Michael Jackson Swore He’d Never Harm a Child. ‘Leaving Neverland’ Asks What He Considered Harm.
Advisory warnings at the beginning of television productions tend to have the same impact as pre-flight airline safety instructions about putting on your oxygen mask before helping others. They’re valuable and necessary and after a while we pay no attention. They become white noise.
It’s worth paying heed to the advisory that precedes Leaving Neverland, an already controversial four-hour documentary alleging sexual abuse of two young boys by the late Michael Jackson.
The advisory warns that the descriptions of sexual abuse could disturb some viewers. They could.
Accusers Wade Robson and James Safechuck, now middle-aged men married with children of their own, explain matter of factly the movements, actions and interactions into which they say Michael repeatedly drew them while they were still years away from becoming teenagers.
The stories, told separately, dovetail in clinical details and M.O.
The question, of course, is whether the stories are true. The Jackson family says they are not. Jackson himself was tried on child abuse charges in 2005, four years before his death, and acquitted. Both Robson and Safechuck denied for years that there was any sexual component to their friendship with one of popular music’s all-time deities.
Leaving Neverland, a four-hour production that airs at 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday on HBO, argues that Robson and Safechuck were lying then and are telling the truth now.
Toward that end, director Dan Reed constructs a chronological walkthrough of both men’s relationships with Jackson, using interviews with the men themselves and their families.
Both Safechuck and Robson defend their changing stories by explaining that years ago they felt the need to protect their lives, their families and Jackson himself from the potentially catastrophic fallout of a child abuse scandal.
Robson capsulizes his earlier silence by saying that for many years, well into his 20s, he didn’t think of his sexual sessions with Jackson as abuse. He thought of them as caring expressions of love. When Jackson eventually took new young boys as his special friends, he didn’t wonder if Michael was abusing them. He was jealous. He felt jilted.
Safechuck expresses similarly evolving emotions, echoing Robson’s assertion that having this sort of intimate contact with perhaps the world’s most famous musical artist made him feel the luckiest kid in the world. Who wouldn’t want to hang onto that? Who’d want to betray it and turn something special into something ugly?
Except, of course, for this. Robson was 6 when he met Jackson. Safechuck was 10. Jackson was in his 30s. This does, both men admit today, cast a much darker shadow over their play sessions.
Still, they remember life with Michael, on the road or at his Neverland compound, as endless fun. There were games all day, movies in the evening, free candy and popcorn.
It was after the movie, when Michael took them into his bed, that they say he read them children’s stories and “taught” them things that he said people who care for each other like to do with each other’s bodies.
Nothing was rough or forced, both men say. They never felt the older man was taking advantage of them. He talked about physical contact as an expression of love and asked only that it remain their little secret, not shared with others who might not understand.
If that sounds like Pedophilia 101, it gets creepier when Robson and Safechuck recount the details. That pre-documentary warning about the graphic nature of the descriptions is accurate.
Leaving Neverland addresses a number of ancillary questions as well. The mothers of Robson and Safechuck, who were brought into the Jackson orbit, treated like stars and given management-type positions, both insist they had no idea there was any sexual element to Jackson’s affection for their sons.
Both say they thought t was just what it appeared on the surface and to the outside world: a famous entertainer who had never had a childhood creating one with the proceeds of his work, and sharing it with a new generation of children. He was kind, they say, and he was human, a life-size person and not the outsized image seen by the world.
The parents and Robson’s siblings, who were also folded into Jackson’s circle, admit that like the boys, they felt they had won the lottery and been sprinkled with pixie dust. Life was blessed.
“I’d never been in that kind of world before,” says Wade’s mother, Stephanie Robson.
This leaves open the question, probably unanswerable by the people involved, whether on some level they didn’t want to look for signs of trouble because that might have ended the dream.
They should have, they say now, raising the fair question of whether they could say anything else.
Safechuck and Robson both went on to successful careers, with Robson becoming an award-winning choreographer for the likes of Britney Spears.
Both men married women and became parents. They both also say they’re still sorting out what happened with Michael Jackson.
They’re not alone.