and powerful predators, such as Jackson, know who is corruptible. The corruption of the parents guaranteed the vulnerability of their children.

Which is why I say that monsters rarely create themselves. To be abundantly clear, I hold Jackson responsible for the horrendous deeds which, having seen Leaving Neverland, I do believe he committed. But people do not come to be who they are in a vacuum. Jackson’s own experience with abuse at his father Joe Jackson’s hands is by now well-known. But there is a surrounding enabling structure around stars like Jackson: a music industry that prefers profits to morals; a media industry that prefers image to reality; fans who prefer idealized idols to realized humans. One after another -- the industry, the media, the fans -- all authorized Jackson to be what he was in plain sight because we all told him we preferred to watch his moonwalk rather than face the nature of his liaisons.

Jackson was well-aware of that power. Joy Robson, who at times was asleep in the next room as Jackson allegedly abused her son, tells of the one time she put her foot down in refusing to relinquish Wade to Jackson’s care for a year -- to which, she says he responded, “I always get my way.” And that might still be true. There is a power artistic genius holds over us, through which brilliance blinds us to license, and moral crookedness is accepted as part of the path the genius must sometimes walk to produce the art that makes us happy. And this is the real moral of Leaving Neverland: so long as we live in that kind of society, Jackson is not the last monster we will create.

Chris Lebron is associate professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins, senior writer for The North Star and author of The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea.