Introduction: Leaving Neverland
‘Never Leaving Neverland’ might’ve been a better title for this recent high-profile HBO documentary, given its relentless focus on the Neverland ranch as the sole cause of Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s later mental health difficulties.
The exhaustive 4-hour documentary explores allegations made by Robson and Safechuck that they were sexually abused as children by the singer Michael Jackson. Robson and Safechuck are clearly articulate and thoughtful people, which lends their allegations initial credibility and persuasiveness.
But the documentary is equally striking for its one-sidedness, as many commentators (from Rolling Stone to Entertainment Weekly) note. “They have provided no independent evidence and absolutely no proof in support of their accusations. The two accusers testified under oath that these events never occurred.” It’s certainly striking that in 2009 Wade wrote that Jackson was ”one of the main reasons I believe in the pure goodness of human kind”, given what he now claims. His earlier court statements absolutely denying any sexual wrong-doing on the part of Jackson are as convincing as his later statements that Jackson was, in fact, a serial paedophile.
The accusation of one-sidedness and bias is in one sense fair. We are not, as viewers, given the chance to question or interrogate the allegations, and more importantly, we are not given a chance to question the framework within which these allegations are being presented to us. Indeed, in this unusually graphic documentary, the omissions are as equally striking as the emissions.
For one thing, there is no mention made at all of Jackson’s own, horrific, abuse as a child. Jermaine Jackson wrote in his book that he was haunted for years by Michael’s screams when their father whipped him. La Toya Jackson (Michael’s sister) later revealed that she was sexually abused by her father Joe Jackson, and her brother was beaten. This is clearly abuse on a different magnitude of scale and intensity than anything alleged to have happened at Neverland, and it’s impact on Jackson was clearly profound. Not seeing how victims of child abuse can often become perpetrators would’ve been so helpful and beneficial to a documentary purporting to have some therapeutic element and value. And clearly Jackson’s experience of violent abuse as a child directly fed into his whole creation of Neverland – the title of the documentary – and everything that went on there.
Equally striking was the omission of race in the story, as a recent Public Seminar ‘Past and Present’ podcast on the documentary thoughtfully explored. Race was perhaps the defining element in Jackson’s whole extraordinary and multivalent life. As Slate.com powerfully note, “it’s curious that Dan Reed’s provocative HBO documentary Leaving Neverland declines to confront race almost at all. Leaving Neverland offers up a racial spectacle—two white men trashing the reputation of a black man—and then refuses to grapple with that spectacle’s historical dimensions.”
It’s certainly an odd omission, one made even more striking in a year where we have seen repeated linkings of culturally important black figures (Crosby, R Kelly, Jackson) with issues of abuse and sexuality, uneasily echoing and perhaps drawing on a much longer and disturbing history, which surely should’ve at least have been covered. As the Public Seminar podcast noted, there has been no similar outcry after it became known that David Bowie (a comparable white superstar) regularly and publicly slept with with 13-year-old girls. As the Huffington Post noted, “In the 1970s, David Bowie, along with Iggy Pop, Jimmy Page, Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger and others, were part of the ‘Baby Groupies’ scene in LA. The ‘Baby Groupies’ were 13 to 15 year old girls who were sexually exploited and raped by male rock stars.” There has been no comparable discussion of banning Bowie’s music from radio play as a result. What makes Michael Jackson so different?
The mention of the ‘Baby Groupies’ scene links this discussion with a much wider and more worrying aspect of the whole story, which concerns the wider, structural, mechanisms of abuse that are available and embedded in the whole entertainment industry – an entertainment industry posited on seduction and manipulation.
Among the many celebrities who have allegedly slept with girls under the age of consent are Elvis Presley (Priscilla Beaulieu, 14), Marvin Gaye (Denise Gordy, 15), Iggy Pop (Sable Starr, 13) and Chuck Berry (Janice Escalanti, 14). R. Kelly, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have all been accused or convicted of sexually assaulting minors. There seems to be some uneasy and unspoken correlation with the enormous sense of inner ‘lack’ or childhood absence that drive many pop stars – drive them in many instances to become manic (‘larger than life’), libido-driven sexualised performers for our attention – and the equal lack fuelling our own interest in them, in the hope that these ‘stars’ will fulfil us in some way.
George Michael’s comment that “It’s not the something extra that makes the star—it’s the something that’s missing”—that it is not what you have that makes you a ‘star’ but what you don’t have—is observant and profound in this respect. I discuss this perversely symbiotic dynamic in my earlier study of Bowie (‘David Bowie: Alienation and Stardom‘, 2016): “It was a process that both fascinated and troubled Bowie, the fact that so many people were looking for things to ‘follow’ and without perhaps knowing what they were following, or indeed looking for, and how easily popular culture allows them to do this.”
This sense of profound lack or ‘wanting’, and of wanting to follow, keys directly into the stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck. The dynamic is perhaps particularly evident in Wade’s troubled upbringing.
Wade’s mother, as we see in the documentary, “was a very ambitious stage mum, and it was her who trained her kids to work hard from an early childhood”. It was she who pushed Wade to connect with Jackson, and drove him to rehearse relentlessly even before that (including practising dance routines on holidays and over Christmas). Two years later, Wade and his family went to California and his mother again made contact with Jackson. Indeed, Robson’s mother left her husband and moved the whole of the rest of the family to LA, in order to try and boost Wade’s career. As one article notes, “the Robsons were uprooted from Australia to Los Angeles in the early 1990s.” This significant and destabilising “uprooting”, and the family dislocation and dysfunctions that lay behind it, seems to be what is in part also driving Wade’s more recent family and mental problems.
As the article notes, this uprooting “was not the right move for Wade’s father Dennis, who would eventually take his own life in 2002 after he found himself alone in Australia with his family thousands of miles away.” Wade’s relations with both his parents by this stage seem to have been toxic and profoundly unstable. When his father visited Wade in LA, Wade reported that “My reaction was just to get angry, and I just wanted him to go.” Shortly afterwards, his father committed suicided.
In the documentary, Wade strikingly reveals that he refused to grieve after his father hanged himself and chose instead to focus on his projects with Britney Spears and *NSYNC. In the commentary he also notes that at around this time he felt “zero emotion” for his mother, finding it hard even to embrace her. In a recent interview with prime-time talk show host Oprah Winfrey, both Wade and James have said that they still do not ‘forgive’ their parents – again pointing to the wider familial dynamics that were disturbed and working on this mess.
Wade speaks movingly about how his experience of having a child altered his view of what had happened to him at Neverland. He says he visualised what happened to him, happening to his own child. This is perhaps one of the most powerful and convincing moments of the whole documentary, suggesting how our new therapeutic understandings of early trauma and abuse can manifest itself years later, even inter-generationally.
But even this moment is open to challenge (which of course we are not allowed to do in Dan Reed’s monocular framework). Others have revealed that this practice of ‘visualisation’ was in fact one routinely used by Wade, and which he even promoted on his blogs as an aid to get what you want: “Learn how to visualise”, he exhorts his followers. “I’ll visualise what the studio looks like when we’re recording. I’ll picture walking to go get coffee, simple little things. Every time I’ve done that, wholeheartedly, it’s always happened. It’s never failed.”
A more recent documentary, looking carefully into some of the claims made in Reed’s documentary, has suggested that perhaps this visualisation technique helped him after he’d decided that in fact he had been sexually abused and was suing the Jackson estate for millions of dollars. What seems to have initially triggered the two nervous breakdowns that Wade suffered from in 2011 and 2012 was actually his feelings of intense anxiety fuelled by an understandable sense of pressure and expectation weighing down on him.
In 2011 he pulled out of his first major film directing job (he said he’d hoped he would become “bigger than Steven Spielberg”), finding it hard to deal with the pressures involved – which led to his first breakdown. Unable to continue with the project left him with a huge sense of purposeless and failure: in a blog he wrote about his “feeling of shame that I was a complete failure. I felt that my entire life had been building to this opportunity to become a film director … and then I blew it. Therefore my entire life I believe had been in vain. Thank God I had Amanda and our baby boy because beyond that I felt no purpose anymore.”
On May 16th 2011, after this first nervous breakdown, he went into therapy with Dr Larry Shaw, a therapist whose focus, perhaps significantly, is on people in high pressure jobs. He did not make any allegations of childhood sexual abuse to his therapist, or indeed anyone at all. At the same time, he apparently fell out with the MJ estate over the size of his role in a Cirque de Soileil tribute to Jackson, and seems to have felt bitterness to the estate at this further sense of failure.
“His prime struggle all his life seems to have been with ‘career expectations’ and the demand to be ‘perfect’,” one commentator observed. “Nothing was ever enough” Wade confided in a poignant blog at this time. “I actually became more depressed the more success I achieved because, time after time, the expectation of fulfilment and happiness was not met. It felt like climbing a mountain and every time I looked up to the summit, it had moved further out of my reach. What if there was no achievement or bundle or achievements that could ever make me happy? What when would be the purpose of work? What then would be the purpose of life?”
In March 2012, he suffered a second nervous breakdown and went to a new therapist in April 2012, where he started an “insight-oriented therapy”. It was after this that he first started making these allegations of child sexual abuse.
Dan Reed, the documentary maker previously most known for his film ‘The Paedophile Hunter’ (2014) has said that his Leaving Neverland project was “a story of grooming and pedophilia.” He defines a pedophile as “any predator who inserts himself into a family and gets them to trust him.” He also indirectly notes that he himself had ‘inserted’ himself into the lives of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, and got them to trust him.
We repeatedly hear in the programme how ‘grooming’ is presented as ‘training’ people to see things in a certain way with a view to eliciting or inviting sexual material or experiences from them. There seems to be an element of grooming both with the “insight-oriented therapy” Robson saw in 2012, after which he seems to have reframed his earlier experiences of abuse, and with Reed, the director who actively sought both Robson and Safechuck out, in order to provide material for his next project.
Safechuck also changed his story after apparently consulting a therapist, and now claims he has been abused “hundreds” of times by Jackson, and that MJJ Productions and MJJ Ventures are in fact “child sexual abuse operations”. If these entirely unsubstantiated and unproven allegations do turn out to be false, like every other accusation of child molestation made against Jackson, you wonder whether there might be a significant backlash against contemporary therapy and therapists, who might be seen to be steering – or ‘grooming’, in Dan Reed’s charged lexicon – their patients into seeing evidence of abuse where there is none, or who are consciously or unconsciously relocating and reframing much wider familial, social, and cultural structures of abuse and dysfunction in terms of personal psychology and ‘early relational trauma’, the current fashion in therapy today. Such backlashes have occurred before and have done an immense amount of damage to the profession, as happened for example with ‘False Memory Syndrome’, a widespread social phenomenon where misguided therapists cause patients to invent memories of sexual abuse (see ‘False memories of childhood abuse‘, British Psychological Society, 2017).
As the recent compelling Oprah Winfrey interview with them suggests, Reed’s documentary could potentially be a real lightbulb ‘moment’, both for our society’s slow understanding of the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse and for the recognition of the value of therapy in helping us confront, and heal those dynamics. But for this discussion to really be of lasting value, I think we also need to widen our frames and see how much larger patterns and structures of abuse exist. Perhaps America is having it’s own ‘Savile’ moment, as we did in Britain, where we painfully began to glimpse how institutions – from the BBC to major hospitals and prisons – can collude with this systemic abuse; how childhood entertainment structures, politicians, and royalty can facilitate this abuse, and how the current ‘normal’ family structures themselves seem designed to generate abusive power dynamics and relational patterns of abuse, as indeed Wilhelm Reich observed a century ago.
Rod Tweedy is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation, a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience, and the editor of The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness. He has written a number of articles exploring aspects of contemporary culture, including David Bowie: Alienation and Stardom, My Name is Legion: The British Legion and the Control of Remembrance and a review of the Ernst Friedrich book ‘War against War!’ in How We See War.
They Don’t Care About Us (Prison Version), from Jackson’s HIStory album. As one critic observed, “The HIStory album is probably the most anti establishment album you’ll ever hear by a mainstream popstar. It’s anti-police, it’s anti-military, it’s anti-banker, it’s anti-corporate, it’s anti-lawyer, anti-insurance – he’s ripping the shit out of everyone. It’s an incredible piece of work – easily his most personal work, least commercial work, of his adult solo career.” The video, directed by Spike Lee, features film of the American police beating Rodney King, footage of police attacking African Americans, the military crackdown of civil rights protesters, images of the American Ku Klux Klan, martial law, and other human rights abuses. It’s an indictment of the whole American criminal justice system, it’s inherent racism, it’s class nature, and the way the police and media collude to discredit and criminalise prominent black figures. Interestingly, and as if to prove the suggestion of systemic collusion alluded to by Jackson, the New York Times immediately sought to discredit the song by calling it ‘anti-Semitic’, just a day before the album’s release – a fascinating insight into the mechanisms of control, manipulation, and enchainment the song describes.