We had the privilege of being invited by Channel 4 to the pre-screening of Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland, the already notorious documentary following the experiences of two young boys who were befriended by Michael Jackson throughout their childhood. The film hears from survivors James Safechuck and Wade Robson, now in their 30s and 40s, as well as their mothers, wives, and siblings. It navigates the complex spectrum of feelings that both men have towards Jackson, which is common amongst children who have been sexually abused by someone they trust. As Reed explained, “Leaving Neverland is about both what Michael Jackson gave to them, and what he took away.”
What really struck us about the film was how included the audience was made to feel in the experiences of James, Wade and their loved ones. The retelling of the men’s disclosures to their families were especially gut wrenching and demonstrated how far reaching the effects of sexual abuse are on everyone involved. The film demonstrates how incredibly difficult this process is for survivors and their families and we hope will shed light on this to the public. Many wonder how it took the boys so long to disclose what had happened to them, especially for Wade who had testified Jackson’s innocence in court years before. According to Survivors UK, one of our member agencies working with male survivors, it takes on average 26 years for male survivors to feel ready to disclose what happened to them. Many factors play into this; including fear of being disbelieved, shame, self-blame, and societal stigma.
We have been particularly concerned by the recent news that TFL London has chosen to run an advertising campaign that endorses Jackson’s innocence in the lead up to the documentary’s broadcast. The decision to prioritise advertising revenue over the option of remaining neutral on such an emotive topic is disappointing. The most recent Crime Survey of England and Wales showed that less than 1 in 5 victims of rape or assault by penetration reported this to the police, 25% of these choosing to remain silent as they did not think that they would be believed. An advertising campaign such as this perpetuates this fear amongst survivors and is very misplaced. When we reached Victims’ Commissioner for London, Claire Waxman, on this she said: “All too often, victims of rape or abuse find themselves in a position where they are made to feel ashamed by the false assumptions people make about these crimes. There must be a combined effort from the public, from the media and from the relevant authorities to truly change the narrative around these complex crimes, a narrative which far too often prevents survivors from coming forward and accessing the support they need.”
For Wade and James, opening up about their experiences has led to fierce attacks on their credibility, mental stability, and motives. Even director David Reed has received threats from Jackson fans, asking that the film and the survivors be silenced. In terms of false accusations in the UK, evidence shows that proven cases of false allegations are rare, at around 3-4% (The UK’s Independent Fact Checking Charity), despite claims that these are very common. It is also clear to see from examples such as the Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanagh case that survivors have a lot to loose from disclosing in the public eye. Ford has been forced to leave her home, uproot her family, and still to this day receives death threats for her testimony.
The film isolated the narrative to only the accounts of the two families. By doing this, the audience sees first-hand how the families came to love and trust Jackson and how enveloped by his stardom they became. It almost begs belief that the 7 year old boys were ever allowed to have unsupervised ‘sleepovers’ with an adult, but this only serves to reinforce the weight of Jackson’s influence and trust. To the families, he embodied aspiration, wonder, and promise. The accounts of all of the family members are even now littered with memories filled with warmth and awe, conflicted by the recent accounts. By reliving these memories through the lens of the family’s experiences, the audience can see how Jackson’s behaviour fits the classic pattern of a paedophile.
The film outlines how Jackson charmed both Wade and James’ parents, allowing him to insert himself deeply into family life, with James’ mother describing him as being like another son. The men describe how he then privately undermined the parents and other adults, isolating them and preventing them from trusting anyone enough to share the truth with. It’s common for abusers to drive fear into their victim, Wade recalling as a young boy when Jackson told him that they would both “go to jail for the rest of our lives if anyone found out” about their sexual relationship.
Reed describes how paedophiles like Jackson “become everything to the child: father, brother, mentor, then sexual abuser. The child is overwhelmed and can’t reach out and connect to the things that had previously formed their identity.” When it came to defending Jackson’s innocence later in life, it’s clear that the young boy’s sincere love for him shaped their behaviour. James and Wade describe how it has taken many years of therapy for them to come to terms with their pasts and accept that what they experienced was not love, but abuse.
The Leaving Neverland film will forever change the legacy of Michael Jackson. We hope that it will open the eyes of some members of the public to the ordeals that survivors face. If you feel affected by the film and the things that are discussed, please find information about support on the Find Support page on our website and see the helplines mentioned below. If you are a male survivor and wish to discuss your experiences, we are holding a male survivor Facebook Live event on March 7th at 6pm. Tune in to our Facebook page to hear our expert panel of speakers answer your questions and discuss topics such as support services and issues that affect male survivors getting help.