It has taken me 4 months, 15 days, and hours of procrastination to write a response to the disgusting taste left in my mouth after watching the 4-hour documentary, Leaving Neverland. As a therapist who specializes in both the music industry and the trauma of sexual assault and rape, I had to witness this film, correction - deposition, for myself.
I was only 15-years-old in 1993 when Jackson was first accused of pedophilia. A mass media cavalry followed him in and out of courtrooms as he paid out a $15 million go-away settlement to 13-year-old Jordan Chandler of sexual molestation, a charge Jackson denied and was never charged for. The theme of Jackson and his boy/child entourages would shadow him for years and lead to more checks to more families. And all along, weddings continued to rock Billie Jean and we just Beat It. Let it happen. Continue on.
I always found ways to excuse these truths, to make them more comfortable for me, to not fully admit that music I loved and supported came from an artist so highly disturbed and criminal.
Wasn’t he molested as a child? Wasn’t his father abusive? He was so famous at such a young age. The argument always stood that he had his childhood stolen from him. I understand all that.
But for years, we saw the signs and looked the other way.
At least I did.
Now an educated therapist in my 40’s, and in the wake of the #metoo movement, I should know better. #ICanDoBetter
I am not questioning the legalities of Michael Jackson’s past. I already know the truth. I understand he was a sick man and sexual predator. It is about my coming to terms with his actions, what his music meant to me, and my ability to separate the artist from the person.
When #metoo, Meets #toolate
“I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change..”
- Michael Jackson, Man In The Mirror
Nonetheless, MJ changed the landscape of music as we know it. He is a legend. An icon. Possibly still the most recognized musician in the world alongside Elvis and The Beatles. With music so relevant today, I question what to do and how to feel when I hear it.
The Day the Music Died
After meeting Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the subjects of the Leaving Neverland documentary, my mind easily shifted. Respect filled my tears as I witnessed the detailed accounts of the abuse they suffered. These two extraordinary men recount the manipulation and trauma of surviving Jackson as children, how their lives were stolen, lost, found again, and recovered(ing).
What Robson and Safechuck accomplish in this film is incredible. They hand you vulnerability, fear, and confusion through the lens of bravery and courage. They accomplish in two days of interviews what takes most clients a lifetime to address. At its core, this film is NOT about Michael Jackson. It is a story of how people are manipulated and victimized. Its efforts effectively and systematically break down Jackson’s abusive methods to a sharp T.
Leaving Neverland is an education in what it means to be groomed, manipulated, and tricked. As an educator in this language, I want to assure you that this movie is on point. In a nutshell this is how it went...
He used his fame, fortune, and influence to target young boys and their families.
He gained their trust through gifts, special attention, and resources.
He isolated the boys from their parents.
He made their relationship secret, and reinforced it with ongoing beliefs that they share something special, something no one else has, or can understand.
He made them believe that he needed them, and they needed him.
He made threats that put fear into his victims that if they got caught they would both go to jail, and no one would ever believe them.
He would threaten physical violence, or suicidal and homicidal threats.
Now go listen to any Michael Jackson song and see how you feel. If you are like me, the record will scratch to a sudden and unsettling end. When the music goes dark and quiet fills the space of your ears, you will hear the echoes of 1 in 6 young boys, and nearly 1 in 3 young girls who share this list with Robson and Safechuck.
You will remember that this is bigger than MJ. It is about how we manage our bystander accountability. At its least, we can begin to question how to manage such opposing experiences - our love for music, and the contempt we hold towards an artist we know perpetrated such horrific violence.
This is not isolated to MJ. It extends to Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Ryan Adams, Kevin Spacey, Louie C.K., and hundreds more, across industries, whose art, leadership, and contributions are now buried in the abyss of unusable content.
It is in the depths of this Thriller that I find my Empathy.
So when at a recent wedding, when the band played Billie Jean - it didn’t trigger the memory of Michael Jackson, and I didn’t question his past to justify my good time. Instead, I thought about Wade Robson and James Safechuck. I thought about their words, their truth, their story.
Then I walked off the dance floor. And it was easy.