The documentary that caused a stir at Sundance has now made its public debut on HBO. The two-part, four-hour Leaving Neverland features interviews with two men and their family members. They describe in graphic detail how, as little boys, they were caught up in strategically plotted, sexually abusive relationships with their beloved idol, Michael Jackson. The film is less about the sensationalized star and more about the way child sexual abuse plays out.
Wade Robson and James Safechuck each caught the eye of the pop star when they were 6 or 7 years old. One toured with him, performing onstage with Jackson. The other met him when he won a dance contest mimicking Jackson’s moves. Both boys spent enormous amounts of time talking and playing with Jackson, staying in contact through faxes and visits. Jackson confided in each his loneliness and how much they meant to him.
All of this is documented with photos, video, phone messages, and old faxes. What can’t be documented is what happened behind closed doors when the boys shared bedrooms with Jackson. Some viewers take the interviews at face value, horrified at the truly horrific stories of manipulation and abuse. Others cry foul, pointing out that this is a different story than the boys told earlier and accusing them, along with director Dan Reed, of making up the accusations for fame or money.
Oprah Winfrey recorded a show called After Neverland, which aired after the documentary on HBO. She moderated a discussion with both of the men as well as the director. This show expands on some of the questions about why the men waited so long to talk about it, why their stories seem disjointed and changed, and why they responded the way they did.
These sad, sad stories give a deeper understanding of what happens to a child who is caught up in the spell of a predator, a spell amplified, in this case, by the predator’s fame. Jackson had power and influence over these little boys even before they met him. And as he got to know them, he made them believe they were special to him and that they could help him be happy.
In the interviews, it is obvious that their mothers also felt that pull. Their sons were talented young dancers, and the opportunities that Jackson offered them seemed invaluable. These families were sucked into a dream of fame and wealth. The dream eventually broke up Robson’s family, and, according to the interviews, subjected the boys to abuse that children are not remotely equipped to understand.
I’m not interested in blaming families for the abuse their children have suffered. Abuse is always the fault of the abuser, and a skilled abuser knows exactly how to draw in family members. But one of the hardest things for me was seeing Robson’s mother say that she does not want to know the details of the sexual abuse. She said it would give her nightmares. Her unwillingness to let her son share the full story with her so that she doesn’t have the nightmares that he lives as reality is something I cannot understand.
If you’ve ever wondered how a neighbor, or a pastor, or a family member can serially abuse someone without that becoming known until much later, this documentary will help you understand the power a trusted adult has over a young person’s mind and heart.
This documentary also prompts a call to parents to put first things first, putting nothing before God. That’s easy to say and hard to do. As parents, we have a responsibility to our children to guide them in what’s most important.
All families have their own pull of idolatry to deal with, things that call us with whispers of fame, fortune, success, and power. Club and travel sports teams that can take so much time in our children’s lives. Extra classes and study groups for tests that might push our kids into the scholastic stratosphere, getting them into top colleges and enviable careers. YouTube channels, Instagram accounts, fashionable wardrobes, or all the latest gadgets can be ways for young people to express themselves or to cultivate an image that may or may not have anything to do with who they are, let alone with the God who made them.
Heroes, dreams, and aspirations all have their place in motivating and inspiring young people. And we parents are responsible for helping our children develop the gifts and talents God has granted them. But we are called to point to something bigger, something more important, something at the core of their very beings—the Creator who formed them, the Savior who saved them, and the Spirit who can guide them to use all those talents to the glory of God, not for the glory of man—no matter how dazzling that man might be.
Leaving Neverland is a very difficult movie to watch and is probably not for everyone. If you want to get an understanding of it without watching it, consider watching the Oprah production instead, which is less graphic and still covers a lot of ground about the sexual abuse of children. The immediacy of recent revelations of what has happened in churches around the world makes it all the more important to take seriously the possibility of abuse and to understand what it looks like. (HBO)