The week before Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland debuted, I received a substantial check for abuse I endured when I was a student at a boarding school in Canada years ago. The check came from a victims services fund, meted out via a quasi-governmental provincial agency that distributes compensation outside of convictions. The revelations about Michael Jackson and my own experience of abuse have always circled around each other. The decades-long conversation around Jackson accusers Wade Robson and James Safechuck, particularly around Robson’s credibility, long made me worry that if I were to apply for compensation for what happened to me, I would not be believed. Then, within a 10-day span, I received the check and saw the documentary. Robson and Safechuck’s stories helped me process and accept my complicated feelings about my abuse and about receiving money as a salve for it.
The school was one of those places that tied Edwardian ideas of religious betterment to 1970s ideas of back-to-the-land self-sufficiency; like much of that rhetoric, it was a place that pretended to be poor, but was very rich. The school had Anglican compline (evening prayer) on Sunday nights, chores three times a day, and two hours of study hall most evenings. It was also obsessed with the wilderness. The year was marked by outdoor, seasonal milestones—running in the fall to prepare for snowshoe hikes in the winter, which led to prepping for canoe trips in the spring. I was sent there because of my grandmother’s politics and her anxiety. She was worried I was too weird, perhaps too queer, and maybe this was a place that could smooth the edges off. She wanted me to pass, she wanted me to fit in, and after her own move from being a farm kid to being the wife of a construction executive in the booming ’70s, she worried that I would be forever working-class and wanted me to have a way out.
Her desires were complemented by the school’s approach. There was formal corporal punishment, informal violent encounters with the students, and the usual verbal harassment, delivered by my classmates, with what seemed to be tacit approval by the staff. It was in part because of all of this that a teacher could touch me in ways that he should not have. The teacher knew I was lonely, and he must have known that I was harassed. Through a kind of discipline and indulgence, he allowed his favorites to feel special. And he did make me feel special, but the question of access and the fear of losing him as a bulwark meant any pleasure that came from that feeling quickly disappeared. Things were always unstable.
Why did I endure the abuse? It was not only access to favor—to the bed of someone in power—but access to lessons that made me feel like an adult. For smart kids or talented kids, loneliness is exacerbated by wanting to grow up too quickly. To have sex with a child is to teach them how to be an adult, in the most perverse and least acceptable way. It’s both learning through practice—being taught to do things for an adult’s body—but also learning to be an adult: how not to be caught, how to please, and how to deliver. And there were the lessons of courtly manners, of how to access money, while pretending that money doesn’t matter. I was a generation removed from the capital of that school, in that my grandmother had it and my parents did not. I needed to know how to pass; I needed to know how to pretend that I had the money that I actually didn’t have.
Watching Leaving Neverland, I saw that Jackson had much more to offer, and was much cruder in his threats than the teacher who did similar things to me. And yet the cycle of advance and retreat, of promises offered and promises taken away, was consistent with my own experience. To admit, as a child, that an adult is having sex with you is to be entrapped. Any social access or liquid capital that you have acquired will be lost. I wonder if Jackson, allegedly abused as a child and forced to work until collapse, understood this tension so well that he knew how to wield it as a tool to get what he wanted.
When you are abused, there is a mirror to the idea that no one will ever believe you, which is the fear that everyone will think you were asking for it: the idea that, as the target, you will lose everything if you are believed. All of this combines to create a continual undercurrent that one cannot report: What if I am not believed? What if I am?
Leaving Neverland helped me understand my abuse by delicately exposing the exact same cycles and habits and systemic failures that I had endured myself. But it also helped me understand what society likely thinks of what happened to me, in part via its omissions. As Christina Cauterucci eloquently explained, one thing Leaving Neverland ignores is Robson and Safechuck’s repeated attempts to receive financial compensation for what they endured. This isn’t surprising: Victims’ desire for capital as compensation is often weaponized against them, so it makes sense that it was left out of this sympathetic portrait. But, as Cauterucci writes, “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.”
A few years ago, the man who abused me was arrested for committing offenses similar to what happened to me. The charges did not stick, but when I heard he had been charged, I recorded a statement and sent the tape to the relevant law enforcement office in the small town near the school. The tape, I am told, was added to a file. Every six weeks, I call and ask if charges have been laid. Every two months, someone from the local office calls me back to say no charges have been laid. I doubt they ever will. In the meantime, I learned, via a trauma therapy group at the local mental health facility, about the victims services fund. The facilitators recommended that I apply—I had had no idea funds like this existed. I put a package together and sent it in. The first victim impact statement I submitted, as part of that package, was considered too mild, and I was denied. Later, I appealed, after asking my family doctor to write a letter about the effects of my experience at the school. The letter was strong enough to get me an appeal, where four nonprofessionals asked invasive questions about my experience. A few months later, I got a letter in the mail saying the appeal was successful, and six weeks later, a check came.
I have some problems with the check I received. I don’t know if money makes anything better. But often money is the only kind of compensation our culture can offer, and the desire to get that can’t be seen as a crack in a narrative or a stain. The arguments against taking settlement money, the arguments that people sue just for the money, are painfully naive about how our capitalist culture works, anyway. Money, and the status and power that come along with it, is often already part of the equation. It can be used to entice victims, as we see with Jackson, and it can serve as a bulwark against their claims. It is why R. Kelly was still invited to mentor music classes after his sex tape was released. It is the entire post-prison career of Jeffrey Epstein. And it is my grandmother, difficult and striving, sending me to a fancy boarding school because she thinks it will make my path in life easier.
I have spent decades trying to get some kind of justice. To have my abuser admit that he had done what we both know he did. The check that I got for what happened to me represents decades of work, trying to figure out some idea of justice. It is a literal settlement. I would prefer for the person who touched me to say out loud, in public, I liked to fuck 12- to 14-year-old boys, and I fucked a lot of 12- to 14-year-old boys, and I shouldn’t have tried to act on that desire. I worry that my check precludes true reconciliation, by perpetuating this kind of cold, mechanical idea that trauma can be alleviated via actuarial math. I am concerned that it prevents true reconciliation—separating justice from the social contract, from due process, and from the rule of law.
But what I got was a check. The check is a significant number, which will do some significant good. It will get me out of debt, will pay for my therapist for a year. It still refuses to demand any responsibility from the teacher. Money is justice, but in a limited way, one that precludes personal responsibility. In a world where everything has a price, though, sometimes we have to settle for what we can get.