Why HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” is difficult—and necessary—to watch

Photo: Michael Jackson, Wade Robson (Credit: Courtesy of HBO)

An hour into “Leaving Neverland,” HBO’s new four-hour miniseries in which two men allege that the deceased pop star Michael Jackson molested them for the better part of a decade, I found myself wondering just how much more I could take. Director Dan Reed, who interviewed the men and members of their family, had decided to take the approach of not simply laying out a set of accusations, or presenting “true crime” re-enactments with maps and conversations with police officers.

Instead, he asks Mr. Jackson’s accusers, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, and their families to walk us through the entirety of their relationships with Mr. Jackson: idolizing him from afar as very young children; the circumstances through which they first met him, when Mr. Safechuck was 10 and Mr. Robson 7; and the ways those relationships developed, both for them and their families. Then and only then, with that context patiently, gently established, the men recount the years of sexual acts Mr. Jackson began to teach them to perform, both upon themselves and him.

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In its own quiet way, this is a far more uncomfortable approach for the viewer. By the time we get to the abuse, we have come to identify with these two men. The director’s approach also demonstrates how much the sexual abuse was married to a sense of awe and devotion to Mr. Jackson, who made his victims feel special. Even as Mr. Safechuck and Mr. Robson are telling their stories as adults, those deeply mixed feelings seem to continue. Mr. Safechuck says they were “like this married couple—and I say married because we had this mock wedding ceremony.” He then shows the ring, which he still has and, for a moment, almost looks ready to put back on.

Their families were also drawn into Mr. Jackson’s process of grooming, often flown out to follow the star on tour. The parents were told, when Mr. Jackson seemed especially desperate, that they were his only friends. “You feel sorry for him,” explains Mr. Safechuck’s mother, Stephanie. “You honestly do believe this is a lonely man, and we can help make him happy. Us, who are just nobodies.”

In the end, the real power of “Neverland” lies in the willingness of these victims to walk us through the whole experience they and their families went through.

Mr. Robson’s mother, Joy, developed such a strong personal bond with Mr. Jackson that she eventually moved with Wade and her daughter Chantal from Australia to Los Angeles to be closer to him, leaving her husband and eldest son, Shane, behind and effectively ending their family. Speaking about what Mr. Jackson had done to her son, which she and her family say they were completely oblivious of until 2013, Ms. Robson says, “Maybe I can forgive him at some point if I tried to understand that he was sick. But forgiving myself is another thing. I don’t know if I will ever do that.”

Mr. Safechuck admitted, on a special with Oprah Winfrey on HBO that followed the airing of the first part of the miniseries, that he felt guilty. “I felt guilt this weekend—like I let him down. It’s still there. The shadow’s still there.”

In the end, the real power of “Neverland” lies in the willingness of these victims to walk us through the whole experience they and their families went through. Their stories demonstrate the contours of grooming and seduction in a way that no news report on these issues can. The series demonstrates how children are trained by abusers to engage in sexual activity without ever questioning it, and how, even decades later, victims struggle to accept that this kind of relationship is not loving but abusive, and that they are not to blame.

For both Mr. Robson and Mr. Safechuck, the turning point was not other allegations of abuse. Each denied being abused in court testimony after Mr. Jackson was accused by the parent of another child in 1993; both were still children themselves at the time, and Mr. Jackson ended up settling with the accuser for $23 million. Nor was it getting married (neither confided in their spouses) or the death of Mr. Jackson in 2009. They finally began to question what had happened to them when they each had sons of their own.

“Neverland” offers no easy answers, which is fitting as these issues clearly lie deep in our cultural subconscious.

Mr. Robson describes having thoughts of Mr. Jackson doing to his son Koa the things he had done to Mr. Robson. “And my immediate emotional reaction to having those images is just this rage and disgust, violent feeling. I would kill anyone who did anything like that to Koa.” It forced him to wonder: What does that say about what Mr. Jackson had done to him as a child? “You see how innocent kids are,” explains Mr. Safechuck. And the abuse symptoms “ramp up even more.”

Some question why victims like Mr. Safechuck and Mr. Robson continue to be forced to go into what they experienced in such brutal detail. Nylah Burton, a sexual abuse survivor writing in Vulture, fears that works like the HBO series “actually serve as extensions of our victim-blaming society…. [Such documentaries] anticipate and answer all our invasive questions, disregarding the pain that it clearly causes the survivors.… they must emotionally impact us in order to be believed.”

It is a fair point; certainly, there was a great detail of information about Mr. Jackson already out there, including a 2013 interview with Mr. Robson on “The Today Show.” And yet presentations of these issues on television programs like “Today” or “The View” demonstrate why a format like HBO’s is needed. Cable news series or morning shows cannot offer meaningful, deeper exploration when exploring issues like sexual abuse. And to the extent that we allow such outlets to form the basis of our reflection—and so often we do—we turn trauma into spectacle and impoverish our own capacity to understand these issues.

Consider just how quickly allegations and revelations like these turn to the question “But can we still like their art?” It is not an inherently empty question; behind it may sit the anxiety of participating in evil. But the alacrity with which we make the move from important and horrifying new information to anxiety about our Netflix queues can seem pathological in its narcissism. Listen to whatever you want; I bet it won’t sound the same, but in the end, does it really matter?

Anyone watching “Leaving Neverland” should come away with one fundamental question, and for Catholics, it is a familiar one: How did we not see this coming? How did we not see that this man who was weirdly obsessed with children, who slept many nights in the same bed with children without other adults present, who had been accused of molestation twice and actually paid out tens of millions on one case, was almost certainly a serial pedophile? Even now, after decades of stories from every aspect of our society, we continue to have a massive cultural blindspot when it comes to abuse. It is as though we, like Mr. Robson, Mr. Safechuck and their families, have somehow been trained to not see what is right in front of us, to look away or create false narratives. How is that mechanism with us? And how do we change it?

“Neverland” offers no easy answers, which is fitting as these issues clearly lie deep in our cultural subconscious. The best it can do, the opportunity that it offers, is to draw us patiently into that place of discomfort where we might begin to question our assumptions. If we can force ourselves not to cut and run.

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Letitia Roddy
8 months 1 week ago

I think the question for Catholics is more like how did we not see this coming with our abusive clergy and our kids? We trust those people in our lives, it goes against everything we know to suspect them of harming us and our loved ones.

Nora Bolcon
8 months ago

And what is missing from this story? Hmm . . . Did Michael Jackson molest children or just boys? How did he manage to do that? By only inviting boys to stay over night and by separating out the girls. Just like our church separated out girls back when this abuse was most rampant by not allowing female altar servers.

Sexism, in a multitude of ways encourages certain types of sexual child predators. Female altar servers actually make serving safer for male servers and vice versa. Many altar boys were taken on trips camping etc. with their parish priests back before there were female servers, and during these kinds of trips multiple kids would get abused.

Having female priests and bishops would make our children safer too since women sexually abuse children at not quite a rate of 10 percent of all men, and they are more likely to call out child abuse because women are more sensitive to this abuse since they too have been abused similarly. Women are also more likely to confront abusers when they are at the same level of authority or higher than the abusing males.

I would never let my son serve in a parish that didn't welcome both male and female servers. That is a huge red flag. Parents beware!

There have always been signs - Catholics didn't want to see them.

Patriarchy without a purpose, aside from oppressing women, such as is the case in our church will always be a breeding ground for the sexual abuse of children and teens.

This kind of bias and exclusion creates oppression, dysfunction, secrecy, and the opportunity for evil. And boy have we proved that so when are we going to open our eyes and demand same ordination opportunities for all Catholics called to priesthood, male and female!

James Haraldson
8 months 1 week ago

Not see this coming? When the post Vatican II Church dove into the sewage of the sex revolution, it saw what it wanted and knew what was coming and knew what lies it would have to tell itself in the future to pretend it didn't know what the consequences would be, not only abused children, millions upon millions of crushed skulls of preborn babies with barely a peep from the Catholic Church in half a century.

Christopher Minch
8 months 1 week ago

Vatican II did not start the sexual revolution and you know it sir! I doubt whether you have taken a course or even read and studied fully one full document that came out of Vatican II. Vatican II was an attempt by the Pope, cardinals and bishops at that time to redefine and put into more modern language the purpose of the Roman Catholic Church and its relationship to the world. There was little to nothing about sex in that document other than to support the married state but also to challenge the church to update its theology in this regard for modern times and lifestyles which, Paul VI and John Paul II did and I would hope more to come from future popes. Vatican II was voted on and promulgated by the whole church including those popes I have mentioned.

Lisa M
8 months 1 week ago

As Catholics, it is most important that we treat people as individuals before we fight for the cause, whatever that may be. As difficult as it is to juggle the need to believe the victim(s) while at the same time respecting the rights of the accused to defend themselves, we always must do the right thing. In this case, and in most cases, such as Cardinal Pell's trial, where the accuser has reached adulthood, truth and justice are only served when the accusations are thoroughly and objectively examined. This was not the case with this movie, and accepting accusations as fact is far from responding in a Catholic way. Sometimes, we must accept, that some truths will not be known in our lifetime. Accepting that an accusation translates to guilt in every instance is a dangerous and immoral ideology.
We can, however do our best as parents to protect our children by never leaving them in a vulnerable position, even with those we think appear to be good. This is surely an example, whether or not Michael Jackson committed these unspeakable acts.

David Ashton-Lewis
8 months 1 week ago

Lisa, your comment ".... Accepting that an accusation translates to guilt in every instance is a dangerous and immoral ideology." is correct and reflects the dangerous behaviour of the accusers and supporters of Ms Blasey Ford which was witnessed in the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court recently. Accusations are just that. Accusations. They are not the final proof of guilt. That is the role and function of a Judge or a Jury after those accusations have been tested and found to be proven or sufficiently rebutted by the accused. It is the function of an accuser in both Civil and Criminal Law to prove their accusation/s to the satisfaction of the court. It is extremely important to never lose sight of just over 800 years of Common Law that accusations alone do not establish guilt. The right of an accused to answer those accusations before a finding of guilt is paramount. Anything less turns into a Star Chamber and that was outlawed in the 1500's. As a retired Supreme Court Judge I hold your quote very dearly Lisa.

Lyn Heffernan
8 months 1 week ago

The predation on women and children is a result of a patriarchal society. Powerful or successful men are glorified and excused any behavior. Trump bragged " grab them ... and they let you do it" didn't affect his bid for the Presidency for example. We may not be able to change society but, sadly, we have to keep our children from being alone with men in positions of authority.

JulieinSeattle .
8 months 1 week ago

So true! How can these evils ever be addressed/corrected- as long as the root of the problem is ignored?
ATT: Patriarchy! 'Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts, absolutely.'

Maria Alderson
8 months 1 week ago

The media goes crazy when the stories are of rock stars and RC cardinals, and this gives the impression that child sexual abuse is rare and spectacular. It isn't. The statistics are just as high for public school teachers, bus drivers, and plumbers. Where is the outrage for the kids who don't get million dollar settlements or an HBO series?

Susan Pavlak
8 months 1 week ago

Well said. Thanks to Jim McDemott for this thoughtful and thought provoking article. The paradigm of unquestioning community and entitled adults is familiar to us in the ranks of those seeking change.
Instead of shielding our eyes from the wounds we must gaze upon them in order to grieve what was taken and what was lost. An easy binary answer or scapegoating of social causes is unhelpful in moving through this crisis together to rebuild on higher ground.
Peace,
Susan Pavlak
President
Gilead Project

Susan Pavlak
8 months 1 week ago

Well said. Thanks to Jim McDemott for this thoughtful and thought provoking article. The paradigm of unquestioning community and entitled adults is familiar to us in the ranks of those seeking change.
Instead of shielding our eyes from the wounds we must gaze upon them in order to grieve what was taken and what was lost. An easy binary answer or scapegoating of social causes is unhelpful in moving through this crisis together to rebuild on higher ground.
Peace,
Susan Pavlak
President
Gilead Project

Susan Pavlak
8 months 1 week ago

Well said. Thanks to Jim McDemott for this thoughtful and thought provoking article. The paradigm of unquestioning community and entitled adults is familiar to us in the ranks of those seeking change.
Instead of shielding our eyes from the wounds we must gaze upon them in order to grieve what was taken and what was lost. An easy binary answer or scapegoating of social causes is unhelpful in moving through this crisis together to rebuild on higher ground.
Peace,
Susan Pavlak
President
Gilead Project

Michael Cardinale
8 months 1 week ago

I don't know that one can always recognize an abuser; I've been through this with my children. Because other children disagreed with my children, much like Safechuck and Robson, Child Protective Services said they could do nothing. We removed our children from the abuser's care, but other families did not. One year later, the truth came out - too late for at least one of the other children. One piece of advice: If your child says something happened even if he doesn't understand it, believe him, report it, and don't bother talking with the alleged abuser. The Law will clarify the truth.

JulieinSeattle .
8 months 1 week ago

Plenty of people did "see this coming." Watching Michael Jackson morph into a grotesquely idiosyncratic character; first with a chimp in his arms, then, hand-in-hand with a young boy, everywhere he went, the lifestyle of a pederast was obvious by the early 90s. The increasingly laughable and pathetic explanations for his arrested development lifestyle from fans, family (and the creep himself) only served to aggravate the suspicions of common sense.

What pains me is that my belief in the RC Church blinded me to countless pederasts in clerical garb, using celibacy like Jackson used his artistry, to mask, explain and evade responsibility for the same sort of criminality; to say nothing of engaging in a broad range of additional "sins" laypeople were held to grief, guilt and exclusion from communion for.

That, I did not see coming. Jackson is dead, but the Church refuses to make the ruthless and fundamental changes needed to clean up and start over.

Brian PHasse
7 months 3 weeks ago

Thanks Dear

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.]

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