People always tell you who they are: Leaving Neverland reviewed

by Diana Wichtel / 30 March, 2019
Disturbing: Michael Jackson and James Safechuck , then aged 10, in 1988.

Disturbing: Michael Jackson and James Safechuck , then aged 10, in 1988.

After Leaving Neverland, it feels like the veil has been well and truly lifted to reveal the real Michael Jackson.

People always tell you who they are. Even – especially – those who believe they have the power and the right to control the narrative. The documentary in which a penitent Louis Theroux revisits his friendship with Jimmy Savile, then a sexual predator hiding in plain sight, has a scene in which Theroux asks Savile why he claimed to dislike children. “Because that puts a lot of salacious and tabloid people off the hunt,” Savile explained.

In Michael Bashir’s 2003 documentary Living with Michael Jackson, the singer declared there was nothing disturbing at all about a 44-year-old sharing his bed with other people’s children. “I give them hot milk, you know, we have cookies. It’s very charming, it’s very sweet, it’s what the whole world should do.” A television audience of millions can be groomed, too.

Peter Pan and Neverland, the startling plastic surgery, the chimpanzee: not much about Jackson, genius apart, felt right. When he died, I felt sad, despite everything. He became King of Pop against the odds in a racist world. But it was never going to end well.

Did we need to hear more of this train wreck? Yes. Fans boycotting Dan Reed’s documentary, Leaving Neverland, are missing a glacial, forensic, four-hour masterclass in predatory, controlling behaviour.

Wade Robson, five when he met Jackson after winning a dance competition in Brisbane, and James Safechuck, 10 when Jackson took a shine to him during filming of a Pepsi commercial, describe in graphic, shattering detail how they and their families were groomed and seduced by an adult who sold himself as a big kid living the childhood he never had. “He’s like a nine-year-old boy,” Safechuck told his mother, Stephanie, at the time. “For him to want to be our friend … It was a fantasy,” she said.

There was evidence of chilling calculation. The hall to Jackson’s bedroom had locked doors and bells. Both boys were told if they talked about the abuse, Jackson’s life would be over; their lives would be over. The boys’ lives as they might have been were over almost before they started. “Porn and candy, that’s what he had,” said Safechuck. For Robson, the sexual abuse began when he was seven. “You and I were brought together by God … This is how we show our love,” Jackson told him. Robson’s mother, incredibly, left him alone at Neverland for five days.

The mothers. “He did buy us a house,” said Stephanie. “It’s just coincidental, he wasn’t buying us off, but the timing’s right there. It just sounds bad.” Commentators have said the parents lost all sense of what was appropriate. Yet Joy Robson describes sneaking up to the bedroom door to listen to what was going on. This was also a masterclass in wilful denial.

Jackson’s 1993 video statement, live from Neverland, after he’d been required to submit to a physical examination over allegations that he had abused 13-year-old Jordan Chandler, showed a perfect understanding of the sort of feelings of violation and betrayal Safechuck and Robson would express in Leaving Neverland. “It was the most humiliating ordeal of my life, one that no person should ever have to suffer,” Jackson said. “It was a nightmare, a horrifying nightmare.” On Planet Jacko, the victim in the nightmare he created was always him.

The word fairytale gets used, in relation to the trippy, slippery world Jackson offered. It was the grim kind, where you get your every wish but at a terrible cost. “All those wonderful memories. It was all based on the suffering of my son,” said Stephanie Safechuck. Jackson had many little boys in his orbit.

Can I still listen to his music? Right now, I just can’t. At the end of Jackson’s 1993 statement, he said, “I ask all of you to wait and hear the truth.” After Leaving Neverland, it feels like we have.

This article was first published in the March 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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