Brow Beat

How Leaving Neverland Does a Disservice to Michael Jackson’s Accusers

Michael Jackson and Wade Robson
Michael Jackson and Wade Robson.
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photo by HBO.

The Michael Jackson estate wants to keep Leaving Neverland off the air. The estate alleges that the two-part, four-hour documentary, which premiered at Sundance and will air on HBO, breaches a non-disparagement clause in the network’s “longstanding contractual relationship” with Jackson. It also claims the film violates the ethics guidelines of the U.K.’s Channel 4, HBO’s co-producer, which state that any “significant allegations” made in a program should give the subject “an appropriate and timely opportunity to respond.”

Neither of these succeeded in delaying the HBO or Channel 4 broadcasts. It is worth noting, though, that Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed never sought comment from the Jackson estate on the devastating claims made by the film’s two subjects, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who both allege that Jackson sexually abused them as children. Reed says the film’s narrow scope—a tightly framed look at the lives of two boys and their families as they are seduced into Jackson’s bizarre, rarefied, possibly predatory orbit—was a creative decision. “I didn’t characterize Jackson at all in the film,” Reed told the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s not a film about Michael. … The film itself is an account of sexual abuse, how sexual abuse happens and then how the consequences play out later in life.”

MJ Reckoning

The fact that Leaving Neverland doesn’t include a response from Jackson’s family likely won’t leave Reed vulnerable to legal action from the star’s estate, since it’s impossible to defame a dead person. And the focus on Robson and Safechuck’s experiences does keep the film from feeling like a he-said–he-said gossipfest, a vibe many media outlets conveyed in their rubbernecking coverage of Jackson’s 2005 sexual abuse trial. But several critics have already noted the gaps in Leaving Neverland, with Entertainment Weekly calling it woefully one-sided.”

That one-sidedness has less to do with the absence of Jackson’s family than with the film’s lack of candor regarding complicating information about Robson, Safechuck, and two of Jackson’s previous accusers. Viewers inclined to regard the allegations against Jackson with skepticism will find these holes leave room for their misgivings to grow. In glossing over, and sometimes entirely excluding, elements of the factual record, the documentary hobbles its chances to convince skeptics that these men are telling the truth. This misstep—one that presumably stems from a desire to protect Robson and Safechuck—actually does a grave disservice to both men, whose stories I believe.

As is, the film provides a bracing account of why alleged victims of childhood sexual abuse sometimes stay silent, and how they perceive that abuse at different stages of their lives. It acknowledges that there are no perfect victims, and that a survivor’s relationship to his abuser can be far more complicated than simplistic narratives suggest. One of the best segments in Leaving Neverland comes when Robson explains his decision, at 22, to testify on Jackson’s behalf at the 2005 trial, where he repeatedly denied that Jackson had ever abused him. Robson genuinely loved Jackson, his childhood hero and frequent babysitter. At the age of 7, when Robson’s brain was still forming conceptions of selfhood, love, and parental care, his mother encouraged him to think of Jackson as a member of their family—and Jackson allegedly indoctrinated him with the fear of what horrors might befall both of them if their sexual relationship was ever discovered. Those deep-seated attachments and fears don’t dissipate on their own when one reaches the age of consent. It’s this straightforward recognition of the psychological messiness of abuse that makes the film such a powerful, nuanced portrait of victimhood.

But Leaving Neverland denies Robson and Safechuck the opportunity to address other parts of their stories. A Forbes piece published last month by Jackson biographer Joe Vogel notes that Robson once tried and failed to get the Jackson estate to hire him to direct a show; that Robson shopped around a book proposal about his abuse allegations in 2012; that Robson and his family attended a Jackson memorial show after the singer’s death; and that both Robson and Safechuck tried to sue the Jackson estate for enabling the abuse they allegedly suffered. Vogel implies that Robson loved Jackson until he was snubbed by the singer’s estate, that he saw a lucrative opening in accusing his longtime role model—one of the world’s wealthiest and most famous stars—of unthinkable acts, and is now using Leaving Neverland to gin up public support for a lawsuit that a judge dismissed but is now under appeal.

There are more reasons than money to go public with sexual abuse allegations against a world-famous man, and more reasons than greed to seek monetary compensation, considering that Jackson’s alleged serial abuse was only made possible through the trappings of fame and wealth. Leaving Neverland could have helped viewers understand that complexity by asking Robson and Safechuck a few pointed questions about why they’ve tried multiple times to get money from the Jackson estate. Instead, we’re left with the sense that Reed has elided material that might make Jackson’s accusers look less trustworthy.

Reed also fails to recognize that many of the pop star’s supporters look askance at any sexual abuse allegations against the singer because the media and team Jackson made his first two accusers out to be nefarious tricksters. Jackson’s defense attorneys used the same arguments Vogel and other Leaving Neverland critics are making now—that people claiming victimhood at Jackson’s hands are lying for money—against then–13-year-olds Jordan Chandler and Gavin Arvizo when they each accused Jackson of sexual abuse. Both boys were ill-served by parents whose exploits encouraged suspicions that scams were afoot. Jordan’s father Evan Chandler, who died by suicide in 2009, was a dentist to the stars who, according to Carrie Fisher, was better known for providing painkillers than dental services.

Instead of going to the police when his son said Jackson had abused him, Evan Chandler enlisted his attorney to try to get a multimillion-dollar payout by threatening to ruin Jackson’s career with the specter of a formal legal complaint. After a couple of weeks of negotiations with Jackson’s team, Chandler sent his son to a psychiatrist, who was obligated to notify law enforcement. Jackson’s lawyers then produced a recording of a phone call in which Chandler said, “If I go through with this, I win big time. There’s no way I lose. I will get everything I want, and they will be destroyed forever.” In the end, the Chandlers indeed ended up getting a confidential settlement that most reports indicate was around $25 million.

Gavin Arvizo’s sexual abuse allegations led to Jackson’s 2005 trial, in which the defense made the child’s parents out to be grifters who involved their children in various cons. Two years before Gavin met Jackson as a cancer patient in 2000, Janet and David Arvizo took their kids to a J.C. Penney and allegedly instructed them to walk out of the store with a bunch of clothes. The family was stopped and detained by security guards; afterward, the Arvizos sued J.C. Penney, claiming Janet had been physically assaulted and sexually molested by a guard. They got a $152,000 settlement. With Janet on the stand at Jackson’s trial, his attorneys revealed that she had been charged with committing welfare fraud by collecting payments between 2001 and 2003 without disclosing the money she’d received from the settlement. It was an unidentified private investigator—possibly hired by Jackson’s team—who tipped off welfare authorities about Janet’s alleged fraud just a few weeks before the 2005 trial began. (Janet Arvizo pleaded no contest to a single fraud count in 2006 and did no jail time.)

Leaving Neverland doesn’t get into either of these stories. The film mentions the Chandler and Arvizo cases only as they apply to Safechuck and Robson, squandering an opportunity to re-contextualize the old accusations and thus bolster the newer ones. If Safechuck and Robson were teens today, the Jackson estate could fit their stories into the same template that was used in an attempt to discredit Chandler and Arvizo. The mothers of Safechuck and Robson, both of whom gave extensive interviews for the film, come across as pushy managers eager to compromise their family relationships and their children’s safety for access to stardom and a life of luxury. Both took their kids out of school for weeks at a time to follow Jackson around. Both accepted lavish trips and gifts from Jackson—including, in the case of Safechuck’s mother, an entire house. And both ended up basically transferring parental duties to Jackson for prolonged periods of time.

How much distance is there between a parent who ignores clear warning signs of sexual abuse in exchange for money and fame, and a parent who goads her child to lie about sexual abuse in exchange for money and fame? This is one difficult, emotionally muddled issue that Leaving Neverland handles with admirable frankness. Reed prods Robson, Safechuck, and their mothers to grapple with whether and how the parents were responsible for facilitating their sons’ abuse, leaving viewers with a better understanding of how the alleged abuse occurred, some insight into the long-term damage abuse can visit upon a family, and a firmer sense that all parties are telling the truth. The film covers this ground, it seems, because the question of parental blame was one that Robson and Safechuck were ready and willing to confront. Leaving Neverland’s limited purview means it only goes where Robson and Safechuck want it to go.

In the segments about Robson and Safechuck’s mothers, Leaving Neverland suggests that the parents of the four people who’ve accused Jackson of abuse share a lot in common. They all exhibited a readiness to manipulate their sons for profit, making them both exploitative and easy to exploit. The Jackson estate has used this common thread to argue that all the families are lying, that there’s a pattern of swindlers trying to extort money with malicious lawsuits. But it’s much more likely that Jackson specifically targeted boys whose families proved willing to use their sons as conduits for personal gain. In fact, those were probably the only boys to whom he had sustained access: ones whose parents took outsize steps to get their kids in front of Jackson, who accepted his invitations to Neverland, and who went along with his pleading requests to let the boys sleep in his room and be his “traveling companions” on tour. It would be no surprise to a serial sexual abuser that the very thing that put these boys at risk would also make them and their families seem less than credible to a jury and the general public.

Had Leaving Neverland leaned into the reasons why Chandler and Arvizo’s accounts were waved away, it could have better clarified Jackson’s alleged pattern of abuse and kept the doubts that poisoned those cases from tainting perceptions of Robson and Safechuck. In the film, Robson’s sister admits through tears that she once made the same out-for-money arguments against Chandler and Arvizo that people now make against her brother, and that the guilt tears her apart. But without explaining why those arguments took hold, Leaving Neverland falls short of dismantling them.