Leaving Neverland: Reconciling With the ‘Man in the Mirror’

Michael Jackson performs during the Halftime show in Super Bowl XXVII on January 31, 1993 in Pasadena, California.
Photo: George Rose (Getty Images)

Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the documentary described in this article contains extremely graphic descriptions of child sexual abuse.

I had never seen anyone dance the way he did.

My two younger cousins and I spent a multitude of hours watching—no, analyzing—Michael Jackson’s HIStory, the VHS anthology of his greatest hits. We created a makeshift dance studio at my auntie’s house, learning the deftly choreographed routines of Thriller, Beat It, Bad, Remember the Time and beyond. We enthusiastically watched and re-watched as images of Michael’s larger-than-life essence flickered across the television screen. His lithe body moving like liquid, raising a metaphorical middle finger to Sir Isaac Newton and his little “gravity.” His perfectly white-toothed and mischievous smile that rivaled the sun. His glittery glove raised in the air in triumph, glistening like a star atop a Christmas tree. We were enraptured.

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Little did I know, in adulthood, I’d be doing another dance; a dance of reconciling—and of reckoning.

Cue HBO’s Leaving Neverland. Via HBO’s press release:

The two-part documentary Leaving Neverland explores the separate but parallel experiences of two young boys, James “Jimmy” Safechuck, at age ten, and Wade Robson, at age seven, both of whom were befriended by Michael Jackson. They and their families were invited into his wondrous world, entranced by the singer’s fairy-tale existence as his career reached its peak.

Through gut-wrenching interviews with Safechuck, now 37, and Robson, now 41, as well as their mothers, wives and siblings, Leaving Neverland crafts a portrait of sustained abuse, exploring the complicated feelings that led both men to confront their experiences after both had a young son of their own.

Leaving Neverland trailer / HBO

Directed and produced by Dan Reed, Leaving Neverland’s world premiere occurred in January at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. After hearing traumatized testimonies from the debut screening (including the counselors needed onsite), my anxiety was bubbling like a lidded pot threatening to boil over.

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After HBO sent me screeners, I sat down with trepidation to watch the two-part documentary, which totals an excruciating four hours in duration. The dance reemerged like a shaky eight-count as I peered at the link in my inbox; I vacillated between avoidance and acceptance before I finally got the gumption to click on it.

I knew once I did, my memories of Michael Jackson would never be the same.

On Reckoning

During a discussion about “cancel culture,” Dara Tafakari of Truly Tafakari once mused on social media that we wouldn’t have the need for said culture if we didn’t place people on pedestals in the first place.

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Never was this truth more acute than for the King of Pop himself; a man of cultural royalty and impact. Yet, still a man.

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Michael was the very embodiment of an enigma. He felt entirely personable, like a friend, yet at the same time, extremely unreachable and untouchable.

Michael was a star, an icon, a symbol, a cultural catalyst. He was everything—he had to be everything.

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But what of the little boy from Gary, Ind., who grew to be the man who somehow had to process being thrust into the spotlight at such a tender age? It’s a spotlight he never left—has never left, even after his death. Who does that boy become?

On Triggers

I admittedly had to pause the documentary every so often, as Robson and Safechuck mirrored each other’s recounts of masturbation, anal penetration, and oral stimulation. As children.

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In the documentary, Safechuck mentioned a particular phenomenon scientifically known as “arrested development,” where he described feeling like a child despite having “grown up.” It’s a feeling (and mental state) all too real to me, having also experienced childhood molestation. Growing up, I felt emotionally and physically stunted when it came to sex (which led me to EDMR processing with my therapist in Chicago); I still struggle with accepting an authentic definition of intimacy to this very day.

I was triggered when Robson and Safechuck described the grooming. I was triggered when they described the self-blame. I was triggered when they described the initial lies they told themselves and others. All of it felt familiar, in some aspect or another.

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On Conflict

My personal default is “Believe victims. Believe survivors.”

Leaving Neverland is a film with the sole purpose of allowing Robson and Safechuck to voice their stories. Fans and critics alike have argued that the absence of balanced counterpoints discredits the film as a true documentary.

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I look back to 1993, and the allegations brought by Jordan “Jordie” Chandler. I was about nine years old when I watched Michael speak directly from my television screen to tell me (and millions of others) that he could never hurt a child, choking up as he recounted the highly invasive police search of both his body and home. I remember feeling so sorry for my idol and angry at whoever conspired to make him suffer.

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Cut to 2003 to 2005, when Martin Bashir’s Living with Michael Jackson special aired and the subsequent Santa Barbara criminal case emerged. Jackson was acquitted, but I admittedly didn’t have the same unwavering support at 18 to 21 years old as I did at 9. Yes, I did question why Michael wanted to sleep in the same bed as children—something he readily admitted in the Bashir documentary. Still, I brushed it off as “harmless” or “reclaiming the childhood he lost.” I just couldn’t reckon with the alternative at the time. Looking back, it was no coincidence that my evolving analysis occurred at the same time I began to reckon with what happened to me at 12 years old.

As for Robson and Safechuck’s accounts, I’m no psychologist (armchair, or otherwise), but I do know there’s no textbook with a single hard and fast journey toward trauma processing. Whether it’s repressed memory, acts of perversion, or bizarre fixation and attachment (the shot of Safechuck’s trembling hands holding the rings from his alleged mock wedding ceremony with Michael fucked me up on another level), there’s a vast array of symptoms that may leave a sense of confusion to those who have never experienced such trauma.

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Many questions arose: Why would they protect him? What was up with the “brillo pad hair” recounting? As Michael was such a target for financial parasites, are they just part of this leeching group? Why did other notable people (Macauley Culkin and Brett Barnes) who had a close relationship with Michael vehemently deny any allegations and have not wavered since? Why wait until the man can’t defend himself?

As I warred with these questions, I couldn’t help but remember this: “Why now?” is one of the biggest blocks for other victims struggling to come forward with their own story.

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Despite threats lobbed by the Jackson estate at the premiere cable network prior to airing the documentary, HBO decided to move forward with the broadcast as originally intended. “HBO could have and should have ensured that ‘Leaving Neverland’ was properly sourced, fact-checked and a fair and balanced representation,” read the estate’s statement, via CNN.

The late pop star’s estate has cited breach of contract in its lawsuit.

“Michael Jackson is innocent. Period,” read a statement from the estate, per E! News. “In 2005, Michael Jackson was subjected to a trial—where rules of evidence and law were applied before a neutral judge and jury and where both sides were heard—and he was exonerated by a sophisticated jury. Ten years after his passing, there are still those out to profit from his enormous worldwide success and take advantage of his eccentricities. Michael is an easy target because he is not here to defend himself, and the law does not protect the deceased from defamation, no matter how extreme the lies are.”

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Then, there’s an oft-cited Forbes article, which offers a cynical and critical lens to Robson and Safechuck’s allegations, particularly pointing out the suspicious timeline and their inconsistent claims. It’s important to note that the writer, Joe Vogel, admits that he penned the piece prior to watching the documentary. Vogel is also the author of Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson. As such, his piece is less so a critique on the documentary itself, but on the two men’s claims against the pop star. On the flip side, Vanity Fair offered a listicle of “10 Undeniable Facts,” citing information gathered from Jackson’s two most notable legal cases involving child sex abuse, including documented evidence obtained from the pop star’s home.

Per Variety, at the same time of Leaving Neverland’s first installment, Jackson’s estate dropped a limited time film on YouTube, documenting two of the late pop star’s concerts as a clear counter to the Reed doc.

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On Hypocrisy

When news of Leaving Neverland’s debut surfaced, I immediately grappled with one truth: If Surviving R. Kelly had essentially broken the internet, what level of shattering and agonizing would Leaving Neverland bring?

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Following the first one-third of Surviving R. Kelly, I noticed one strong sentiment emerge amongst the general outrage, shock, disbelief and defiant support of the R&B singer, and it boiled down to this: “I never was really a fan of his music anyway.”

It may be easier to claim to have never been a fan of R. Kelly’s music (though, I still believe this claim may conveniently exclude his songwriting for other artists), but what about the man who reduced grown men to tears simply by stepping onstage? Arguably music’s only one true universal artist? Everyone loved them some Michael. Yes, there’s an exception to every rule, but Michael was the rule. He was for everyman.

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And then, I thought about me, and how I, as a native Chicagoan who’d known of R. Kelly’s alleged transgressions many years prior to their mainstream emergence, had already made peace with his actions and it was “fuck him forever.” Even as a prior fan. “Easier,” indeed.

But Michael Jackson? Do I ignore the similarities between the self-proclaimed “Pied Piper” and the enchanting Neverland Ranch simply because Jackson was more saccharine in the way he went about it? Robson opened up the documentary with a chilling statement that’ll likely stay with me forever: “He was one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, caring people I knew. He helped me tremendously, he helped me with my career, he helped me with my creativity, all of those sorts of things. And he also sexually abused me.”

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Shit.

As reckoning is a process, I can’t say where I am on the spectrum at this point, but I will say this: It’s uncomfortable as fuck.

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Another important parallel to Surviving R. Kelly—probably, the most important—is that I must reiterate that despite this documentary being the subject of worldwide buzz, it is okay to step aside from any interaction with it for your own well-being. The content is extremely triggering, explicit and graphic in its detail. For those who came across the disturbing content, there are 24/7 hotlines available for support.

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The second and final part of Leaving Neverland airs on HBO on Monday, March 4 at 8 p.m. ET. Both parts are currently available to stream on HBO Go/HBO Now. The documentary will then air on March 6 and 7 in the U.K. on Channel 4. On March 4, HBO will also broadcast Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland immediately following the second part of Leaving Neverland. Along with its U.S. and U.K. debuts, according to Deadline, Leaving Neverland will soon reach the rest of the world, having been recently distributed to 130 territories.

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About the author

Tonja Renée Stidhum

Staff Writer, Entertainment at The Root. Sugar, spice & everything rice. Equipped with the uncanny ability to make a Disney reference and a double entendre in the same sentence.