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My Thoughts on Leaving Neverland

Dylan Robertson (2L)

When Leaving Neverland was first announced, I was dismissive of it. Like many fans of Michael Jackson, I considered the jury’s verdict in People v Jackson to be the final word regarding the child molestation accusations which haunted the singer in the final two decades of his life. My first impression of the documentary was similar to those many of Jackson’s fans have always held towards his accusers: it was nothing more than yet another attempt to capitalize off of the doubt surrounding his true innocence. Nevertheless, as its release drew closer, I committed myself to watching it, partly based upon the controversy of its release, and partly because I felt that it remained my obligation as a fan.

After watching Leaving Neverland, I believe that Michael Jackson was a child molester.

That’s not a conclusion I came to lightly. Michael Jackson’s music has been a major part of my adult life. I still remember where I was when I found out that he passed away. I know the lyrics to every song on Bad, and I’ve listened to Disc 2 of HIStory on repeat enough times that I can tell you how many songs it takes for me to drive from my apartment in Edmonton to my parents’ house in Saskatchewan. To say that I loved his music would be an understatement, but the key word there is loved. Leaving Neverland has led me to reconsider my relationship with his music.

Created by Dan Reed, Leaving Neverland depicts the stories of two men – Wade Robson and James Safechuck – who claim to have experienced emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson. Starting from when they both met Jackson as young children, the two men recollect in disturbing detail how Jackson lured the boys and their families into a false relationship built on trust and love, and how Jackson ultimately used that trust to manipulate the boys into committing horrifying sexual acts with him. Their stories are not for the faint of heart and are some of the most disgusting descriptions of sexual assault I have ever heard. The documentary also goes into depth regarding the men’s individual roads to recovery, and the effects their experiences continue to have on them nearly three decades after.

Leaving Neverland is not a good documentary from a technical standpoint. It’s admittedly one-sided in its approach, and its four-hour runtime is hard to sit through. But it is a story that arguably cannot be told by a technically sound documentary. The documentary isn’t so much interested in creating an engaging film as it is using the medium to present an uncomfortable and harsh reality. Its power and persuasiveness originate in its thoroughness, its believability in the uncomfortable vulnerability of its two main subjects. It is difficult to watch this film, and that is by design; it is only through recollecting every single disgusting detail and arduous step towards recovery that these two men might hope to convince doubters of the authenticity of their accusations. It no doubt took a lot out of Robson and Safechuck to expose their deepest secrets to the public in such a naked fashion, but the result is that for many, including myself, it is impossible to see Michael Jackson in the same light ever again. He’s no longer just a generational musical prodigy, or the source of some of the most meaningful songs in the soundtrack of my life. He was a sick man, who used his wealth, fame, and power to insert himself into the lives of children and alienate them from their families so he could trap them in perverse sexual relationships. Leaving Neverland is definitely one-sided in its discussion, but that discussion is open, humiliating, disturbing, honest, and ultimately, believable.

I was upset after finishing Leaving Neverland, and I will admit it was for selfish reasons. I was frustrated that the documentary forced me to re-assess the pedestal upon which I placed Michael Jackson as an artist, and reconsider the time I spent as an ardent defender of his innocence (even as recent as last week, I found myself casting doubt upon the allegations in the film despite not having seen it at that point).  I was angry that, despite my best attempts to rationalize a distinction, I now found it impossible to separate the singer from the predator.

But that’s not possible.

To allow someone like Michael Jackson or Bill Cosby the luxury of separating their professional accomplishments from their personal lives in order to let a part of their legacy continue to exist untarnished is wrong. They are inextricably linked because they used the former to allow them to commit atrocities in the latter. Men like Michael Jackson don’t deserve the privilege of having their legacy live on as if somehow the emotion I have received from their work paints over the fact that they used those same feelings in someone else to violate them. And, yes, while I may have lost something important to me as a result of this documentary, the response to its release has the opportunity to change the way people think about sexual assault and can help grant comfort and credibility to other survivors who feel ashamed of their own stories. That’s more important than my nostalgia.