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Dark Clouds Over Neverland

Mar 12, 2019

ferris wheel under dark cloudsWatching the movie, ‘Leaving Neverland,’ was a painful experience. To be honest, it took me nearly a week to will myself to sit down and watch the documentary that tells the story of 2 men who were seduced and sexually abused by the late iconic music star, Michael Jackson, for a significant portion of their childhoods. Wade Robson was sexually abused from the age of 7 until he was 14 years old. James Safechuck was abused from the age of 10 to 16. One could say that both boys lost the most vital years of their childhoods to the twisted and insatiable desires of a wealthy, powerful, entitled, larger than life star.

I will say, at the outset, that to be fair, the stories that these two men share are accusations. There are merely that and will always be that because there is no way to prove the abuse. Not only because their perpetrator is deceased (although perpetrators virtually never admit their crime), but because there is rarely ever a way to prove the sexual abuse of a child. The reasons for this bear another entire exploration. I will simply say that, as someone who has listened to hundreds and hundreds of survivors’ first-hand stories and has deeply researched and studied this topic, for 20 years, the credibility of the stories of these two men, the decades of denial and disbelief and most importantly, the sorrow and ache in their eyes as they come to grips with the magnitude and the life effects of the abuse ring absolutely and heartbreakingly true.

As painful as it is to watch, ‘Leaving Neverland,’ offers an incredibly clear picture of the relationship complexity that a sexually abused child often navigates. If there is a greater good to be served in watching this story, it is to remind us, once again, that the abuser to be feared is not the creepy man in the park but the family friend, pastor, priest, coach or even family member who takes the time to patiently and carefully form what feels like a genuinely caring and trusting relationship with the child and often his or her parents.* This reality causes the abused child to ultimately need to deal with both the sexual and relationship violation. In the words of Wade Robson, “Michael was one of the most gentle, loving and caring people I know and he also sexually abused me for seven years.”

I understand that when most of us consider the sexual abuse of a child, it is not a kind, trusting or loving relationship that comes to mind. Yet, it is clear that the emotional bond and entanglement that Michael Jackson nurtured with his victims was so deep that both Robson and Safechuck came to deeply love Michael and believe that he loved them. For decades, neither man considered the sexual abuse at the hands of this musical superstar as evil, bad or wrong. It was not until well into adulthood when both men became fathers of boys of their own that the reality of their abuse came crashing down upon them causing them to doubt everything they had come to trust.

Is it any wonder, then, that it typically takes decades for children sexually abused by a family member or other trusted adult to come to acknowledge the depth of the harm caused to them? To be chosen and carefully inducted in to the special and advantaged world of the abuser spins a heady and seductive thrill ride for the abused child. The black and white viewpoint of a child simply cannot entertain the complexity required to realize that love and abuse can come in the same package. It is not until well into adulthood that victims gain the perspective and strength to allow their world to be turned inside out and to comprehend that what they believed to be care and trust was actually layer upon layer of betrayal.

The sexual abuse of a child always leaves a convoluted and tangled emotional trail that can easily take decades or longer to unravel. The totality of the dynamics of child sexual abuse do not easily fit into the black and white categories of good and bad but the cost is simply too high to resist opening up our minds to this reality. Human beings are capable of both evil and virtuous acts. I believe that Michael Jackson was capable of sharing his musical genius and his sick and twisted darkness with this world. It is not easy to shift our perception of what abuse or an abuser look like, but we deny this complexity at the peril of children who are simply not able to bear the responsibility for keeping themselves safe.

- Janice Palm, MA, LMHC, Executive Director

 

*Approximately 90% of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser. Finkelhor, D. (2012). Characteristics of crimes against juveniles. Durham, NH: Crimes against Children Research Center.



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