The post contains frank, graphic descriptions of sexual abuse of minors. Some of the content can be extremely upsetting and triggering. If you have been sexually abused and need help or support, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
I had heard Leaving Neverland, the documentary that recounts the alleged sexual assault of James Safechuck and Wade Robson by Michael Jackson, was upsetting, so I was prepared to be disturbed. But Leaving Neverland is even more disturbing than I had imagined — in part because the described sexual acts performed on children create vivid, repulsive images. If you believe you'd become distressed at hearing graphic depictions of sexual abuse of children, consider opting out of watching this. That said, for many of us, looking away is perhaps a disservice to the women and men bravely coming forward to force our culture's long overdue reckoning with sexual abuse in almost all corners of society. We owe it to them to listen.
I vented to friends about how disgusted I felt while watching the film, which is entirely composed of sit-down interviews with the men and their families, as well as photographs and footage from the past. Everyone's first question has been, "Will Michael Jackson will be 'canceled' in the aftermath of this documentary's release?" — like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey and now R. Kelly. I don't have an answer for that, and though it's a valid question, I don't think it's the most useful question to be asking.
Like a bazillion other people, I grew up listening to Michael Jackson and loving his work. But his music, his groundbreaking videos, and his indelible imprint on pop culture are of zero importance in the context of listening to these men's stories; to hear them and then worry if we can still play "Off the Wall" at our birthday parties seems to be missing the point. It's more important, I think, for us to take stock of ourselves — to look back at the mistakes made when other accusers came forward previously; to look inward and consider who we choose to vault up and why; to look at what we do to people who speak out against wrongdoing; and to reckon with how we prioritize power, wealth, and access above truth and decency.
One of the consistent threads through this four-hour documentary, airing in two parts on Sunday and Monday on HBO, is that both Safechuck and Robson loved Michael Jackson. They still do. The alleged abuse — which the Jackson family denies and which Jackson was acquitted of in court in 2005 when Robson testified on Jackson's behalf — was wrong, obviously, but it did not leave them with neat, easily packaged feelings. What they experienced as children caused not only pain but confusion and conflicting emotions they don't know what to do with. So if the victims of the alleged abuse live with difficult, even contradictory feelings about a man whom they loved, then there's no reason we can't either. No one gets out of Leaving Neverland easy; we have to sit with it.
With that, here are some of the most surprising and most horrifying allegations in the documentary, which has been disputed by the Jackson estate (which is suing HBO) as "the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death." (Read the estate's full statement here.)
1. Both boys' relationships with Jackson started out benign and happy.
Robson, from Australia, met Michael Jackson through his Michael-inspired dancing as a 5-year-old; Safechuck, from the suburbs of Los Angeles, met Jackson on the set of a Pepsi commercial. Robson was a self-admitted huge fan. Safechuck wasn't so much, but both men describe being blown away by Jackson's presence, naturally, and feeling ecstatic when Jackson befriended them. Based on their descriptions, Jackson behaved in private the way he seemed in public: childlike, innocent, juvenile even. In short order, they started hanging out with Jackson (separately) and doing things kids do with other kids, like playing in closets and goofing around. Nobody, it seems, thought it strange that Jackson, at that point in his 30s, was cultivating playmates who were children.
2. Jackson ingrained himself in their families and allegedly engineered time alone with the boys.
Soon after meeting Safechuck, Jackson and the boy became friends. They talked on the phone for hours. Safechuck's mom actually snuck Jackson to their house so they could play, and she even washed Jackson's clothes; she considered him a son. Jackson soon paid for the family to accompany him to Hawaii, and it was there he first asked Safechuck's mom if they could stay in the same room alone. She declined. Within time though, the boy's pleas to stay alone with Jackson became hard to resist, and she relented. She trusted Jackson; he was like a son. Robson, by contrast, first came to stay with Jackson alone when his family visited his sprawling California property, known as Neverland. He slept alone with Jackson for the first time at age 7.
3. Both Safechuck and Robson are composed and unemotional through large chunks of the film.
In the first half of the film, both men, as well as their family members, are relaxed and composed, even affable as they recount chilling details, and it may be tempting for some to interpret their lack of tears or visible trauma as dishonesty. While only the parties in this story know the truth, it's important to remember that not all abuse survivors will "act" in a demonstrative way, and every survivor deals with their experience in their own way. That said, the second half of the film shows both men and their family members in states of clear distress. It's tough to watch.
4. The alleged sexual abuse started small and intensified.
Safechuck claims Jackson showed him how to masturbate when he was around 9 or 10. Jackson, he alleges, had the boy rub his nipples — a practice Robson describes as well — moving into French kissing, touching of genitals, and more, some of it too graphic to type here but described in meticulous detail in the film. Safechuck alleges that when he visited Jackson's place, they had sex all over the house, all the time. "It happened every day," he says in the documentary. Safechuck's mother was was on site but over time found her room increasingly further away from where Jackson and Safechuck were staying alone. She describes once putting an ear to a door to listen — curious but not yet convinced of anything improper. Robson's abuse allegedly started when his family visited Jackson from Australia for an extended visit; the moment Robson's folks left Robson with Jackson to go explore nearby attractions like the Grand Canyon and Los Angeles, Jackson allegedly began with hand-holding, then touching and more.
5. Jackson groomed the boys to keep everything secret and distrust their parents.
He allegedly told them their behavior was special, private and likely to get them all in trouble if they told anyone. Both men describe being told their parents, their moms in particular, could not be trusted.
6. Neither thought anything was wrong; Jackson "married" one of the boys in a ceremony.
Their relationships were more than sexual; both men and their mothers describe Jackson being on the phone with their sons for hours at a time. One segment showed how Jackson purchased Safechuck a fax machine and flooded it with drawings, silly notes, and references to pet names and in-jokes. Safechuck says he felt like he and Jackson were married — not least because he and Jackson had an actual ceremony once, complete with rings. In the film, Safechuck shows the rings in a box to the camera, and his hands start to shake.
7. As scrutiny intensified, Jackson pressured the boys to keep secrets.
The second half of the documentary moves into the 1990s, when allegations of sexual abuse against Jackson began to bubble to the surface. By then, both had been sufficiently groomed — and, unbeknownst to them, effectively bribed with gifts, cash, and promises of career help — to keep quiet. Safechuck claims he was actually coached by Jackson's staff about what to say if ever questioned by authorities. Eventually, they were summoned to give depositions, and they complied with Jackson's demands.
8. As they got older, Michael allegedly pursued younger boys and began to decrease communication.
One especially crushing moment in the documentary is when Robson recounts hearing from Jackson less and less, and then at one point being told he could not go on tour with him. Yet when he turned on the TV one day, he saw Jackson with a younger boy on the trip he supposedly couldn't go on, leaving him shocked and confused. Sometime later, Robson's mom uprooted the family to be in L.A., closer to Jackson and to advance her son's career. That's when the fairy tale started to erode; they saw Jackson less, save one instance where Robson, about 14, claims Jackson tried to penetrate him anally. Shortly thereafter, Robson alleges, a panicked Jackson called the boy and asked to see if his underwear had any blood stains. Robson says it did, and, as instructed, he disposed of the underwear before his mom or anyone else could find it.
9. Their reckoning with what happened only began recently.
Both men speak of having bottled up what happened for so long, they didn't have any awareness of the reasons for their anxiety, depression, and feelings of worthlessness until well into adulthood — years after denying the crimes to their family, to authorities and themselves. Both acknowledged that becoming fathers triggered new feelings and a desire to tell the truth. They say they fear others have been abused by Jackson but haven't come forward yet.
10. They're aware of the perception that they're out for money or fame.
At one point, Safechuck's mom speaks with regret about taking money for a loan to buy a house, which Jackson paid after the first deposition in which her son denied abuse. "It sounds bad," she says, later saying outright: "I had one job, and I f---ed up." Robson's sister, who accompanied him on at least one of the trips to Jackson's property, says she used to be the person who thought accusers had a motive — until her brother came forward. The men themselves place more emphasis on their feelings now than how they think people will see them. As Safechuck put it, "We're mentally little kids. We just got older."
Leaving Neverland debuts Sunday on HBO starting at 8 p.m. ET; the second part of the film debuts Monday at 8 p.m. ET.