Illustration by Joan Wong

The Most Insightful Takes on Michael Jackson and His Alleged Abuse

by Matthew Giles
March 21, 2019, 10:02am EDT

'Leaving Neverland' laid waste to the cherished image of a superstar -- and inspired countless takes. Here are excerpts from 24 of the best.

"IT IS WOEFULLY ONE-SIDED"

It’s hard to escape the feeling that [Jackson’s] untimely death, which resulted from his use of a sleep anaesthetic he was warned could kill him, may have grown out of the years he purportedly spent as an abuser. The way he died -- so reckless, so unnecessary -- counts as an unconscious act of self-destruction. It may be the expression of the guilt he couldn’t let himself feel. [1] It is worth noting, though, that Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed never sought comment from the Jackson estate on the devastating claims made by the film’s two subjects, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who both allege that Jackson sexually abused them as children. Reed says the film’s narrow scope -- a tightly framed look at the lives of two boys and their families as they are seduced into Jackson’s bizarre, rarefied, possibly predatory orbit -- was a creative decision. [2] The documentary never sits down with a psychologist who specializes in cases [of childhood sexual abuse] -- an expert who might have told the audience that victims of abuse frequently engage in denial, and can suffer from wide-ranging effects for years. But you won’t learn that from Leaving Neverland. [3] The larger issue, though, is that for something that calls itself a “documentary,” it is woefully one-sided -- and in some cases, conveniently selective about the information it chooses to include about its two subjects … For a documentary to be a true work of journalism, however, it is incumbent upon the filmmaker to solicit comments from the opposing side -- in this case, Jackson’s estate, his family, etc. -- which the estate insists Reed did not do … Does the existence of these lawsuits or the absence of comment from a Jackson representative mean Robson and Safechuck are lying? Of course not. It is just one more loss, in this case a lost opportunity for Neverland to strengthen its foundation. [4]

[1] Owen Gleiberman, Variety
[2] Christina Cauterucci, Slate
[3] Sonia Saraiya, Vanity Fair
[4] Kristen Baldwin, Entertainment Weekly

WE GAVE A PERFORMER CARTE BLANCHE"

To analyze the phenomenon of Michael Jackson properly would mean taking on the laborious task of figuring out how we -- meaning society at large -- ended up with the kind of entertainment industry we have … What l’affaire Jackson does teach us, however, is that the American dream of fame and fortune is a sick institution, with a pathological relationship to the truth. [5] I was stricken. The force of those two men just talking and talking as if in some ways they were still under a spell ... There were absolutely no boundaries ... You worship me, and I can and will do anything and everything. I remember Wade Robson saying that he used to watch the videos and was so smitten that he started putting Michael Jackson posters up in his room, and soon he would wake up and Michael Jackson was the whole world. And then he met him and that was the whole world ... It wasn’t a given [at the time] that Michael Jackson was guilty of all of the very specific acts that it appears he is guilty of, but it was all so possible all of the time, wasn’t it? [6] There was no way that Michael Jackson would have gotten away with all this for so many years without enablers. Very sophisticated, very smart enablers who just looked the other way because of who he was -- a celebrity. [7] We took too many liberties with Michael Jackson … We gave a performer carte blanche to live however he wanted because the music was more important to us than the reports of what might’ve been going on behind the scenes. No one deserves that much power … As the 10th anniversary of Jackson’s death approaches, it’s OK to revisit the memory of Jackson as we thought he was. Let’s also speak of all the aspects of his life we categorically refused to believe, and pledge to never again choose the love of fame over the well-being of a child. [8]

[5] Josephine Livingstone, The New Republic
[6] Margo Jefferson, The Cut interview
[7] Maureen Orth, The Ringer interview
[8] Craig Jenkins, Vulture

"HE KNEW EXACTLY WHAT HE WAS DOING"

Although Jackson’s defenders have long argued that he was simply too guileless and childlike to know that his behavior with children would be seen as inappropriate, Leaving Neverland makes an extremely powerful argument that this was not the case; he knew exactly what he was doing, and he spent years perfecting his methodology to be able to do it well. [9] Michael Jackson never got to have a childhood, we told ourselves, because we’d taken it from him … It’s only when you are faced with the reality of the toxic manipulation and control allegedly wielded by Jackson behind closed doors -- examples of which Leaving Neverland offers no shortage -- that the self-pity starts to curdle into something more monstrous. Michael Jackson may not have had a childhood, or at least not the one he thought he wanted, but that didn’t give him the right to anyone else’s. [10] The documentary also raises the question: If the brutal treatment Robson and Safechuck say they endured did in fact take place, then did Jackson -- rather than loving children, as he routinely claimed -- actually hate them, too? And is it possible that Michael Jackson’s establishment of his own self-identity involved repeated attempts to obliterate the selfhood of two boys? [11] Obviously, the topic of Michael Jackson and Blackness is a sociologist’s think piece for the ages. What it is not, however, is a defense for the megastar’s predation. Eye-spying racism should never be the reason we don’t call a predator by his name (see Cosby and Kelly) ... Sometimes when it comes down to it, we have to use common sense. Every fan in the mirror has to ask him or herself: “What do I believe?” Not merely, what do I want to believe? [12] [Comparing the allegations to a lynching] is a common chorus when black men are faced with evidence and accusations of sexual assault. The strategy is to make a comparison to the history of white Americans hanging black people for crimes they either didn’t commit or that in no way warranted the level of violence these victims faced … But these men aren’t being lynched. They’re being asked to reasonably answer for crimes of which they are accused. The difference is vast, and bringing up lynchings in these cases is profiting off the very real horrors inflicted on black people. All for personal gain. [13]

[9] EJ Dickson, Rolling Stone
[10] Jack Hamilton, Slate
[11] Niela Orr, BuzzFeed
[12] Kierna Mayo, Afropunk
[13] David Dennis Jr., The Undefeated

"THIS MOMENT TRANSCENDS MICHAEL JACKSON" 

Following the first one-third of Surviving R. Kelly, I noticed one strong sentiment emerge amongst the general outrage, shock, disbelief and defiant support of the R&B singer, and it boiled down to this: “I never was really a fan of his music anyway.” [But] everyone loved them some Michael ... As reckoning is a process, I can’t say where I am on the spectrum at this point, but I will say this: It’s uncomfortable as fuck. [14] A lot of old music has many new meanings to carry. [Jackson’s] hits have always felt as vast as life itself, but now the Michael Jackson songbook suddenly feels even wider, more lifelike in the saddest way. It now accounts for the cruelty of this world. There’s always been so much good to hear in this music, and now there’s evil, too. [15] One of the simmering horrors of the story Leaving Neverland tells is that through his alleged manipulations of them, Jackson was promising the families a version of justice … Jackson, the film suggests, created an environment in which it became effectively impossible for the boys to tell where Jackson’s welfare ended and their own began. [16] Leaving Neverland itself is a rebuttal to the idea that Jackson’s death in 2009 means the end of the Jackson abuse story; his survivors are still living, and therefore living with the consequences. What [Oprah Winfrey’s HBO special] After Neverland accomplishes is to push the narrative forward ... No one turns ambiguity to certainty quite like Oprah Winfrey. Here, she uses that superpower to suggest what comes after Neverland is a world that can recognize abuse for what it is -- even when it has the voice of an angel. [17] In 25 years of The Oprah [Winfrey] Show, I taped 217 episodes on sexual abuse. I tried and tried and tried to get the message across to people that sexual abuse was not just abuse; it was also sexual seduction. After I saw Leaving Neverland for the first time, I called up Dan Reed -- I didn’t know Dan Reed -- and told him, “Dan, you were able to illustrate in these four hours what I tried to explain in 217.” And I know people all over the world are gonna be in an uproar and debating whether or not Michael Jackson did these things or not, whether these two men are lying or not lying, but for me this moment transcends Michael Jackson ... This is a moment in time that allows us to see this societal corruption. It’s like a scourge on humanity. [18]

[14] Tonja Renée Stidhum, The Root
[15] Chris Richards, The Washington Post
[16] Megan Garber, The Atlantic
[17] Alison Herman, The Ringer
[18] Oprah Winfrey, After Neverland

"HE WAS LIVING WITH THE CONTRADICTIONS" 

Jackson provided us an early occasion to ask the question about the art without ever realizing it was being asked. We simply lived with it, with the possibility of his guilt, and the many compartments we make to contain everything he was: the conscientious enthusiasm for and the comedy of him, the tragedy he so obviously represents. Perhaps we can live it because it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether he was living with the contradictions himself. [19] When you love a star, inherently you’re loving a person who doesn’t exist, a figment of image creation and your own manipulated yearnings. In Jackson’s case, that goes double. He seemed so dissociated in the ways he presented himself through the last half of his life that it’s hard to guess how much of reality he was experiencing. Was he a person who didn’t exist even for himself? [20]

[19] Wesley Morris, The New York Times
[20] Carl Wilson, Slate

"REAL JUSTICE IS ELUSIVE"

It is admittedly difficult, while watching Leaving Neverland, to hold in mind two contradictory but equally imperative ideas: that victims should be believed, and that the accused are innocent until proved guilty. The first is wildly crucial if we wish to protect the disenfranchised from egregious abuses of power. The second remains the crux of the American criminal-justice system. Can these two ideas coexist? Right now it feels as if they have to ... [21] Cancel culture, in fact, is an incoherent and inadequate response to sexual abuse. People turn to it because real justice is elusive ... But if there was some assurance that real justice was possible, would cancel culture even feel necessary or important to so many people? Could we better separate the art and the artist if we could use a set of prison bars to do it? [22] In debating the future of songs like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” we are asking something more specific than what to do with the art of “bad” people. We’re asking what to do with pop music made by “bad” people. There are differences. [23] His music is incredible. It’s not now not incredible. That’s part of probably the disconnect here: when you have these conversations, Michael Jackson is the greatest performer of all time. The greatest pop star of all time. He was still that. He was also most likely a pedophile. The music is not now bad, the music is harder to listen to, it’s all harder to swallow. But the notion that the legacy of the art is fully now gone is ridiculous. [24]

[21] Amanda Petrusich, The New Yorker
[22] Amanda Marcotte, Salon
[23] Lindsay Zoladz, The Ringer
[24] Kara Brown, Keep It podcast

This article originally appeared in the March 23 issue of Billboard.