Leaving Neverland Could Transform Our Ideas of What Sexual Assault Victims Look Like

Collage of Wade Robson as a child posing with Michael Jackson and Wade Robson as an adult.
Wade Robson with Michael Jackson in HBO’s Leaving Neverland. Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photos by HBO.

During the height of the #MeToo exposés, when each new morning felt like a prelude to mass disappointment and disgust, a friend ably captured the now-dead-to-me mood of those months. “They should Hunger Games–blast the faces of fallen media/political dudes across the sky each night,” he tweeted, correctly diagnosing that the movement, or at least the media attention around it, had focused on toppling the famous.

That was a necessary (if ongoing) first step. But we seem to have only halfheartedly begun the next measure of gaining a fuller appreciation of the many different forms recovery from abuse and assault can take, and thus reconsidering how we gauge the credibility of victims. Fortunately, we’re not entirely without guides to lead the way. January’s Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly juxtaposed accounts from the singer’s victims with testimony from experts to help explain and contextualize behavior that, to some viewers, might be occasionally baffling or unsympathetic. After a salacious start, Lorena, Amazon’s revisitation of the Lorena Bobbitt case, soberly corrects the Gorgon-wife narrative promulgated by male comedians and commentators of the day, accompanying Bobbitt’s harrowing descriptions of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband with forensic specialists expounding on the psychological consequences of such trauma. (Though the feminist project of reinterpreting ’90s scandals preceded #MeToo, the two campaigns have borrowed from each other and bolstered one another’s authority.)

MJ Reckoning

But as laudable as the efforts of those series are, neither comes as close to capturing a broad spectrum of the possible complications of recovering from abuse as Leaving Neverland, the two-part, four-hour HBO documentary about the yearslong sexual assaults the late Michael Jackson allegedly committed against Wade Robson and James Safechuck. Though neither victim attests to violent behavior on Jackson’s part, the word assault is appropriate here given the extremely young ages of Robson and Safechuck—7 and 11, respectively—when the singer allegedly began engaging in sexual acts with them, and their inability at the time to give legal consent. After what initially feels like an overly exhaustive review of Robson’s and Safechuck’s childhoods in Leaving Neverland’s first two hours, director Dan Reed devotes the entire latter half of his miniseries to the two men’s long and nonlinear journeys toward realizing the full horror of their experience. Reed’s approach never lets us forget the eager-to-please boys they once were, especially in the presence of Jackson, whom Robson recalls being “my idol and my mentor and my god.” And it reveals how unfair and unrealistic it is to expect Robson and Safechuck to be the kind of perfect victims whose stories follow a predetermined script. Rather, it chronicles in often heartbreaking detail the mixed bag of fears and motivations that led them to the sometimes outwardly perplexing choices they made, chief among them Robson’s choice to testify on Jackson’s behalf during the singer’s 2005 trial for child molestation, among other charges. (Jackson was acquitted of all charges, and he, and now his estate, have consistently denied any wrongdoing.)

The first half of Leaving Neverland is propelled by dread, as Robson and Safechuck, then child performers and Jackson impersonators, near the orbit of the singer and are subsequently groomed and trained for sex acts. (The details are unsparing; prepare yourself.) The latter half of the documentary is spurred by anticipation, as we learn how the victims extricate themselves from Jackson’s influence and gradually recognize their abuse for what it was. In their 20s, Robson and Safechuck suffered from panic attacks and turned to drug use without comprehending the role that sexual assault played in their then-inexplicable distress. (Their stories, about both Jackson’s M.O. and the aftereffects thereof, are remarkably similar.) Leaving Neverland also benefits from Robson’s extreme candor. He attributes his resolve to defend Jackson in court to a multitude of factors, including his sympathy for the singer’s young children, lingering loyalty to the man who had inspired and boosted his dancing career, and fear that his life might be ruined too in the process. And though the documentary doesn’t explore this possibility, it’s plausible that Robson and Safechuck’s gender played a role in their reluctance to speak out against Jackson too, given that male victims are generally afforded much less support than female ones. It wasn’t until Robson and Safechuck became fathers themselves that the last traces of their one-time affection for Jackson completely disappeared.

What makes Leaving Neverland an unusually sensitive portrait of abuse recovery is that it’s more interested in what was, rather than what should be. The documentary makes it wholly understandable through Robson and Safechuck’s accounts—which aren’t supplemented by professional talking heads—why it might be entirely natural for victims, especially child victims, to have complex feelings toward their abusers, doubly so when the latter are famous and powerful. (Unsurprisingly, the boys felt special to be chosen to spend time with a living legend—until they noticed when they grew older that Jackson seemed to be attended by a different preteen every 12 months.) Robson says he can’t imagine the hurt that Jordan Chandler and Gavin Arvizo, the two alleged victims who formally accused Jackson, felt at not being believed by the world. Leaving Neverland wants to spare survivors that hurt too. By spotlighting how painful, protracted, and confusing recovery can be, it reminds us that we should lay to rest once and for all our expectations for what a “real” survivor looks and sounds like.