Michael Jackson’s sudden death in the summer of 2009 affected me. I was surprised by how much, given that I was never one of his super fans. I’d grown up on his music, though, and if you were a child when any of his seminal solo albums were released, he’s grafted onto our memories in a way that’s difficult to explain. When that white coroner’s van pulled away with Jackson’s body inside, it felt like a connection I hadn’t even known was there had been severed. I didn’t realize it, but I was a part of his “hive.” In hindsight, of course I was. He’d dominated the pop culture landscape throughout my entire childhood too much for me not to be. It’s difficult to explain just how famous Jackson was at his peak to anyone who didn’t live through it. There’s no parallel today that makes sense. Every comparison collapses. No one’s music videos are premiering during prime time and being consumed by every demo. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to be that famous anymore. The world is more connected, but it’s also more fragmented. In the simpler communications landscape of the 80s and 90s, Jackson towered above his peers. He was almost a demigod, a grandiose role he embraced.
In the aftermath of Jackson’s death, his legacy was examined. The outpouring of grief and remembrance all over the world spoke to the power of it. I was living in New York City at the time, and my sister and I went up to the Apollo Theater, where others had gathered to sing along to Jackson’s hits and write notes on a wall. My sister took a photo of a double rainbow that appeared in the sky as we were heading back downtown and posted it to her Facebook, dedicating it to Jackson. For at least a month afterwards, whenever we’d talk on the phone, there would be a pause, and one of us would say, “I can’t believe Michael’s gone.” Such was the power of his art. Even so, as the media discussed what Jackson meant to his fans and sought to measure his influence (incalculable), there was a fly in the ointment: the rumors that he was a pedophile, who had sexually abused young boys. When they were interviewed to share their memories of Jackson, some of his friends and family were confronted with the allegations. They continued to insist that Jackson was innocent, the victim of attention-seeking liars who were after the star’s money. The issue wasn’t pressed (it probably felt gauche to some to delve into it so soon after Jackson’s death), and the can was kicked down the road. HBO’s airing of Leaving Neverland, a documentary in which James Safechuk and Wade Robson detail allegations of prolonged sexual abuse by Jackson, has brought the day of reckoning forward.
Depending on your point of view, the strength or weakness of Leaving Neverland is that it focuses exclusively on Safechcuk, Robson, and their families. The documentary is about the abuse these men allege they suffered at the hands of Jackson and how it affected this small group of people. I understand why the director, Dan Reed, made this choice — Jackson looms so large, even in death, that the imbalance in power between the parties remains. I also understand the criticisms about a lack of balance in the project. Nevertheless, Safechuck and Robson’s accounts are horrifying and describe an absolutely monstrous side of Jackson, a side many of his fans have been loath to consider might be true. Plenty of people have had their suspicions about Jackson for some time, though.
In the wake of the airing of the first part of Leaving Neverland, there’s a bit of revisionism happening. The notion that nearly everyone blindly accepted Jackson’s deflections regarding his “eccentric” behavior around young boys isn’t true. “Do you think Michael is touching those kids?” is a question that had percolated in mainstream discussions for decades. I can’t think of many people outside of the star’s super stans who didn’t think something was amiss. The line “I wouldn’t let Michael Jackson watch my kids on TV” became a thing for a reason. Even so, much of the concern remained in the realm of speculation. In addition, some people’s doubts about Jackson’s guilt aren’t being pulled out of thin air. Jackson was investigated on suspicion of child molestation between 1993 and 1994 and again between 2004 and 2005. The FBI assisted in both cases, and the investigation, which produced a 300-page file, led to only one person being imprisoned: someone making threats against Jackson. In addition, in 2005, Jackson was brought to trial in Santa Maria, California on charges of having molested Gavin Arvizo, a thirteen year-old boy. Jackson was acquitted. Safechuck defended Jackson in 1993 as did Robson, who testified in open court on Jackson’s behalf during the 2005 trial. Both men claimed that Jackson never abused them. Their changing stories have damaged their credibility in some people’s eyes. Were the men lying then or are they lying now?
Slate’s Seth Stevenson covered Jackson’s trial for the online magazine, and his reports of the circus-like atmosphere were popular with readers. In his recent reflections on his coverage of the event, Stevenson regrets the cavalier attitude he took. It was a trial about the sexual abuse of a child, but he opened his reports with descriptions of Jackson’s eccentric outfits, paying close attention to his daily choice of armband. (In a Chris Rock special that aired around the time of the trial, the comedian likened Jackson’s attire to Cap’n Crunch’s and advised the singer to go to Banana Republic and get himself a real suit.) Jackson’s megastardom was a huge distraction, but it was further complicated by how strange the man was. There was always some bizarre detail to discuss, like Jackson leaping on top of an SUV to tap his toes and snap his fingers for his fans outside the courthouse. Another day, he turned up extraordinarily late dressed in pajamas. In a way, Jackson cultivated the image that he was too much of a weirdo to have done the horrible things he was being accused of. Stevenson described Robson’s testimony as a pivotal point in the trial. Robson, who was choreographing for ’N Sync and Britney Spears at the time, entered the courtroom with his attractive fiancée, took the stand, and adamantly declared that Jackson had never molested him. Stevenson was utterly convinced by Robson’s testimony. Now he’s utterly convinced by Robson and Safechuk’s accounts in Leaving Neverland.
It’s possible to reconcile the discrepancies in Robson and Safechuk’s stories, because of how much deeper our collective understanding of sexual abuse is now compared to in 2005. In particular, we have more knowledge about the psychological aspect of the abuse — the grooming that precedes it, the manipulation that allows it to continue — and how it affects survivors’ behavior. It can be difficult for some people to admit they were abused, and some survivors may even try to maintain ties with their abusers, as Robson had with Jackson. The power of Leaving Neverland is in Safechuk and Robson’s descriptions of how they and their families were chosen and manipulated by Jackson. Grooming (and many other forms of psychological manipulation) is about the erosion of boundaries, the shifting of normalcy, the chipping away of a person’s sense of self, the building of false trust. Jackson’s immense stardom and all the wealth and power it generated would have put him less than a foot away from home plate with any person he wanted to manipulate, much less starstruck children who worshipped him.
Jackson’s hardcore supporters characterize his accusers and their families as con artists. At the 2005 trial, reports of Jackson’s accusers’ families being hucksters were widespread. A favorite quote among Jackson’s defenders comes from Matt Taibbi’s report for Rolling Stone, in which he described the trial as “a kind of homecoming parade of insipid American types: grifters, suckers and no-talent schemers, mired in either outright unemployment… or the bogus non-careers of the information age, looking to cash in any way they can.” Taibbi went on to describe the prosecution witnesses as “almost to a man a group of convicted liars, paid gossip hawkers or worse…” It’s strong language that mostly stuck. Until now. The world has changed. We’re post #MeToo.
Abusers are very good at picking out targets who aren’t likely to be believed. The unflattering similarities between the families of the boys Jackson is accused of molesting may give insight into how he chose his alleged victims. The most important aspect of grooming is choice of target — in this case vulnerable children with craven, fame-seeking parents. The boys’ families were lavished with gifts: expensive trips, cars, even houses. There was an ongoing competition among the boys’ parents, who angled for their sons to be Jackson’s favorite. There was also a deal being made: a significant upgrade in lifestyle and status in exchange for giving Jackson unfettered access to their young sons. Sometimes things aren’t what they look like. Most of the time, they are, though.
Another element of grooming that isn’t discussed as much as it should be is the credibility building many abusers do in their communities. Jackson’s community was the entire planet. The army of people abusers charm and have never hurt are the foundation of the trust that greases the skids of the abuser insinuating themselves with their targets. Admiring neighbors and community leaders who genuinely believe “He would never!” also act as a shield against victims’ accusations. The narrow focus on the families of the two accusers featured in Leaving Neverland obscures the fact that if the allegations against Jackson are true, many more people were groomed along the way, including his fans. That erosion of boundaries I mentioned? That shifting of normalcy? It extended into the public sphere, where how exceptional Jackson was gave him an incredible amount of leeway. A grown man constantly in the company of prepubescent boys who aren’t his children or charges is a giant red flag, and concerns were raised. Nevertheless, it was successfully spun as an eccentricity, or, even more sympathetically, as an attempt by Jackson to reclaim a childhood he’d lost when he began working at the age of six. As news came out of how abusive the Jackson family patriarch, Joe Jackson, had been towards his children, it gave Jackson even more cover. If matters were as simple as “I want to be a kid at heart,” though, Jackson would have just rented out an arcade and taken the boys to play video games. There was no need for him to be sleeping in the same bed as those children — a fact that isn’t disputed, and one Jackson defiantly defended in a 2003 interview with Martin Bashir. Ironically, the flagrancy of Jackson’s behavior is what created the suspicions of him as well as some of the benefit of the doubt he received. If Jackson were molesting young boys, surely he would have been more circumspect in his behavior. There was a measure of trust Jackson had built with people all over the world, and the foundation of that trust was his art, which remains extraordinary.
In the days after Jackson’s death, his music seemed to be blaring from every available speaker. I remember a neighbor putting “Man in the Mirror” on at full blast in the dead of night. There was something about the way the song pierced the silence and seemed to expand. It felt like the sound might stretch to the other side of the world. And it probably had in a way. Somewhere far away, I was certain someone I would never meet was listening to the same song and reminiscing about good times they’d had to Jackson’s music. People want to believe that art that moves them deeply comes from a pure place, that it must have been made by a decent person. That isn’t so.
One of my favorite paintings is Caravaggio’s The Denial of Saint Peter. I don’t know much about art history, and I’m not entirely sure why I like the painting so much. I suppose it reminds me of a still from one of those mid-twentieth century epic films like Spartacus or Ben-Hur. Caravaggio, who was known as the “most famous painter in Rome,” and had many wealthy patrons, was a notorious, violent brawler, who historical records show had quite a rap sheet. Caravaggio eventually killed another man and had to flee Rome. His highly detailed paintings — all that intricate light and shadow — weren’t coming from a placid mind.
In his book, The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson describes the story of convicted murderer, Jack Henry Abbot, who began a written correspondence with Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Norman Mailer. Mailer admired Abbot’s writing and spoke on Abbot’s behalf at his parole hearing. Abbot was released and became the toast of the New York literati. After a celebratory dinner with his new powerhouse agents, Abbot went out on the town and, after an altercation, stabbed to death a young, aspiring actor he felt had disrespected him. His talent as a writer didn’t erase his violent urges. Neither did his instinct to preserve the new life he’d been building for himself.
Jackson’s art wasn’t the product of a healthy mind. That much should have been clear to us all along. At some point, a well-adjusted individual would have gotten therapy and moved on from his obsession with childhood. Every celebrity concocts a false image of sorts, but Jackson went so far as to speak in an affected falsetto. Reportedly, his natural speaking voice was quite deep. Faking your public speaking voice is a bizarre thing to do over the course of decades. Abjuring adult masculinity made Jackson seem non-threatening and childlike. It was also creepy. Personally, I never liked watching interviews with him. I found him too odd. I felt like I was looking behind the curtain, seeing something I shouldn’t: that the phony persona I was watching was covering up immensely deep pain and gnawing demons that were devouring an emotionally stunted individual. Jackson’s self-mutilation via plastic surgery also made me uncomfortable. I never for a moment doubted Jackson’s genius, though, even as some of his later projects didn’t live up to form. I understood that we’d never seen the likes of him before and that I probably never would again in my lifetime.
A cult of celebrity. That phrase gets thrown around a lot, but there’s no denying that’s what arose around Jackson. He captivated the whole world. He groomed the whole world into trusting him. The staggering power of his art, the singularity of his talent were the glamors that covered up what wasn’t even really hiding in plain sight: There was something wrong with that man. We hoped the wrongness, the brokenness we were observing, helped drive the empathy that created music and accompanying short films that spoke to people from so many different cultures and backgrounds. And in a strange way, it may have. In order to manipulate people, you have to understand them. You have to understand what they care about, what they desire, what their hopes and dreams are. Jackson was tapped into people’s need to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and he provided that space in his fandom. Fame damages people. Jackson’s unparalleled level of celebrity, which he’d experienced from childhood, must have been highly toxic, particularly the entitlement it engendered. Celebrities of a certain stature don’t believe they should be denied anything, and no one’s stature surpassed Jackson’s. Fame and wealth also provide the means and the leverage to intimidate people, buy them off, and avoid consequences.
Even in death, Jackson is loved by millions of people around the world — people who want to see his legacy and their memories of him protected. In addition, Jackson is still clearing enormous checks for powerful people. A vociferous defense of him will be mounted. Something happened, though. Something traumatic. No matter anyone’s feelings about Robson, Safechuk, their families, and their credibility, that much is clear. Something happened, and Leaving Neverland is just the beginning of wrestling with Jackson’s dark side and getting to the bottom of exactly what transpired. If the allegations are proven to be true, there are people who are still alive who aided and abetted Jackson, and they should be brought to justice.
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jackson was tried in 2005 for the molestation of Jordan Chandler. Chandler accused Jackson of molesting him in 1993 and settled a civil case against Jackson in 1994.