By now, most people have either seen or heard about the documentary Leaving Neverland and the subsequent live-taped interview of Wade Robson and James Safechuck hosted by Oprah Winfrey. The documentary is a graphic retelling of two boys turned men and their families’ deep and sordid relationship with Michael Jackson.
While the pop icon looms large in the documentary, director Dan Reed has been very clear: the film is not about Jackson. It’s about the stories of two men, Robson and Safechuck — two survivors of child sex abuse. Whoever the abuser turned out to be was of no consequence to Reed. Rather, he wanted to focus his lens on Robson and Safechuck. He wanted to know how the two men had navigated a world where their abuse was kept quiet while their abuser was celebrated as one of the most gifted, kindest, spotless, almost godlike human beings to ever grace the 20th century.
Robson and Safechuck’s stories are disturbing. Their testimonies are chock-full of details that only a survivor would be able to share. Surely, there could be no monetary or celebrity benefit large enough to convince someone to repeat the heinous details the men shared with the director and eventually the world.
Almost as disturbing as Leaving Neverland itself has been the response by fans and relatives of Jackson. His family moved into attack mode, accusing the men of seeking financial gain — and the family is not alone in this belief. The level of unequivocal support of the deceased pop star is more than confusing given how many people shared their belief that Jackson’s strange behavior toward children was just cause to consider him a possible pedophile. Comedians spent years using Jackson’s rumored relationships with little boys as fodder in their acts. After his death in 2009, the Jackson apologia took on new life and an even larger following. What should terrify all survivors of sexual assault is the ease with which people employ skepticism toward a survivor and absolution toward the accused.
To be clear: when we, as a society, look askance at survivors because their stories do not fit into our impression of their attacker, we are saying it is far more likely for a survivor to fabricate a story than it is for a person to be guilty of assault or abuse. This is statistically untrue. Only between 4 and 8 percent of child sex abuse reports are fabricated, according to Darkness to Light, a nonprofit organization working to prevent and end child sex abuse.
Our rush to condemn those who report abuse as liars seems to turn common sense and empathy on their heads. What does it ever profit a survivor to accuse someone of sexual assault? To have their personal business in the public conversation, to speak of sexual acts in which they were forced to engage? How does it benefit them materialistically to confess a level of powerlessness, a loss of control over their own body, domination by another person? What great gain does anyone achieve by putting themselves through this level of scrutiny? There is no benefit to disclosure beyond a search for catharsis and healing.
We as a people must ask ourselves why we think it more logical to question the integrity of an alleged survivor than to believe it possible that anyone — yes, anyone — can be an abuser. We must examine why we are more comfortable living in our own delusion rather than accepting the duality of the human condition, that we possess both good and bad. We possess the capacity to soar to the highest levels of human decency and dwell in the lowest depths of human depravity. But what is it about discussing sexual assault that causes a people, a society to apply that depravity to the accuser and not the accused? What Puritanical spell are we yet under, where the person who discusses sexual assault is the sinner?!
Author Chinua Achebe reminds us that it is often the powerful, the most articulate, the individual with the most resources that will spin any story to their advantage regardless of the true power dynamics at play. He is remembered as recalling this proverb: “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Inspired by Achebe herself, author and sister Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us many years later about the danger of a single story; how stereotypes and myopic ideas from dominant culture can color the way we understand whole nations and people groups. She posits, if we only listen to one side of a story, we can never gain the full picture of the situation and the actors within it.
What would it look like for us as a society to apply this warning more broadly? What if we were to recognize the danger of the single story of abuse? What might we be able to see if we dared to analyze the lens through which we see survivors and abusers, and realize how often we believe the testimony of the person with the most power, control and resources to absolve themselves of any wrongdoing? I believe we could not only see the absurdity in our siding with the powerful over the vulnerable, but we’d allow for a full flow of empathy and compassion toward survivors of the most monstrous of violations against the body, mind and spirit.
In the classic play, Peter Pan ( the boy who would never grow up), Neverland is a place where no one ever gets old. No one is forced to deal with adult problems, there is no sexual assault or abuse. It is indeed a place of unadulterated innocence. With the leadership of their mischievous captain, the Lost Boys spend what must be years of their lives avoiding the realities of adulthood to which everyone else outside this magic place has succumb.
In some way we have allowed Jackson to draw us into his own version of Neverland. In this fantasy land, the charismatic perpetually young man-child, Jackson – who vehemently distrusted women and lured young boys away from their parents and the adulthood they would have had without the pop star Peter Pan – led them into a world of distorted logic and childhood fantasy where everyone is “[happy], innocent and heartless.” Our real-life Peter Pan, Jackson, turned both Robson and Safechuck into Lost Boys of a different sort. And here is where Neverland meets reality.
Survivors do not simply grow up unscathed by their abuse to become the people they were always meant to be. Abuse leaves emotional scars, emotional damage that requires hard work to overcome. It is a life-long journey that cannot be taken lightly. It is not a fairytale, it’s a difficult journey through a world where survivors are questioned more harshly than their abusers and believed even less. The journey is often lonely and isolating, and oftentimes survivors take the journey alone while our society trips merrily through that land of make-believe. But maybe it’s time we walked with survivors on their journey. Maybe it’s time we believed survivors and gave them our support. Maybe, just maybe it’s time we all left Neverland.