If you thought Schrödinger’s cat and Michael Jackson had nothing in common, there came HBO to tell us otherwise. Creating a contextual box that no one can open to examine the actual state of the late King of Pop’s behavioral patterns, the producers of “Leaving Neverland” managed to exploit viewers’ emotional reactions and the subsequent cognitive dissonance to their advantage and thus attract large numbers of viewers, commentators, and extensive media coverage for their program.
It took me a while to decide whether to watch HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” documentary. My main hesitation was related to the fact that there was no recent legal context to match the allegations included in the program. This meant I was going to spend a few hours listening to personal accounts about something that was very unlikely to ever be proven as true or false.
And if I am to come to a conclusion, I like to have valid data that I can base it on. “Leaving Neverland” was not going to provide that, and it didn’t. Instead, I believe it placed a lot of confusion in the minds of viewers, regardless of where they stood when it comes to the accusations brought to Michael Jackson over the years, and most importantly, I think it created a dangerous environment for both survivors and potential victims of sexual abuse. I will share below why I consider “Leaving Neverland” to be a social miss, even if the allegations against Jackson were to be true.
The Documentary, in short
“Leaving Neverland” is a Channel 4 (UK) and HBO (US) co-production in the documentary genre, directed by filmmaker Dan Reed. It presents the personal accounts of two men who accused singer Michael Jackson of sexual abuse that allegedly occurred when they were children, and which lasted until they became teenagers. Several family members of the men were also interviewed for the program.
The claims reignited the trail of allegations that followed Michael Jackson in the 90s and mid-2000s and which became the center of extensive legal investigations and a criminal trial1. Jackson was acquitted of all charges in 2005.
What sets the “Leaving Neverland” claims apart from all the other accusations is that they come from people who have previously decisively defended Jackson in both official and unofficial settings. In fact, one of the men now claiming that they were abused by Jackson was the star witness in the criminal trial that acquitted the singer in 2005.
This was the main context that undermined the present claims, along with other significant elements of personal history that link the accusers to Jackson (selectively presented below). Although it is common for victims of sexual abuse to delay disclosure of facts, the murkiness of “Leaving Neverland” and especially its effects – both social and related to Jackson’s art, should be carefully considered and, in my opinion, should not be allowed to overwhelm neither the existing evidence, nor the way we socially treat abuse – prevention, legal consequences, and victim assistance.
So here’s where the 4-hour documentary left me.
- Do I Believe Robson and Safechuck?
Like I mentioned at the beginning of the article, I believe the whole documentary is similar to Schrödinger’s experiment and that it is no longer possible for anyone but the people involved in the context, to know the validity of the facts described by the men.
Jackson is no longer alive to defend himself against these specific accusations and the alleged victims’ $1.5 billion dollars civil lawsuit/creditor’s claim against the Michael Jackson estate was dismissed in 20172.
So, whether you believe the men or not, in the end, the viewer’s conclusion will not/can not be based on hard evidence, but on the emotional reaction and preexisting opinions about Jackson and/or about the alleged victims.
I always require evidence in support of a claim before I consider it valid. I see no reason to treat this context otherwise. However, there’s more to this. Read below.
At the same time, one can not not believe the two men simply because they were not able to provide evidence of sexual abuse that allegedly occurred in the 80s. Abuse usually involves only the victim and the abuser. It may be incredibly difficult for the victims, especially children, to gather, keep and produce the specific type of evidence that would convince legal systems to take action and jurors to convict the accused individual.
Is it possible that their claims are true? Yes, the context and the modus operandi they describe is consistent with sexual abuse practices. Even if they claimed otherwise during Jackson’s trials? Yes. It may be difficult to recognize and/or acknowledge the abuse as a child and to confront the abuser.
- The Cognitive Dissonance
The problem with believing the men when there is no other evidence but their own accounts to support the abuse version is that it automatically means changing your perspective about Michael Jackson (if to start with, you did not entertain the version where he was an abuser). And why would anyone be given such a definitive and defamatory label with no proof of wrongdoing?
For Michael Jackson fans and people who chose to guide their opinion about him based on the outcome of the trial and the many opinions of his family and friends, the story presented in “Leaving Neverland” may trigger a powerful cognitive dissonance (a mental stance where two opposing thoughts, values or ideas, reside in the same mind, causing inner conflicts and psychological distress): How do you remain empathetic to the victims, if the claims turn out to be true, and at the same time do not wrongfully accuse an innocent man of sexual abuse?
Considering the implications linked to each of the possibilities, this may not be an easy mental conflict to solve for most viewers of “Leaving Neverland”, myself included.
One can try a simple mental exercise and identify himself/herself with each of the parties. This, I believe, can be enough to reveal how unfair both stances could be if we end up making the wrong choice.
From the victim’s perspective, it may be the case that both the legal system and social environment failed you, thus adding even more turmoil to the already existing trauma. Victims should not be afraid to speak up and denounce their abusers and once they do that, they should receive legal, social and professional support to manage the effects of the traumatic event. At the same time, their courageous actions are extremely important in preventing the abuser from making more victims and also for raising awareness regarding these types of abuse.
From the innocent person’s perspective, it would be devastating to have to face not only the social reactions to the accusations made against you but also the legal consequences, if the legal system ends up failing you this time. Now also imagine that even if you get the chance to be cleared of all charges and officially receive the innocent verdict, you still had to go through the investigations and trial. And finally, consider the situation where you don’t even have the chance to go to trial and therefore do not officially get the innocent label, but you end up getting the guilty or possibly guilty one anyway, in the social environment where the claims have been made.
Frustration, rage, depression, and many other negative emotional and functional effects are to be expected and considered normal for each of these situations.
So how do you decide, as a viewer, where to place your sympathy and support when it comes to the two alleged victims and Michael Jackson?
- Solving the Cognitive Dissonance
Solving a Cognitive Dissonance usually involves choosing one thought over the opposing one based on the strength of the arguments supporting each of them or on the emotional response triggered by each of the situations they represent.
So, which way to go?
How we feel about a situation is not linked to any specific trait of that situation. Just because a context triggers positive feelings for us, it does not mean that it is a good context. Similarly, when we feel negative emotions in a certain situation, it does not mean that the situation itself is bad or dangerous. In fact, considering the emotional response a predictor or trait of a context represents a cognitive distortion called emotional reasoning. Cognitive distortions make us think about reality in deformed ways. Therefore, emotions alone would not be a good criterion to apply in the assessment of complex situations.
Whether you loved Michael Jackson or felt overwhelmed by the accounts of both Robson and Safechuck, none of these emotional stances should be enough to inform your conclusion.
As for weighing in the arguments that support either of the versions, since there is no official framework to accomplish the legal aspects of it, it becomes a rather personal task. Finding, deciding for or against the use of certain pieces of information, and also giving levels of significance to each of them, is a multiple-step process left to each of the viewers who have a strong enough interest to figure out for themselves what their stance is.
And to be honest, I am not sure why anyone would have to go through this, especially now, simply because a material as ambiguous as this one was created and made its way into the media. Even so, many have undertaken the job in detail, and often publicly. Individuals and media outlets have analyzed past and present contexts regarding child molestation accusations against Michael Jackson and the personal history of each of the accusers and their particular connection to Jackson. Their data and conclusions can be found all over the internet.
I will only share here the main information and arguments that contributed to my own conclusion.
Arguments that (seem to) support the accusations:
- The context presented by Robson and Safechuck could have allowed abuse to happen – Jackson did have access to the boys when they were left with him at Neverland or in other locations.
- The men seem genuinely hurt when describing their relationship with Jackson.
- Spending so much time with young boys is strange behavior for a man (or woman) in his (her) 30s.
- Other people have accused Jackson of child molestation throughout the years.
Arguments that do not support the accusations:
- Just because the context would have allowed abuse to happen is not direct evidence that abuse did happen. Many other boys (now grown men) have testified that although they too did spend time with Jackson alone at Neverland, oftentimes in his bedroom, they have not been abused by the singer and they describe a non-sexual interaction with him. The one opinion that counts for me the most is Corey Feldman’s3. Corey Feldman is an actor who is a victim of sexual abuse and who said numerous times, in official settings and in television interviews, that he was not molested by Jackson during their years of friendship. Another testimony that counts for me is that of actor Macaulay Culkin, who also supported Michael Jackson’s innocence.
- The hurt the men display in the “Leaving Neverland” interviews cannot be directly linked to sexual abuse and specifically, to Jackson being the abuser. To me, they seem genuinely hurt by his decision to distance himself from them at a certain time in his career. They do speak about having felt envy when they’ve seen that they’ve been replaced by other boys on Jackson’s world tours (these boys were part of Jackson’s public appearances and often joined him on stage during dance segments). Obviously, we cannot tell what the men actually felt during the interviews and one must also consider that the emotions may have not been genuine after all.
- Yes, spending so much time with young boys or girls is not necessarily normal behavior for a 30-year-old man. But I think there are more elements to this story that must be considered. First of all, this is rather cherry-picking – Jackson also had many adult friends and many were women. Also, there is no observed or studied normal behavior for people living their life the way Jackson did. We do not know what the normal coping mechanisms (strategies we use to manage stress or negative emotions) are for that level of stardom and all the personal and social challenges that come with it (among them, social isolation, trust issues, etc). Eccentricity does not entail abusive behaviors or mental issues.
- Jackson has been acquitted of all former charges and accusations and no new accusers came forward after the 2005 verdict, other than Robson and Safechuck. They themselves testified for the defense.
Other arguments worth considering:
- “Leaving Neverland” does not address key elements of personal history of both Robson and Safechuck that could affect their credibility. The strongest point, in my opinion, is related to Michael Jackson estate’s refusal to work with Robson in 2011 as a director for a new Michael Jackson/Cirque du Soleil production (ONE), a role he desired. A year later, Robson started pitching a book project about Jackson’s sexual abuse toward him, but no publisher picked it up. In 2013 he filed a $1.5 billion dollar lawsuit against the Michael Jackson estate which triggered Safechuck’s own realization that he also had been abused by Jackson as a child. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2017 (too much time had passed from the alleged incident).
- Both men desired to work with Jackson in their adult years and also wanted to maintain a close personal relationship with him, but Jackson did not necessarily share their level of interest in the interactions.
And also these:
- Jackson is no longer alive, therefore he can no longer abuse anyone else if the allegations were to be true.
- The men’s method of dealing with the trauma seems to have been centered around significant monetary compensation.
- Both men and their families have benefitted financially greatly from Jackson’s direct actions (he bought them houses, cars, financed their education and professional projects, and pretty much took care of their expenses when they were around him) and also from the professional influence the connection to the star’s name carried. Their abuse allegations only appeared once Jackson was dead and the estate representatives showed no sign of further collaboration with the men.
Based on all of these elements, I find no reasonable basis to change my initial view about Michael Jackson. There is no reason for me to start thinking about him as an abuser. At the same time, my stance is an agnostic one: I do not completely refute the possibility but am aware that this may be a subject where significant data will remain unknown. I’d rather entertain a reasonable level of uncertainty than force a definite conclusion when no evidence fully supports any of the alternatives.
Although “Leaving Neverland” brought absolutely nothing new on the Michael Jackson subject, I think it is important to consider it in the larger social context and that’s where for me things get really outrageous.
- Why I Consider “Leaving Neverland” a Social Miss Even if the Accusations Against Jackson Were to be True
- Producers and protagonists ask you to believe without proof. All that “Leaving Neverland” presents, aside from the personal accounts of abuse, are personal and public photos that only support the fact that Robson, Safechuck, and their families knew Jackson personally and spent time with him in both private and public contexts. They also show a jewelry collection that supposedly includes a ring that Jackson gave to Safechuck in a ‘mock wedding” event. None of these things is evidence of abuse. They’re evidence of connection. Nothing more. I think it is both irrational and unfair (bordering abusive) to expect to destroy a man’s reputation based on someone’s words alone. That may be indeed Robson and Safechuck’s reality. They may have other data than we do. But that is not and should not be enough to trigger the expectation that that will also become everyone else’s reality. But what about the fact that their stories match? Of course they match, the documentary took 2 years to make. But their stories match those of the previous abusers. They were part of the trial and previous investigations and Jackson himself provided them some of the information about the accusations brought to him. One of the mothers interviewed in the pseudo-documentary (that’s what it is for me) said that they did talk to Jackson about the accusations during the trial. But what they describe is textbook child molestation. How about that? A bit too textbook-ish if you were to ask me. Do you think anyone would produce a program like that not making sure that their story or at least the edited format followed the main stages of child abuse patterns?
- The “Leaving Neverland” content itself is abusive. The accounts are incredibly graphic. The director defended that choice4 by basically saying that Jackson’s clean image was so powerful in everyone’s mind and he wanted to make sure that viewers understood that the deviant behavior was severe, not something defendable. Yeah, that to me is 100% rationalization (defense mechanism through which one creates a plausible and acceptable justification for a decision that is otherwise controversial and/or unacceptable). Would you listen to someone describe in detail abusive sexual behaviors that involve children (or adult victims as a matter of fact) if they would not also state the apparent social benefits that may come from that account? I’ll go ahead and assume that my readers are not sexual predators and that the answer to that would be ‘no’. Being exposed to this kind of content holds a traumatic potential in itself and it may affect any audience member, regardless of their personal history of (non)abuse. One should not deal with their own trauma by traumatizing others in the process. Legal contexts, professional help, and a reliable support system should provide abuse victims with the main and most powerful type of assistance.
- Their declared bigger goal – helping other victims to deal with their own abuse trauma, holds absolutely no water. Children should not watch this program (it’s pornographic in nature), victims of sexual abuse may be re-traumatized (in fact, Corey Feldman said that he had to stop watching the first part of the documentary since it was too much for him to deal with emotionally), and reasonable parents already know how to deal with most contexts that may pose a preventable danger to their children. So whom exactly is this program supposed to help?
- The endeavor itself is useless socially. The only persons benefitting from this pseudo-documentary are, in my opinion, the creators and the protagonists. They got new levels of public recognition/fame based on their forced/unwelcomed association with Jackson – even if the director says that his production is not about Michael Jackson but about the two men telling their own stories of abuse. Well, with all due respect, if the alleged abuser would have been someone who is not a public figure, I do not believe the public interest would’ve been so serious as it is when Michael Jackson’s name is linked to the claims. In fact, Reed himself said that his interest in the story was triggered by the information that someone (Robson) had filed a 1.5 billion dollars lawsuit against the Michael Jackson estate. So how exactly is this not about Michael Jackson? Most likely, the stories would’ve remained statistics and personal stories alone had Jackson’s name not been linked to them. Yes, it is important for people to speak up against powerful abusers, but the idea that authoritative figures always get away with criminal actions is biased. Many celebrities have been tried and convicted for their deviant behaviors when evidence offered support for that outcome and decision. So, for now, you’re just watching a Michael Jackson pseudo-documentary. Even more, since the alleged abuser is no longer alive and can no longer make new victims, the whole “reveal the true behavior of Jackson” goal crumbles. The really scary thing is that if the claims against Jackson are true, he walked free out of the courtroom and was able to potentially victimize more children (for at least 4 other years) based (mainly) on Robson and Safechuck’s defense statements provided by them in previous investigations and during the trial.
- The Really Outrageous Things in “Leaving Neverland”
Personal accounts and Michael Jackson drama aside, since they cannot be proven true or false based on this video material, there are some real elements included in the pseudo-documentary that I find really unsettling and outrageous.
- The incredibly graphic sexual content. I did mention this before, but there is a slightly different reason why I am also including this element here. It has to do with the structure of a person who would resort to presenting this type of content with no regard for the emotional well-being of their potential audience. This is very different from those materials that analyze such content to prove that abuse was the basis of a given interaction. This is something they created themselves, from memories or not, but they created, structured, filmed and edited it. They wanted this to be that graphic (the director says so). They wanted that shock value from that specific type of content! For fame and revenue, because I see no benefits for the audience. That, for me, is incredibly aggressive.
- The parents. I think this was the most outrageous thing in the whole film! Let me start though by saying this: If the sexual abuse occurred, then 100% of the responsibility/guilt for it stays with Michael Jackson. No abuse without an abuser, right? Victims would be linked to exactly 0% responsibility/guilt regardless of how they behaved, looked, or what they said around Jackson. Moving away from the abuser/victim dyad, we have the facilitating factors. And here is where I believe that 100% of the responsibility/guilt for these two personal stories stay with the parents and families of these children.
Throughout the 4-hour video interviews, we are repeatedly told that the two children (Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck) were left by their parents with Jackson at Neverland or in other locations, for days or weeks! They also had extended phone conversations with the pop star (up to 6 hours long!) and many of the decisions involving their education and professional life were done according to Jackson’s wants, desires, or expectations. One mother even moved part of her family (separated siblings from one another, and children from father and rest of family in the process) from Australia to the United States, based on Jackson’s promises that he will assist her son professionally. She went so far as to say that she was surprised upon arrival in the United States that the apartment they were going to live in hasn’t been paid for and she had to provide credit card information for that. And this to her was surprising because they were “usually taken care of” by Jackson. Safechuck was also unenrolled from school because Jackson allegedly said that that’s only a waste of Safechuck’s time and that all he needed career wise was the connection to him. It is my understanding that the financial benefits were significant for the families of these two boys – Jackson bought a house for one of the families during the 2003/2005 trial (it started out as a loan, but he released the family from payment obligations later on), bought cars and jewelry for the boys, everyone in their entourage was “being taken care of” when around Jackson, they had unrestricted access to Neverland and got great career boosts from their association to the star.
Now why would I show any empathy or understanding toward these parents who completely failed their children? They’ve let personal gain (financial and image-wise) and authority bias (trusting a person simply based on their position of authority in a certain field) override the interest and the well-being of their children. Would you leave your kid at someone’s house after only knowing them for a few hours? Would you leave them in the care of a 35-year-old stranger while you vacation? Would you let them sleep in the same bed with an unrelated adult? Would you still be cautious even when letting them in the care of verified professionals or relatives? Would you let your kid talk on the phone for 6 hours daily/ever, even to their best friend? Would you accept numerous, expensive gifts from someone who bears no responsibility for your well-being? Would you take your kid out of school just because a famous person told you that’s the thing to do? Would you move or even vacation with your kids to a location where you do not know what your living arrangements will be?
This is irresponsible parenting. I cannot state that they knew about the abuse (if it indeed happened), but I find it so difficult to defend any of their other actions that it becomes impossible for me to think that had they known about it indirectly, they would’ve renounced their own benefits and hit Jackson with a criminal investigation and a lawsuit. It’s funny that one of the mothers from “Leaving Neverland” criticized one of the families who settled with Jackson for several million, saying that she couldn’t have put a price on abuse, but would’ve been all about justice instead. Well, you were already taking the money without going through the legal system, so… And your kid, now an adult, seems to have thought otherwise.
- One mother’s reaction to Michael Jackson’s death. One of the mothers described her reaction to the news that Michael Jackson had died by saying that she was extremely happy and danced around the room and said that she’s so happy that no more children were going to be hurt by him. Now, this to me is disturbing. I could probably understand feeling relieved by the death of an abuser whom you’ve known as an abuser for years, but who escaped the legal system and remained free and powerful enough to make more victims. But happiness? Chanting-like behaviors when finding out about someone’s passing? That to me is grotesque and disgusting. Also, other people pointed out that she claimed this about the 2009 event even though her son only realized he was abused after Jackson’s death. So you did not testify against Jackson when he was alive, took his money whenever you had the chance, continued to let your kid with him, and now you’re happy that nature (aided by his doctor) took care of it? So yes, zero sympathy goes from me to these parents. The abuse described by the two men was not aggressive in nature (assault). If guilty, Jackson didn’t snatch kids from the street or lured them in the schoolyard, he was manipulative. So, most of these interactions could’ve been prevented if the children were simply not left with him. And one more thing: in the pseudo-documentary, they keep saying that the children “spent time” with Jackson. Kids don’t “spend time” with adults, they are “being left with” adults. I do not care how much your child wants to spend time with their idol, man or woman, adult or not, it is the parents’ responsibility to both set boundaries and protect the child’s well-being. This at least takes care of preventable abuse. In my view, there is no defense for these parents and that was the most difficult thing I had to deal with while watching the footage. Because this was one of the only verified, valid things that were in there, really.
Where does “Leaving Neverland” leave me Michael Jackson-wise?
Exactly where I started. The agnosticism stays. The admiration for his art stays. My listening to Jackson songs has already been tainted by previous allegations, which triggered the agnostic stance, but this will definitely not make me stop listening to his music. In fact, I guess this is the thing that I will do after hitting “Publish” for this very post. Not out of love and/or loyalty for Jackson (even though he is the only artist in relation to whom I could ever be considered a fan), but out of consideration for my own personal history that had been linked to his art.
This seems to be the case for many other viewers as well. “Leaving Neverland” did some damage to Jackson’s image, but so far nothing significant.
From the way things stand now, though, and especially if no new, relevant data appears in the future, it looks like Michael Jackson will still have the last “hee-hee”.
1 Storey (2019).
2 Vogel (2019).
3 HLN (2019).
4 CBS This Morning (2019).