Ahead of the much-anticipated release of the two-part HBO documentary Leaving Neverland on March 3 and 4, Oprah Winfrey sat down with the film’s director and producer, Dan Reed, as well as its two main subjects, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who accuse Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them as young boys. The interview was taped for a special titled Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland that will air on HBO and OWN directly after part two of the doc on March 4.
Winfrey started out the discussion by acknowleding that Reed managed to illustrate in just four hours what she had in 217, as she dedicated 217 episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show to sexual abuse over the show’s 25 years. She then recognized the backlash that Leaving Neverland will likely elicit upon its release, but more importantly, the conversation it will start about sexual abuse.
“For me, this moment transcends Michael Jackson. It is much bigger than any one person,” Winfrey said. “This is a moment in time that allows us to see this societal corruption. It’s like a scourge on humanity and it’s happening right now. It’s happening in families.”
Though the audience for Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland — which was largely comprised of sexual abuse survivors — had screened the documentary just before the interview, the post-doc discussion added an extra layer to what was addressed in the film. Below, here’s what Billboard found most revelatory.
Fatherhood is a huge reason Robson and Safechuck decided to come forward with their stories.
As both men allude to in the documentary, they didn’t fully realize how much Jackson’s abuse affected them until they had each had a son of their own. Robson further clarified that to Winfrey: “If I hadn’t become a father, there’s a really good chance that I’d still be living in silence.”
Safechuck agreed, but also noted that without Robson coming forward in 2013 he may have never done so himself. (Robson filed a lawsuit against Jackson’s estate in 2013, claiming that Jackson abused him from age 7 to 14. The case was dismissed by a judge in 2017.) “You don’t think about there being others,” he said. “Your brain doesn’t go there. You’re just thinking about you and him. When Wade came out, I was triggered by it. It was an immediate sense of understanding.”
Reed’s goal was not to exploit Michael Jackson, but rather to demonstrate the effects of child sexual abuse.
Reed stressed that with Leaving Neverland he above all wanted to illustrate what child grooming – building a relationship with a child to lower their inhibitions, with the objective of sexual abuse – looks like. In fact, Reed told Winfrey that he had no prior interest in making a film about Michael Jackson until he heard about Safechuck and Robson.
Grooming came up several times during the 80-minute conversation, with Robson acknowledging that he and Safechuck were groomed long before they ever met Michael Jackson because of the singer’s star status. “My whole family was already surrendered,” he said.
Safechuck agreed, also discussing how he and Jackson had a marriage ceremony with vows and rings – which is highlighted in the documentary – that particularly made him vulnerable as a child. But Safechuck added that he was “all in” on Jackson from the start. “He also wedges a space between you and your parents, you and the rest of the world,” he said. “He works very hard at that. So it’s you and him against the world. And that intense love combined with the world’s intense love for him is overwhelming.”
Robson didn’t file his 2013 lawsuit for money.
Jackson’s estate issued a statement that referred to Leaving Neverland as an “outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson.” Winfrey addressed the statement, and bluntly asked if Robson’s decision to come forward in 2013 was in fact for money. Robson asserted that suing was the only way to get the Jackson estate to pay attention to his new testimony. (Reed also assured that both Robson and Safechuck have “no financial interest” with their allegations.)
Winfrey also had Dr. Howard Fradkin (who appeared Winfrey’s “200 Men” episode in 2012, which featured 200 male sexual abuse victims) in the audience, who offered further explanation for why Robson and Safechuck felt the need to come forward after so many years: “Male victims need to speak their truth to be healed.”
Robson’s mother asked to skip the graphic parts of the documentary as she watched it.
The final hour of Leaving Neverland sees Safechuck and Robson’s mothers addressing the guilt they feel for what happened to their sons. Robson’s mother shared that she has avoided hearing details of Robson’s experience with Jackson because it would give her nightmares, which sparked scoffs of disgust from the audience.
Though both Robson and Safechuck’s mothers have now both seen the documentary, Robson revealed that his mom asked to skip over any of the graphic parts. He admitted it’s tough that his mother still isn’t ready to hear the whole story: “I wish she was further along.”
Safechuck and Robson are still working on forgiving their mothers.
When Winfrey asked if the men have forgiven their mothers, both Robson and Safechuck hesitated. Reed pointed out what Safechuck once said, “Forgiveness is not a line that you cross, it’s a road that you take” – sparking applause from the crowd – and Safechuck himself said that he’s working on it: “I’m trying to figure out how to communicate with her and get her the help she needs.”
Robson said that he’s also on the path to forgiving his mother, noting a realization he’s had along the way. “I was looking for [my mom] to say something to make it all better, but I realized there was nothing she could ever say. She doesn’t, and nobody has, that capability but myself.”
Robson and Safechuck have already received a number of death threats for coming forward.
Winfrey pointed out in the beginning of the interview that she’s aware of the repercussions of supporting Safechuck and Robson, but later asked if the men are prepared for the potential for some serious backlash. Robson said repercussions have been happening “for a while” since he went public with his story, and that he received another death threat the night before the taping. “But it’s a whole new level of people taking it in with this, and I’m not prepared for that,” he added. While Safechuck didn’t directly answer the question, he admitted that as recently as a few days before meeting with Oprah he felt guilty for speaking up because he felt he let Jackson down.
Robson and Safechuck may not have participated in the documentary if Jackson were still alive.
Though neither outright said no to Oprah’s question about doing Leaving Neverland if Jackson were still alive today, all Robson could do was laugh, and Safechuck stayed quiet. Reed said he would’ve still made the film, but it wouldn’t be as persuasive if Jackson were alive.
Both men are seemingly glad they took part in the film.
In one of her final questions, Winfrey asked whether or not Robson and Safechuck have forgiven themselves. Robson said he has, noting that talking about his experiences in such detail in Leaving Neverland helped pieces come together for him – especially in processing his distanced relationship with his father, which is highlighted in the film. Robson also added that until Leaving Neverland premiered at Sundance in January, he had never witnessed public support for going public with his allegations against Jackson. “It’s not the way it’s been. I expected to be bashed and bowled over.” Though Safechuck admitted that he still struggles to forgive himself, he also said that he didn’t expect to change people’s minds by sharing his story.
Once cameras stopped rolling, Robson addressed the audience before leaving the stage. “Being a survivor is so isolating,” he said, before expressing his gratitude to the survivors in attendance for making himself and Safechuck feel so welcome. “We are brothers and sisters in trauma and triumph.”