By: Elizabeth Padilla
Michael Jackson can be considered the most famous entertainer of the 20th century. When he died in June 2009, it was a tragedy for many and national conversations around the multiple allegations of child molestation against him died along with him. The focus instead shifted to his planned ‘This Is It’ comeback concerts, his unreleased songs, and a musical legacy that includes hundreds of millions of albums sold.
But on January 25, the Sundance Film Festival debuted the four-hour documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which includes detailed accusations of abuse, reopening the discussion on one of the most notorious scandals in music history. The accusations revolve around Jacksons known private home and amusement park, Neverland Ranch.
The documentary focuses on two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who claim, in separate accounts, that Jackson sexually abused them for years, from boyhood into adolescence. Wade Robson, a choreographer who has worked with Britney Spears, was “discovered” by Jackson at the age of 7 where the boy had been performing with a kids dance troupe. James Safechuck, a computer programmer, was in Los Angeles on the set of the beloved Pepsi commercial exploring Jackson’s backstage dressing room at the age of 9. Robson and Safechuck (who appeared alongside Jackson in a memorable 1987 Pepsi commercial) described many sexual allegations throughout the documentary. Robson, who says Jackson nicknamed him “Little One,” describes one of the singer’s methods from keeping him from speaking out was the constant reminder from Jackson that if they were caught there would be consequences for the both of them. Safechuck talks about a secret “wedding” he had with Jackson, and the ring he still has in his possession, saying Jackson gave him jewelry in exchange for sexual favors.
Robson’s mother, Joy, tells how that first encounter with Jackson felt supernatural and wonderful—something that could positively transform her son’s life. Joy describes the second linkup as a brush with “the impossible. You don’t just come to America and start calling some numbers and get in contact with Michael Jackson somehow, and then you’re going to see him again. That was just not a normal scenario.” Says Joy, “It was surreal for all of us. Hollywood and this whole entertainment business was on another planet from where we were.” So when Jackson invited Robson and his older sister, Chantal, to sleep in his quarters, Joy says she didn’t think much of it, or of when Jackson offered to let Robson stay with him for a week while the Robson family visited the Grand Canyon. To say no would mean bringing real-world logic into a dream that had come true, thus ending the dream. Robson says that the “trippy part” was that even though Jackson was a stranger, “it felt like we knew him: He’d been in my living room every day,” via TV, posters, and music. For a child to want a slumber party with him was like wanting a slumber party with Mickey Mouse. But, when the first allegations of child molestation broke Joy immediately confronted her son. Robson insisted then that Jackson had never inappropriately touched him.
Both men supported Jackson during a 2005 trial for molestation and denied he had abused them. However, Robson and Safechuck both sued Jackson’s estate after the star’s death. Robson said Jackson molested him for seven years, and Safechuck said he and Jackson engaged in sexual acts “hundreds” of times. Both cases were dismissed and are under appeal.
Following the four-hour documentary “Leaving Neverland,” Robson and Safechuck were interviewed by Oprah Winfrey where Robson admitted only when he had a son that he felt free of his need to protect Jackson. “I loved him, and I wanted to protect him. In my mind, up until whatever it was, six years ago or so, I was going to take what truly happened to my grave,” he said, “No question that was the way it was.” Robson said that if his son hadn’t been born, there was a “really good chance” he would still “be living in silence.”
To Jackson and his family, Neverland Ranch was not only a home it was an amusement park to them. The Jackson family responded by releasing a statement that called the documentary a “public lynching.” “We are furious that the media, who without a shred of proof or single piece of physical evidence, chose to believe the word of two admitted liars over the word of hundreds of families and friends around the world who spent time with Michael, many at Neverland, and experienced his legendary kindness and global generosity,” the statement reads. “The creators of this film were not interested in the truth. They never interviewed a single solitary soul who knew Michael except the two perjurers and their families.”
Jackson faced accusations similar to these in 1993, the family of a 13-year-old boy filed a $30 million lawsuit saying Jackson sexually abused their son, which included kissing, fondling and other sexual acts. The suit was settled out of court in 1994 for around $23 million. Another accusation surfaced of a cancer survivor who appeared by Jackson’s side in the Martin Bashir television documentary “Living With Michael Jackson” at the age of 14 when authorities formally charged Jackson with molesting him. During the 14-week criminal trial in 2005, the boy’s younger brother said that Jackson showed them pornography, served them alcohol and molested his brother on two occasions. Jackson was found not guilty.
The documentary has lead Michael Jackson’s estates to sue HBO for more than $100 million over the accusations of Jackson abusing the two men when they were children. In the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles, the singer’s estate argues that the film violates a 1992 contract to broadcast a Jackson concert which included an agreement to not disparage the singer at any future point in time. “It is hard to imagine a more direct violation of the non-disparagement clause,” says the suit, which asks the court to order arbitration and says damages could exceed $100 million.
At the end of the day the only people with knowledge surrounding what took place in the Neverland rooms are the host and his guests. More than one of them now claims to have been groomed, abused, manipulated, and coached by Jackson. That matters as much as the moonwalk. That might make “Heal the World” a lie and the “Man in the Mirror” a monster. One had to overlook numerous accusations and testimonies to continue to maintain an idolized belief in the image of purity and wholesomeness Jackson presented us in his career. As the tenth anniversary of Jackson’s death approaches, it’s okay to revisit the memory of Jackson as we thought he was, but let’s also speak of all the aspects of his life we categorically refused to believe, and pledge to never again choose the love of fame over the well-being of a child.