How do you differentiate between an artist and his art? Especially when the said artist has been charged with child molestation. And the question becomes all the more complicated when the artist in question is the beloved pop icon Michael Jackson.
Dan Reed’s documentary Leaving Neverland, which premiered on HBO recently, attempts to throw light on this question. In the two-part documentary, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, two young boys the “Bad” singer had befriended, are interviewed as grown men about what they allegedly suffered at the hands of Michael.
“I think when I was with him (Michael), he was happy,” says James at the very beginning. “He was already larger than life, and then he likes you,” James adds. In the course of the next four hours, there are many painful, horrible details about the men who were forced into oral sex as kids (James was 10 and Wade was 7 when the alleged abuse began) by the beloved celebrity.
Both James and Wade’s families also make appearances in the documentary, including their wives. James (40) and Wade (36) have one son each from their marriages.
“Going to sleep and waking up in Michael Jackson land,” says Wade about his first big meeting with the pop sensation. The story of how Wade meets his icon MJ seems to be taken straight out of a young adult novel. But that’s how it is when you meet the people you look up to. Every path that leads to them seems like a dream. Wade was 5 at the time and had the opportunity to briefly meet the musician after winning a dance competition.
And then there are the mothers, Joy Robson and Stephanie Safechuck, who speak first of how maternally they felt towards Michael, and state later on how they let go of their children and agreed to the bizarre proposition of Michael sleeping night after night in the same bed with their seven and ten-year-olds. There is a lot of guilt and pain there. Guilt of not having been able to protect their own sons from the events that followed. Needless to add, it’s not a pretty sight. And even as you are watching the film, you cannot help but exclaim, ‘How could they have allowed their kids to go to bed with a 34-year-old stranger?’ A superstar or not, he was a grown man who you didn’t know anything about except from his music and public appearances, so how? It’s a question that admittedly haunts both the mothers to this day.
James’ family had in fact invited Michael to their home and would help him sneak into their place any time he liked. “When he came…he acted like a little boy, giggling,” says James’ mother. A kind soul, a little boy, a child who never grew up, just like Peter Pan. These are the running references to Michael by both the men’s mothers throughout the documentary. After all he started too young, and he didn’t even have a childhood, so when you put things into these contexts, it doesn’t seem odd that this big singer wanted to have a sleepover with kids without their parents’ supervision. And what could possibly go wrong, he is ‘the Michael Jackson’ after all? Except everything did go south.
“I remember wanting to stay in the room with him and my mum wouldn’t allow it at the time,” James says of his first trip with Michael. Stephanie “didn’t think it was appropriate.” However, she soon relented, saying that she didn’t want to come in the way of her child’s happiness. And later, Michael obliges little James by agreeing to be a part of a mock interview. “Best thing about Hawaii? Being with you,” Michael’s response to a question by James during their trip could have been an adult response to a kid’s query and an attempt to please him. But in the light of what we know, the answer has an ominous ring to it.
Mock weddings, oral sex, masturbating in front of the impressionable minds, and even trying to perform penetrative sex act onto a 14-year-old Wade and introducing them to pornography and alcohol; Michael had tried everything according to James and Wade. But then both James and Wade had denied to courts of law and to their own mothers that Michael had ever touched them inappropriately.
“He said that I was his first sexual experience,” James says and then he goes on to list the number of rooms they engaged in sexual activity in Michael’s Neverland ranch. So many rooms, so many times. James, in particular, flinches a lot while recounting the incidents. But then who wouldn’t? And there are so many telling details; about the rooms, about the Neverland ranch, about the toys Michael had lying around, about the faxes that he would sent that read like love notes. It’s difficult to fabricate things like that.
James and Wade’s lives would be over. They would suffer in jail. They would be torn apart from their families if anyone came to know of the things that Michael did with kids behind closed doors. Both James and Wade confessed that they were told these things by Michael and so opening up about the abuse at the time was never an option. And as years went by, the men wrestled with anxiety and depression. How do you admit things to the people you love and to the court? The things that you never want to admit to yourself.
However, after fathering sons, James and Wade realised that letting go of that secret is easier than keeping it confined inside their hearts.
The Michael Jackson estate is suing HBO for releasing the documentary and has called it “tabloid character assassination,” meanwhile, filmmaker Dan Reed has responded to the backlash and said in a statement, “It is a four-hour documentary by an experienced documentarian with a long track record in investigation and telling complex stories and this is a complex story. So I’d say it’s beyond doubt a documentary.”
So after all this, what do we do with the music legacy of Michael Jackson, if you are one of those who believe James and Wade? How do you obliterate the sheer brilliance of his artistry from your lives? For now, there are only questions.