'I Don't Think Time Heals This One': Part 2 of 'Leaving Neverland' Shows No True Way Out For Alleged Victims
Part one of Leaving Neverland, the Dan Reed-directed documentary that premiered Sunday night (Feb. 3) on HBO and focused on the claims of abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson by former child stars Wade Robson and James Safechuck, would seem to have been the worst of it. Over a half-decade of sexual abuse, described in graphic detail by the two alleged victims -- along with the machinations supposedly undertaken by the star to ensure that his misdeeds were not discovered or believed by the outside world -- made it a brutal watch. But once it was over, you almost breathed a little sigh of relief. There was no way part two could be this trying.
After watching the final two hours of Leaving Neverland, though, it's clear that one of film's primary suppositions is that for survivors, the actual act of abuse is just the start of the misery inflicted. In part one, Robson and Safechuck described parts of their early experiences at Neverland and elsewhere with hints of sepia-toned nostalgia, not quite recalling their alleged sexual encounters with Jackson -- whose family vehemently denies all allegations of misconduct made in the film -- as feeling particularly traumatizing in real time. But part two deals with fallout from those alleged experiences that goes well beyond what either could ever have possibly anticipated, as preteens put in an impossible situation, with reverberations still hitting them like tidal waves over 30 years later.
The film's first half ended in 1992, just before the accusations of sexual misconduct from 13-year-old Jordan Chandler -- "Jordy" to peer Robson -- made Jackson's relationships with children the stuff of national tabloid fodder and wide-reaching public debate. To Robson and Safechuck, then both still young teenagers, the trial was actually something of a godsend, as they say their utility as potential witnesses for the defense revived their flagging relationships with Jackson, making them indispensable to the pop legend once again. "Honestly, you're happy that he's back," Safechuck recalls. "I was excited to be able to defend him," Robson concurs. The two provided testimony on behalf of Jackson, who ended up settling with Chandler out of court, a decision that Robson's mother Joy says affirmed her belief that the Chandler family only cared about money in the first place. "If I thought that he had touched my son, I would not stop till he was behind bars," she claims.
After receiving increased attention from Jackson during the trial -- getting back to the daily phone calls from when their respective relationships first began -- Robson and Safechuck claim to have been put on the backburner once more following Jackson's marriage to Lisa Marie Presley in 1994. (Even the parents express heartbreak at Jackson's shifting social priorities: "We've just been dumped," Safechuck's mother Stephanie recounts telling her husband in a moment of extremely black comedy.)
Despite their less-frequent encounters, Robson says he and Jackson remained physical when they did meet; Robson alleges a painful first attempt of Jackson's to achieve full penetration when he was 14, leading to a panicked Jackson asking him to dispose of his underwear the next day for fear of them attracting attention with potential blood stains. Jackson continues to loom large over the lives of both adolescents, particularly as Robson's family continues to disintegrate following his father's mental breakdown and eventual suicide.
Still, as Robson and Safechuck are seen experiencing personal and professional success in their lives outside of their relationships with Jackson -- both meeting their future wives, and Robson achieving independent fame as a choreographer for *NSYNC and Britney Spears -- there seems a glimmer of hope that they'll find normalcy, even as we know that their road still ultimately leads to this documentary. The Michael Jackson tornado sweeps them up again in 2003, when Jackson is again prosecuted on counts of molestation, this time alleged by 13-year-old cancer survivor Gavin Arvizo. Both are asked by Jackson to testify and initially say no, fearing being put through the media wringer once again while having to defend what they now say is a lie. But while Safechuck persists in his refusal, even telling Stephanie of Jackson's malfeasance (while swearing her to secrecy), Robson acquiesces, partially due to his mother's persuasion. "I think you need to testify," Joy recalls advising her son, after once more receiving assurances from him that nothing inappropriate ever happened between him and Jackson. "You and [fellow celebrity witness] Macaulay Culkin are the only two people that can save him."
The two men diverge in their relationships with Jackson following his 2005 acquittal -- Robson describes visiting him years later with wife Amanda, while Safechuck says his final phone argument with Jackson was the last time the two ever spoke -- but both are left with still-unresolved issues when their former mentor dies unexpectedly in 2009. Each describes feelings of anger, of self-hate, and of depression, without ever really understanding where any of it is coming from -- feelings that eventually isolate them from their work, their marriages and their families, and leave them essentially unable to function as adults. "I stopped being able to sleep at all," says Robson, remembering "lying in bed for eight, nine hours, staring at the walls." Robson summarizes the impact by rebuking the "time heals all wounds" aphorism: "I don't think time heals this one. It just gets worse." By this point of the documentary, the fairytale aspect of the now-grown companions' relationships with Jackson has been shed completely, and all that remains is horror.
Things come to a head for Robson as he enters therapy and his own child begins to near the age he says Jackson started to abuse him, as he reveals his allegations to his therapist, and then to his family. What might be expected to be a moment of catharsis, perhaps leading to eventual healing, is instead described by wife Amanda as "a bomb" let off in their family. Robson's sister Chantal is shellshocked to hear someone she also considered to be a lifelong friend described as a predator, while brother Shane's fury at the man who he already blamed for breaking up his family is compounded exponentially at revelations of his alleged abuse. Amanda, who in retrospect admits she knew nothing about child abuse whatsoever, worries initially about what Robson's revelations mean about him as a father, and if the normalization of sexual activity between adult and child he experienced has already been passed on to their own child.
However, the damage done in the Robson family's relationship with mother Joy is shown as incalculable, and potentially irreparable. The Robson children blame her -- as Joy says she blames herself -- for not recognizing the potential danger in her son being left in such intimate quarters with an adult non-relative, for not protecting him when he needed her. Arguably the most painful stretches of Leaving Neverland come in these moments, where Joy describes being unwelcome in her son's home, and of Wade claiming that he feels "no emotion" for his mother. Shane, increasingly seething in clenched-fist anger during his interviews, says he doesn't know if he'll ever be able to forgive her.
The gut-punch in this section is so visceral because it speaks to how abuse can rob victims of even their most basic dignities, of their most trusted and comforting relationships. Robson's attempts to get out from under the unimaginable weight of a terrible secret he claims to have been burdened with for the majority of his life ends up with his family getting crushed instead. Yet even with all these new fractures in relationships between his loved ones, Wade says finally telling the truth "still feels a whole lot better than the lie did.” And his story, made public in 2013, is cited by Safechuck as his inspiration to begin opening up to his own wife about his own experiences with Jackson -- a breakthrough presented by the film as necessary, but exceedingly painful.
Ultimately, there is no closure in Leaving Neverland. Robson and Safechuck are both still around, still married and still living some form of their everyday lives, but it's hard to leave the film with any sense that they're closer to the end of their traumas than the beginning. The movie isn't intended to serve as a triumph of the spirit, a how-to on putting childhood sexual abuse behind you: Neverland instead posits that the scars formed from such early, repeated and exploitative abuse as the kind the two allege against Jackson are permanent and unignorable, and that as much hurt as prodding them may bring, it's still a better option than pretending they don't exist. Really, if there's a message about child abuse to be found here, it's not about how we might recover from it so much as how we might prevent it in the first place: By not allowing kids to be put in such precarious situations with charismatic adult strangers, and by listening and not looking the other way when kids do claim to have been harmed -- no matter how talented, famous or sympathetic the accused perpetrator is.
For that reason, it's the mothers -- the ones who were as taken by Jackson's razzle-dazzle as their sons, and the ones who let their maternal feelings towards the lonely star confuse their better instincts regarding their own offspring -- who really appear on trial at the end of the documentary. "So do I blame them?" asks Safechuck of his parents in the film's final line, hesitating for a couple seconds before rendering his final verdict: "I'm still working on it." If Leaving Neverland is any indication, it'll be a lifelong project.