Leaving Neverland lets Wade Robson and James Safechuck tell their story about Michael Jackson

Leaving Neverland, directed by Dan Reed, Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Leaving Neverland is a tough film to watch, but it’s important that we listen to survivors of abuse. It took Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s decades to feel safe revealing this four hour story, and the hope is to remove the stigmas around sexual abuse that keep it hidden.

In the beginning of Leaving Neverland, they acknowledge that Michael Jackson was a kind, gentle loving person. That’s the point. He can be both that and something darker.

Michael Jackson was well documented so there is a lot of archival footage of him, some involving Robson and Safechuck when they were on stage or in commercials and videos with him. There were no cameras there in private so Safechuck, Robson and their families tell those stories.

Robson and Safechuck’s descriptions of the sexual activity is graphic and vivid. They describe the familiar pattern we’ve heard from multiple children from the’ 90s and ‘00s of sleepovers and laying in bed with Jackson, but with damning specificity.

The attempts to silence Safechuck and Robson in 2019 are the same as they’ve been since the ‘90s too. Defenders of Jackson say Robson and Safechuck changed their story so they can’t be believed.

This is something that’s going to have to change on a societal level. We need to understand how abusers condition their victims and make them complicit in the coverup, so we have to allow for survivors to reclaim their own stories.

In part two of Leaving Neverland, Robson and Safechuck explain how Jackson would intimidate them into compliance. Robson says that at age 11, Jackson convinced him both of them would go to jail for life if they were found out.

Both were also coached for the trial, and that included defending Jackson on TV. They were older for the 2003 investigation but the seeds of fear and intimidation had been planted long ago.

It’s not to say that all courtroom testimony is corrupt, just like it would be naive to believe swearing under oath is infallible. We need to allow for the nuances of individual cases.

The fact that the 1993 trial was settled convinced Safechuck and Robson’s mothers that the accusation was false. In their reasoning, no parent would settle that case if they believed their child had been abused. I would think not either, but the systems of abuse may be more complicated than that.

The parents confirm there were subtler tricks to move them further and further away from their sons’ rooms while traveling with Michael. When Robson’s mom refused to let Wade live with Jackson alone for a year, she says Jackson told her, “I always get what I want.

That sounds sinister. I can see it as a genuine statement by someone who never learned how to handle no. The world’s most famous rock star surrounded by enablers did always get what he wanted. That can become dangerous when you’re dealing with human lives.

When Robson and Safechuck tell their wives and mothers their story, it frays their relationships with both. You can see all of these subjects are coping with grief, guilt, shame, pain and more over not reporting or not noticing their children being abused.

Watching these interviews, I don’t doubt anyone’s sincerity. You see that the victims love Michael and are as sorry he did this as they are that they suffered. That’s a battle many people in abusive relationships face.

Jackson himself is a sad story. All that fame and he was so lonely. We also know of the allegations against Michael’s father, Joe. Leaving Neverland doesn’t delve into the Jackson family background, but one could infer that the cycle wasn’t broken in Michael’s lifetime. We can take in the bigger picture without absolving the abusers for their actions.

As difficult as it is for an objective viewer to absorb four hours of Robson and Safechuck’s story, it will probably be even more difficult for people who’ve suffered abuse themselves. Hopefully giving these two survivors a voice will empower other survivors to feel safe coming forward, and make the world more compassionate to hear them.

Leaving Neverland airs Sunday and Monday March 3 and 4 at 8PM on HBO. Robson and Safechuck spoke about the film at the Sundance Film Festival premiere.

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