I just watched Leaving Neverland–the sordid documentary about Michael Jackson’s sexual exploitation (and, yes, exploitation is the correct word).
In the documentary, two Michael Jackson accusers detail–in painstaking fashion–the sexual abuse they endured. According to the accusers, Jackson–their pop king idol–abused them for years. More than just detailing the horrific abuse, the documentary explores how Jackson skillfully manipulated the victims and their families for his own self-serving, perverse fantasies. Drawing on his fame and limitless resources, Jackson showered the victims and their families with attention–providing the pop star with unfettered access to the defenseless boys.
The documentary raises a number of uncomfortable questions: Why did the victims’ parents entrust Jackson? Why didn’t anyone–Jackson staffers or Neverland employees, for example– intervene on behalf of Wade, James, and the other vulnerable children? And, lastly, how could a predator like Jackson engage in such abominable behavior (purportedly sexually abusing Wade while the victim’s mother slept in a next door room) without detection?
These questions don’t have easy answers.
Child sexual abuse is complex–even more so for its young, impressionable victims. For many victims–including Wade and James, there is a level of confusion. As the Jackson documentary proves, child sex abusers can skillfully commingle affection–even love–with torturous abuse. And as a little boy or girl, how can you possibly disentangle sexual abuse from your abuser’s love? Paraphrasing Oprah’s spot-on observation, “If the abuser is good, you won’t even know he abused you.”
And as the documentary proves, Jackson was good–skillfully using the pretense of love to exploit young boys. Wade and James revered Jackson; for both of them, their relationship was “special.” Preying on the boys’ emotional immaturity/confusion (this God-like figure couldn’t possibly hurt me), Jackson would then exploit their adulation–even love–for his own sexual desires.
It was disturbing to watch such skillful manipulation (aka “grooming”); I noticeably gasped when the narrator described Jackson’s sexual predilections.
More than my own discomfort, I ached for Wade and James. The two boys, now adults, were still trying to reconcile Jackson’s obsequious “love” with his sexual abuse. As (semi)functioning adults, an air of confusion still permeated their relationship with Jackson. From Wade in particular, there was an undercurrent of, “Well, maybe, Jackson loved me so it wasn’t really truly abuse” (trust me, Wade, it was abuse; love isn’t plying a defenseless seven year old with candy to later grope him).
Jackson apologists: Make no mistake, Jackson’s sexual abuse has destroyed lives. Trying to reconcile his own complicity, James is a broken man. In visceral terms, he describes his own self-loathing. “I hated myself–but I never knew why,” he acknowledges. When he–finally and thankfully–confides in a counselor, he begins to understand the origin (and depth) of his despair. It is only then–when the shameful secret has finally been divulged–that James can begin to heal. Even then, James concedes that recovery will be a long, arduous process.
Wade and James are survivors; their courage is only matched by Jackson’s callousness. As Wade and James continue to recover (and they will–even if it is piecemeal), they have an important role to play–shaping how we as a society recognize grooming, emotional manipulation, and trauma.