Wide Angle

What Kind of Mother

The mothers of Michael Jackson’s victims failed their sons. Leaving Neverland fails those moms, too.

Joy Robson.
Joy Robson in Leaving Neverland. HBO

As Dan Reed’s HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland, caused me to revisit the allegations against Michael Jackson as they were covered at the time, I was unnerved, most of all, by the mothers. There was a signal lack of fellow feeling among the families who came forward alleging abuse; the Michael Jackson machine (which included staff, handlers, lawyers, as well as the singer himself) seems to have excelled at making not just the children but their parents see each other as rivals for the King of Pop’s (fickle, inconstant) favor. Many a family seems to have accordingly relaxed the ordinary standard of parental vigilance in order to give their kids a competitive edge: He wanted access, and granting it improved their children’s chances at becoming Jackson’s favorite.

One result, years later, has been a lack of common cause in their common trauma. The rivalry appears to have been most acute among the mothers, some of whom have a history of testifying against each other, and two of whom will come under fresh scrutiny because of their participation in the documentary. For Joy Robson and Stephanie Safechuck, mothers of alleged victims Wade and James, this appearance serves as a kind of act of atonement, a bid for forgiveness, and—thanks to a poor choice Reed made in structuring his documentary—a further complication of this already complicated case.

Both these mothers have a history of testifying for Jackson and against other families who made allegations similar to the ones their own sons are making now. Of one mother, Joy Robson said, “I thought she wanted to be mistress of Neverland, and that she was trying to use Michael. I thought she was a gold digger.”

That testimony cost Joy something: On the stand, she admitted that she considered Jackson family, that he’d loaned her money, that he’d bought her a car, and that he’d helped her emigrate from Australia. “The suggestion [by the prosecution] is that there was some sort of quid pro quo,” Slate’s Seth Stevenson wrote then. “Or, more bluntly: She was pimping out her son.” Joy admitted—while insisting that this was all normal and fine—that Jackson sometimes called her in the middle of the night asking her to bring her small son to him. Little Wade Robson once arrived at Neverland at 1:30 a.m. and went straight to bed with Jackson.

That was a tricky tightrope to walk—attacking some mothers for being gold diggers while benefiting financially from the association with Jackson—but Joy Robson risked it, and so, in her way, did Stephanie Safechuck. What those trials revealed, perhaps unintentionally, was how difficult it would be to hold Jackson accountable in an environment where, to quote Stevenson again, “moms jockey for status at Neverland” by creatively managing their assets—typically, their sons.

That’s exactly the kind of grim and exploitative dynamic a documentary like Leaving Neverland—which covers the alleged abuse of two Jackson protégés, Wade Robson and James Safechuck—has to handle with extraordinary care. To exonerate these mothers from criminal pandering requires clarifying the extent to which the star groomed them as well, and so, unenviably, Joy Robson and Stephanie Safechuck are charged with persuading us of their own negligence and stupidity. It’s an unpleasant position, and it feels like even appearing in the documentary amounts to an act of atonement for each mother: “I fucked up. I failed to protect him,” Stephanie says at one point. The sons agree: “Every night that I was with him, there was abuse while my mother was—you know—next door,” Wade Robson says. The shattering lack of solidarity wasn’t limited to family units jockeying for social position, in other words; the rifts include deep resentments between the children and their parents.

I’ll be blunt: The mothers are in a fragile position in this documentary. And to me, the most incomprehensible aspect of Leaving Neverland is the starry-eyed wonder with which the mothers of the two alleged victims describe their early experiences with the star. In the first half of the documentary, their faces shine as they talk about what Jackson did for their children and for them: the letters, the faxes, the phone calls, the hotel suites, the rented cars, the splendor of Neverland. “I remember getting this glow that sort of started in my heart and went to all my extremities,” Joy says. “It was an amazing feeling, when something magical was going to happen.” Stephanie describes Jackson’s friendship with her son as the answer to a prayer. The mothers seem giddy, too, when they talk about what Jackson apparently needed from them: a sense of belonging, of home, of family. It’s said that the way to earn a person’s favor is to get them to do you one; Jackson may have been a master of this technique, acting like he desperately needed mothering while psychologically isolating his victims from their moms. Still, the cynic in me wondered how these women were able to conjure such pure, uncomplicatedly positive memories of a man who destroyed their sons’ childhoods. How could their nostalgia for those early years with Jackson still seem somehow untainted?

One possible answer is Reed’s skill as an interviewer. Maureen Dowd writes that Reed “became practiced at leading victims gently back to their traumas, so they could use their minds as cameras to bring key moments to life, letting their faces and voices tell the stories.” The invisibility of that process is a real problem, though: The fact that we don’t see how those warm memories are elicited—the fact that Reed has cut himself out of his own documentary—means that Stephanie Safechuck and Joy Robson appear to us to be supplying, unprompted, these fond remembrances of the halcyon days when their sons were chosen.

That has consequences for them as “characters.” Reed’s idea was likely to bring the viewer along on the family’s journey from star-struck awe to disillusionment and heartbreak, to complement the victims’ accounts of how much they loved Jackson with a secondary picture of how wonderful Jackson seemed to their families, too. But surely this re-enactment of what it felt like then can’t be entirely sincere; they know, as we do, how the story ended. For the skeptical viewer, then, this aligns the mothers with the documentary-maker. It makes them seem less like naïve subjects than knowing co-authors. It shows that they’re extremely good at occupying a frame of mind they (ostensibly) no longer occupy, in the service of making the documentary more gripping to the audience. If your story depends on mothers so guileless that they thought nothing of letting their sons sleep in an adult man’s bed, it doesn’t help to show that they’re gifted actors.

Then again, it’s possible that this is exactly Reed’s provocation: Maybe he’s trying to make clear that these mothers’ feelings about Jackson are sincere and vexed, and that they’re just as confused by the persistence of their own residual fondness for Jackson as the abused kids are. Life is messy, and Leaving Neverland offers, among other things, a grievously persuasive corrective to many of our assumptions of what child abuse looks and feels like. It insists, among other things, that the love is real. “He was one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, caring people I knew,” Wade Robson says in the opening of the doc. “And he also sexually abused me. For seven years.” It’s possible that we need to similarly adjust our conventional wisdom about how mothers feel about predators who got them to let their guard down. Maybe nothing can shake that starry-eyed first impression even if you’re Joy Robson; maybe it stays there with you and you hate yourself for it. Maybe these mothers are being terribly, heartbreakingly candid.

The editing, however, makes it remarkably difficult to discern how the mothers’ nostalgia for the past coexists with their present-tense feelings toward the star. And that’s not entirely, or even mostly, their fault; it’s a direct result of Dan Reed’s decision to exclude himself from the documentary. Many a documentarian handles the viewer’s natural skepticism by absorbing it. He elects to make himself—or an outside narrator—central enough to bear the brunt of the viewer’s questions. Whatever structural shortcomings one detects fall squarely and naturally on those less implicated shoulders. But just as a matter of craft, when the maker chooses to fade into the background as Dan Reed does—ostensibly to let the victims tell their story unvarnished—that suspicion transfers to the people from whom we receive it. One can understand why Reed went this route; all four people in Leaving Neverland are very compelling narrators. But the inevitable result of that decision is that we blame them—not him—for moments we find unconvincing or deceptive.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more full and persuasive account of what love and abuse would have felt like to a child than those put forward by James Safechuck and Wade Robson. More than convincing, their accounts are poignant and illuminating in ways that make unforeseen permutations of the damage legible. When Wade says he couldn’t admit what happened to him because his success and well-being in many ways legitimated the story of his entire family’s fragmentation and even his father’s suicide—that makes sense to me. And even though I understand the arguments against him—that he was instrumental to defeating the cases brought forward by two other victims with his testimony, that he sued the estate after Jackson was dead, that he may have dated Brandi Jackson—the psychological mindset he describes makes all of that seem completely plausible. One of the more shocking aspects of both their accounts is how much they loved Michael Jackson, who made them feel special. And how much they still love him.

The mothers’ eventual (and necessary) emotional pivot to anger and hurt in the documentary lands a little differently. This is, in a very ugly sort of way, a morality play about mothers and sons. Jackson was a predator, but Jackson is dead, and so the mothers must absorb what blame and negligence society cares to accord to them. The film seems to try, albeit indirectly, to exonerate the mothers by making it seem like they, too, were “groomed” by a powerful man. But by the rules by which Reed has made his documentary, the verdict viewers will reach depends entirely on the mothers’ performance of emotion. And it’s simply the case that both women are better at communicating the star-struck wonder they felt at Neverland than they are at evincing the grief they felt over their sons’ abuse.

That doesn’t mean they don’t feel it: Joy’s 2016 deposition from Wade Robson’s lawsuit against the Michael Jackson estate is well worth reading. Among other things, it describes Joy searching the ranch for her son on Mother’s Day and being reprimanded by Jackson (on more than one occasion) when she made her distress known to the staff. It’s a depiction of how an enormous power differential might disable parental vigilance. Jackson is to blame for creating that dynamic, in addition to everything else.

But I don’t personally understand how a mother could repeatedly wake her little boy up in the middle of the night to take him to the house of a 35-year-old—and send the child straight to that man’s bed. I don’t especially believe that women who admit to noticing that Jackson had a new little boy “friend” every few months—and even used the phrase “we’ve been dumped” to express that—weren’t at least conscious of the risks. I don’t think these women are oblivious—in part because they were canny and driven stewards of their sons’ careers. Nor, on the other hand, am I at all persuaded that they were consciously pimping out their sons.

I’m weary of a world where we demand sentimental transparency from women. I don’t especially want to try to adjudicate their actual sincerity. But I can speak to how they’re presented, framed, and edited by the documentarian who came to them, offering them a platform through which to make their case. It is arguably somewhat unfair that this is their last chance to be forgiven—and that to do so they must put themselves in the hands of yet another man who’s directing the way the tale gets told (even if Dan Reed is quite well-meaning by comparison and seems sincerely invested in trying to get at the truth). On this front, the results are mixed. Leaving Neverland excels at making a case for the victims by centering their stories and highlighting their pain. Insofar as Leaving Neverland is making a case for the mothers by pleading their ignorance, that case, specifically, fails. If our times have taught us anything, it’s that willful stupidity isn’t actually better than malice. Wade and James don’t seem to know quite how to feel about their moms, and neither, by the end of the documentary, did I.