Watching Leaving Neverland was a horrific exercise in emotional self-abuse. However, like much of the nation, I was drawn to sit through the entire documentary. Why wouldn’t I be? After all, it was about a musical icon, it’s apparently loaded with lurid, salacious details, and an opportunity to slam or defend, (choose your poison), a child-like man pushed off his pedestal by a public run rampant in the repulsive, yet mesmerizing details of his fall. What’s not to watch?
Michael Jackson is easily dismissed as a parasitical pedophile. A child molester. A mightily talented molester, but a molester, nevertheless. However, (and I’ve got my Kevlar undies on in expectation of the many arrows I know will be shot my way over this remark), if you think objectively about this, even after watching this film, one might come to realize that Michael Jackson himself was an unwilling victim of abuse as well. Of course, we have no idea if he was sexually abused; he was certainly emotionally abused. And it’s been pretty well documented that he and his brothers were forced into submission to a constant and grueling performance itinerary by a harsh and greedy parent determined to turn his children into his personal meal tickets; Michael becoming the biggest ticket of all. However, the less spoken of unforgivable and in my opinion, most nefarious crime against the family, particularly against him, was that of a childhood ripped away, locked up and doomed to imprisonment until money and fame set it free. Unfortunately, much like an arrested inmate whose life stopped at 18, remained imprisoned, and released after decades into an unknown and unchartered adulthood, it stood lost; stagnant, with little knowledge and/or encouragement for growth. And clearly, based on what’s been exhibited of Jackson’s career, his behaviors, his life style and activities, and encouragement to do so, he became and remained a very wealthy dysfunctional child coming to terms with his own sexuality via those he was most comfortable with: other children. However, he was a child who knew the difference between right and wrong.
Regardless of how one might feel about his personal life, Michael Jackson was a gifted singer and dancer and I appreciated that, so I’ve always overlooked his weirdness, as have millions of others. We loved and enjoyed him, tolerating strange and disturbing behavior we most likely would have questioned if he had been our twisted middle-aged next-door neighbor or the local whack job down the street. So we took him with a large grain of salt, shook our heads and smiled. And forgave him. He was, after all, Michael Jackson, and therefore, forgivable.
That is, until our adoration and forgiveness went up in the inglorious flames of accusation as skeleton after skeleton walked out of his closet, revealing what friendship with Jackson entailed. And those flames burned very hot.
But I digress, because intriguing as it was, I didn’t find this documentary to be so much about Jackson as it was about the enormity of the loss the subjects of this film suffered via Jackson and his enablers.
I’ve read some discourse, and participated in some myself, about the history the boys, now men, shared with Jackson. And while it isn’t the majority, I’ve been somewhat surprised by a few skeptics willing to write them off as scammers and fame seekers by participating in this documentary simply because both of them had denied for years that they were abused by Jackson. That’s not surprising in the least. What else would a rational person expect them to do?
We are talking of men who, as children were subjected to years of an insidious manipulation that adults would have a difficult time resisting or discussing. A bottleneck of confusion and emotions indescribable by pretty much anybody. How would we expect these men to have unleashed that torrent of shame, embarrassment and pain when they were only children? And how, as grown men, would they ever be able to release their wounded child into a public so quick to condemn the victim rather than the perpetrator? The very nature of emotion would never allow for such catastrophic abuse to be released calmly and placidly, if at all, even as an adult. So, the world, and their supposed responsible parents took them at their word. After all, the sellout of their children’s innocence was a small price to pay for the luxurious living they found themselves living. Do I sound harsh? Good. I mean to.
While listening to the mothers speak of their lives with Michael in it, I couldn’t help but be in awe of their deliberate ignorance of what their sons were going through and even now, with their boys grown, married, children of their own, failing to own their part in what happened, they still don’t accept their roles in the loss of their children. And I mean “loss” metaphorically of course; their boys lived through the abuse and moved on. They survived. Or did they?
The saddest thing about a documentary such as this one sparking so much controversy and discussion is that far too many people focus on the details and the perpetuator of the abuse. The abused themselves often gets very short shrift; they’re simply not as interesting as the perpetrator of the abuse. Often, there’s little consideration of the ramifications years of abuse can cause on the life of the abused. And these young men are certainly affected by their time with Jackson. The shaking of their hands, the sweat on their faces, the breaking of their voices. The pain of violation in their eyes reflect the magnitude of the betrayal. I recognize and know that look well; I’ve seen it for a lifetime in my own reflection and in the reflection of far too many around me who have lived through similar violations. So, is it really survival? Or is it a developed ability to cope? And many are lucky. They do cope well. They become advocates for children of abuse. They become writers, artists, musicians. They become warriors fighting a system that has far too often let children down. They will find creative sources and resources to bring this nasty and repulsive crime against children out of the dark and into the light. But unfortunately, many will spend years at the hands of a perpetrator; (often more than one) and come out of those years with a dedicated inability to cope. They’ll spend a lifetime fighting depression, drugs, alcoholic, overeating. They’ll never have the ability to create and maintain strong, loving relationships. Many find themselves unable to maintain long term employment.
The Mayo Clinic conducted a study to systematically assess the evidence for an association between sexual abuse and a lifetime diagnosis of psychiatric disorders which was published in the US National Library of Medicine. The conclusion reads:
Survivors of sexual abuse are commonly encountered in general medical practice. It is now known that sexual abuse survivors face a challenging spectrum of physical and mental health concerns, with associated higher health care use and greater medical expenditures. This systematic review and meta-analysis demonstrate that sexual abuse is associated with multiple psychiatric disorders, including lifetime diagnosis of anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, sleep disorders, and attempted suicide. Improved recognition of the link between a history of sexual abuse and mental health disorders may increase the identification of abuse survivors and lead to better treatment and outcomes. Further research is necessary to better understand the pathogenesis of psychiatric disease in victims of sexual abuse and to more effectively treat survivors coping with long-term mental health outcomes.
In this case, these men grew up, married and had children and the effects of Jackson’s actions on them continued, affecting the relationships between them and their wives, and very obviously between them and their families. Even after revealing the history of their “friendship” with Michael, they carry the weight of the shame, guilt, embarrassment, pain and sense of betrayal someone they valued as a god in their lives. The confusion of their emotions is apparent. And it hurts to watch.
The concept of Neverland itself was both brilliant and highly deceptive. Jackson’s descriptive invitations to his home evoked visions of Peter Pan and his happy crew; carefree and childlike, indulging in a sunshine world devoid of responsibility and burden. The realities of Neverland were far darker. Walking through the door to Neverland was a walk into a hell ruled by a man obviously disturbed and enabled by paid leeches willing to sit back ignoring his indulgent and unacceptable proclivities towards children, turning away as families were torn apart and young talented boys irreparably damaged simply because the perpetrator of these acts was named Michael Jackson.
For me, watching Leaving Neverland was a walk into hell. And honestly, I wasn’t sure what the point of creating that documentary was. He’s been dead 10 years now. He’s left a legacy behind that will always be a tossup: Was he an amazing and altruistic human, dedicating his life to bettering the lives of others, particularly children? Or was he a very ill man, with illicit desires he tried desperately to mask behind altruism? In my mind, this documentary answered those questions pretty well. You’ll just have to decide for yourself.
(*Sexual Abuse and Lifetime Diagnosis of Psychiatric Disorders: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis Laura P. Chen, BS, M. Hassan Murad, MD, Molly L. Paras, BS, Kristina M. Colbenson, BS, Amelia L. Sattler, BS, Erin N. Goranson, BS, Mohamed B. Elamin, MD, Richard J. Seime, PhD, Gen Shinozaki, MD, Larry J. Prokop, MLS, and Ali Zirakzadeh, MD)