By Ramesh Ponnuru, Bloomberg Opinion
WHAT were they thinking? If you watch Leaving Neverland, the HBO documentary about Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men who say that Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children, you will find yourselves asking that question a lot.
Often that question will be directed at the boys’ parents. Why would you let your young son sleep with an adult man? Why would you bring your son over at 1:30 in the morning to share a man’s bed? Joy Robson and Stephanie Safechuck, the mothers of the alleged victims, spend a lot of time on camera explaining themselves.
Their answers suggest that the power of celebrity and ignorance about pedophilia combined to powerful and insidious effect. Jackson, on their telling, groomed not just the boys but their families, sizing them up as vulnerable and then seducing them into a fantasy of fame and success. He took care, as well, to make the families financially dependent on him at key moments.
There were times when each mother asked her boy whether anything had happened to them. Wade and James admit they insisted at the time that nothing had. As adults, they say that they lied out of fear and guilt, and even out of a kind of love that they cannot help feeling for their abuser even now.
Their mothers say that they believed the denials. They wanted to believe them. They thought that children would speak up if they were mistreated — an assumption that underestimates pedophiles’ ability to get their victims to help them keep their secrets.
But it’s not just the parents whose actions inspire disbelief. The pop star had an enormous retinue of enablers — including, Robson and Safechuck say, lawyers who coached them on what to say about other boys’ allegations of abuse. The fortifications are still in place: The Jackson estate has responded to Leaving Neverland by blasting Robson and Safechuck as “admitted perjurers,” which they are, having said they lied in court to protect Jackson.
Not all of Jackson’s enablers, though, have been in the family’s employ.
At one point the documentary shows news footage from the early 1990s. Jackson appears at the edge of a hotel rooftop, thrilling the crowd below. A boy is there, too, looking down at the fans. The news announcer calls him Jackson’s “traveling companion,” as though his cycling through favorite pre-pubescent boys were the most normal thing in the world. (Robson sees the footage and knows he has been replaced.)
Everyone knew that something was wrong about Jackson’s relationship with boys. Everyone. Teenagers in Kansas City in the early ’90s knew it, I can attest. When Slate ran a defense of Jackson against the accusations of abuse in 2005, it was a contrarian take. But because nothing could be proved in court, either in a 1993 civil lawsuit or the criminal trial of 2004-5, our culture tacitly decided to pretend that Jackson might just be weird rather than alarming.
The opening move of that Slate defense was that if Jackson was a predator, more kids would have tried “getting rich” by going public. Like the mothers, the author thought he knew how sexually abused children would behave and, in the absence of that behavior, disbelieved the abuse accusations. The documentary shows how hard it can be for victims to acknowledge what happened to them. For both Robson and Wade, having sons of their own seemed to be the event that did the most to trigger a reckoning.
The documentary barely mentions Jackson’s music. But those who watch and come away convinced that Jackson was a monster — as I think most viewers will — may be prompted to rethink their relationship to his work.
The sophisticated thing to say is that the art should be separated from the artist’s flaws. Jackson didn’t always cooperate with that project. The videos for “Black or White,” “Smooth Criminal,” and “Man in the Mirror” all open with shots of children. “Scream,” his catchy 1995 duet with his sister Janet, is entirely an expression of anger at the “lies” and “confusion” that had been spread about him in the 1993 abuse lawsuit. He portrayed himself as the victim of people who didn’t understand him and wanted to bring him down: just what he wanted the boys in his bed to believe.
I’ve heard songs of his hundreds of times. I think it’s enough.