Why? Why did the mothers of the two alleged vicitms in the Michael Jackson Leaving Neverland documentary fail to protect their sons from alleged repeated sexual abuse at the hands of the late pop star? Why, despite all the seemingly obvious signs that Jackson’s fascination with young boys may have had a sinister side, did family after family offer the singer practically unfettered access to unsupervised time with their children?
Those are just a few of the questions that have been raised in the days since the two-part, four-hour exposé featuring interviews with two of Jackson’s former child companions — choreographer Wade Robson, now 36, and child actor James Safechuck, now 41 — aired their stories of how the King of Pop allegedly enticed them into his orbit with promises of fame and friendship, only to slowly turn their fantasy-come-true into a years-long nightmare of alleged repeated sexual abuse.
“What we need the public to understand is that it’s very tempting and easy to want to dissect the behaviors of the victims — and in the case of children, their families — because they are the ones acknowledging what happened in a public way, but the offenders never do that,” Kristen Houser, spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, tells Billboard; Houser was speaking in general terms about sexual violence with no direct knowledge of the allegations in Neverland. “We need to start demanding of the public to pay attention to the very nature of these crimes and to recognize that it skews our easy access to information — we have to do some digging to learn about the behavior of the offenders.”
Jackson’s family has said the allegations in the film are false and that they are “furious that the media, who without a shred of proof or single piece of physical evidence, chose to believe the word of two admitted liars over the word of hundreds of family and friends around the world”; the estate has filed a $100 million lawsuit against HBO citing breach of contract related to an earlier agreement to air a Jackson live special.
Neverland director Dan Reed has explained that he did not interview any Jackson family members or suppoters for the movie because, he said, this is not their story, but rather Robson and Safechuck’s, and that neither man has any financial interest in the film.
Houser says the scenario laid out in Neverland appears to be a textbook example of why sexual abuse is often not uncovered or revealed until years after it has taken place. “They [the abusers] are very masterful at manipulation and they don’t just groom child victims, but everyone around them: their social circle and the circles of the children and families,” she says, borrowing a phrase from clincal psychologist and child sex abuse expert Dr. Veronique Valliere, who said that offenders are masterful at “weaponizing” nice.
In the film, both men describe their fascination with Jackson and their elation at being invited into his inner-circle when they were around 10 years old, via professional opportunities, as well as invitations to spend time with Jackson on the road and at his amusement park-like mansion, Neverland Ranch. Houser says that people who are looking to gain “unfettered access to children” without raising suspicion often set up a public scenario based on their genuine pleasure in spending time with children, which is why they are so good at offering up fun, childhood experiences that appear innocuous to the children and their families.
“They know exactly how to make kids feel special, loved and important and they can recognize the different ways a family might need assistance … so they offer to spend time, provide transportation or give gifts that are meeting multiple needs as a true expression of affection while trying to win people over and create a persona that nobody would expect is violating the trust they are building,” she says.
Both men describe Jackson providing their families with housing and lavish accomodations on the road and at Neverland, gifting a 10-year-old Safechuck a diamond “wedding ring” as part of a secret wedding ceremony, taking them on elaborate shopping sprees at toy stores and warning that if they told anyone about what happened behind the locked doors in Jackson’s bedroom they would “both go to jail.” Jackson, a father of three, stood trial on child molestation charges in 2005 and was acquitted and until his death in 2009 adamantly denied ever abusing any children.
“Would you allow your child to go to a toy store and load up a basket, speak to a grown, 30-year-old man for two hours a night and get 100 faxes a night?” asks Dr. Drew Pinsky, the addiction medicine specialist and author of 2009’s The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America; like Houser, Pinsky was speaking to Billboard in general terms about sexual abuse with no first-hand knowledge of the Jackson allegations. “This is the degree to which the specialness of fame distorts people’s perceptions. The idea that a celebrity is different than any other human being is false. … It’s not like when I evaluate a celebrity I have to open a special diagnostic manual for celebrities — they’re just human beings with some special circumstances.”
Which brings the conversation back to the men’s mothers, who appear from the film to have been their primary caretakers during their pre-teen years. In Neverland, both admit to having been clueless about the alleged abuse, never realizing that requests such as Jackson wanting to take one of the boys on the road for a year should have been red flags. “I didn’t protect my son and that will always haunt me. I had one job, I had one child and one job and I fucked up, I failed to protect him,” Stephanie Safechuck says at the end of part two of the doc, lamenting that her months of first-class living and travel with Jackson, as well as “wonderful memories,” were all based on the “suffering of my son. My son had to suffer for me to have this life.”
Both Robson and Safechuck repeatedly supported Jackson — in 1993, when he was first accused of sexual assault by the family of 13-year-old Jordan Chandler, and, for Robson, again in a 2005 trial on allegations that Jackson abused a young teenager named Gavin Arvizo, at which Robson served as a key lead-off witness. Both men say in the film that Jackson pressured them to say that he had never abused them; Jackson reportedly settled with both accusers’ families for $18 million to $25 million. After stating in legal affidavits that Jackson never abused them, both Robson and Safechuck filed lawsuits seeking financial settlements against the Jackson estate in 2013, with both suits tossed out and currently under appeal.
“Michael trained me and forced me to tell the lie for so many years and particularly on the stand, and those were really traumatizing experiences for me that had a huge impact on the rest of my life,” Robson said in After Neverland, the Oprah Winfrey special that aired after part two on Monday night, explaining that his lawsuit was a chance to “re-process that experience” and to get on the stand now that he’s able to tell the truth.
Robson’s mother, Joy, says in the film that she didn’t want to know “too much about what went on … that would give me nightmares,” revealing that even after her son’s nervous breakdown and his struggles to come to grips with the alleged abuse as an adult, she has never had a discussion with him about the “sexual side of it.” She’s seen the film, but, Robson said, she asked Reed to fast-forward past the more graphic descriptions of the sex. “She said she couldn’t handle that. … She wasn’t ready to hear it,” Reed told Winfrey.
Safechuck told Oprah that he still hasn’t processed that his mother now knows what happened to him and that he shut himself down when they watched it together, not realizing until Winfrey pointed it out that he refers to himself in the third person and to Jackson in the present tense in the movie as a means of dissasociating himself from the reality. “I had no idea that I was doing [that],” he said, adding, “I’ll be working on this for the rest of my life.”
But when Winfrey asked if he’s forgiven his mother, Safechuck was clearer: “No. … Right now, I’m trying to learn how to communicate with my mom and I’m also trying to get her to get help. If you don’t help yourself, you can’t help other people. She needs to work on her issues so she can understand what happened,” noting that “she was groomed … the world was groomed as well.”
Houser says that abusers meticulously build up trust to the point where nobody would think they are violating that bond, which is why crimes of sexual assault are such incredible breaches of that trust, espeically when they are at the hands of someone who has a public presentation of generosity and kindess that, in reality, is serving as a double-edged sword. “America has turned sexual abuse into the Scarlet A [letter] of our generation,” she says, “which is why we got from 100 percent disbelieving that it’s true to the other end and 100 percent demonizing that person and saying we have to lock them up. Neither does anything to protect our children.”
She says parents and loved ones have to be willing to hear what children tell them, because often what they’re saying does not all come out at once, but in “little tiny pieces and hints” to see if the adult is willing to hear what they’re saying and if that person is safe to talk to. “They’re testing our ability to hear them because they have been intentionally confused by their abusers by the love, attention and support mixed with the abuse,” she says. “In the eyes of the child, they say, ‘I like 80 percent of what is going on, but sometimes gross stuff is going on,’ which the person says is out of love.” The latter confusion is often why it takes well into adulthood for some victims to see the reality of the abuse they suffered.
So whether it’s Jerry Sandusky or Larry Nassar, Houser says as a society, one positive step we could take is to stop responding to these allegations of sexual abuse in absolute terms. “We go to ‘absolute annihilation’ of these people who do these things, with no room for that confusion,” she says. “When our only reaction is intolerance — lock up that person and label them — instead of focusing on their behaviors and not giving them access to help, we are kidding ourselves about these crimes and our ability to keep our friends and family safe,” she says.
“We’re not looking for the warning signs. … We talk ourselves out of paying attention to that sixth sense that something is off. We teach ourselves that ‘good people I like will not do these things.’ That’s not true. Good people I like do do these things.”
In fact, Houser says from alleged abusers such as imprisoned Penn State fooball coach Sandusky to former gymnastics doctor Nassar and Jackson, she believes that the alleged abusers didn’t do what they did only to gain access to children for sexual purposes, but because they also genuinely cared about children and wanted to create special opportunities for them. However, they sometimes allegedly used those opportunities to meet “the needs they were ashamed of and weaponzed their ability to be so charming.”
Now is not the time to demonize the mothers of the men for their “horrible, horrible choices,” says Pinsky, because that risks creating yet another victim, or victims. “There’s plenty of responsibility to go around,” he says. “The road to understanding and forgiveness doesn’t mean you don’t have responsibility or are exonerated. You have to bear all the consequences of what happened, but you have to do that with understanding and compassion.”
Robson told Winfrey that one thing that changed for him over the past six years in his relationship with his mother is that he stopped waiting for her to “say something that was going to make it all better, that was going to make it all go away and was going to make me feel better … and she was never saying it, she was never doing it.” Once he realized that would never happen, that he was the only one who could start the healing and he stopped looking for her to fix it, it “released her [of some of that pressure] and it released me of needing something that she couldn’t give me,” leading to a healing, but not yet full forgiveness.
For Pinsky, a crucial point made by Winfrey in After Neverland was a very important element to the question of whether the person who was assaulted was an active participant in the sexual abuse or if the abuse acutally happened as they said it did. “It doesn’t matter if the allegations are true or not,” he says. “The seduction portrayed in the film is precisely the way this goes down: the slow burn of seduction when someone is groomed for all kinds of things, including cults, happens not just with sexual abuse survivors. When you are being loved, or given secondary gains out of proportion to the relationship, you should immediately exit. That is an unhealthy situation.”
As Oprah says in her special, “If the abuser is any good, you won’t even know it’s happened … you will be in it and you won’t even know it happened,” calling out the false narrative that abuse is like sexual assault where you are being “thrown up against a wall. … If the abuser is any good, he or she will make you feel like you are a part of it.”
And as Robson underscores when asked if he ever thinks about the boys he testified against in court when he was 11 and 23, “I had no awareness of that at the time. … I was so narrowly focused on my training to be a solider for Michael and protect him [that] I couldn’t think about anybody else. In hindsight … I wish I could have been different … and to be able to play a role in stopping Michael at that point from abusing however many other kids he abused after that.”
In a testament to the lasting damage of abuse, Robson says he’s “on the path” to forgiving Jackson, while Safechuck told Winfrey that after watching Neverland over the weekend, he felt “guilt this weekend like I let him down [by speaking out]. That shadow’s still there.”
Pinsky and Houser agree that the difficult-to-understand dichotomy of Jackson’s life — he was both a generous, loving protector and advocate for chidren and a sweet, childike man, but also allegedly a serial abuser — is not uncommon. We are all, at various times, both good and bad. “If you think a child abuser will come in twirling his mustache, you will be taken advantage of because that’s not how it works,” says Pinsky. “This is a real opportunity to talk about this, especially at a time when people are summarily executed [in the court of public opinion] for a transgression.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).