Posted on March 22, 2019
Leaving Neverland is a new HBO Documentary focused on the sexual abuse experienced by two boys (now men) inflicted by Michael Jackson. Just a warning, if hearing graphic stories about sexual abuse is hard for you, this documentary and post is probably not for you.
On one hand, the stories of abuse documented in Leaving Neverland are very familiar in my work as a therapist with abused youth. The shame, pain, uncertainty, anger all mirrored many of the experiences of those I worked with over the years. While I don’t think you need my experience to come to this conclusion, I felt it was nearly impossible to dismiss the stories of these men. Even the fact they denied the abuse in the past makes their story so common to how young children deal with histories of sexual abuse.
The thing about Leaving Neverland that haunts me days after finishing it is the dynamics of their abuse at the hands of one of the most famous men in the world at the time. They both admit that Jackson did amazing things for their careers and future while enacting tremendous pain to very young children and their families. Our fame obsessed culture provided a dysfunctional cover that allowed evil acts to continue for years.
As a survivor of abuse myself, I struggled with the reactions to Jackson’s death a few years ago. I could not understand why anyone would celebrate this man or his life. You can like his music, but, even if you just took the acts he acknowledged, were people ignoring the suffering of his victims and how he used fame and money to do things so utterly unacceptable?
I wonder if Leaving Neverland will serve as another wake-up call to our celebrity obsessed culture. The #metoo movement proves that few people are too powerful to escape their actions (with the one big exception being our President). Regardless of fame, abusers use power to enact suffering, maybe we can all finally agree that no amount of artistic, financial, political, or social power excuses such acts. Unfortunately, #metoo came too late to help Jackson’s victims find justice.
I saw this documentary last week and it’s still lingering with me.
A few things struck me.
First, how pervasive childhood sexual abuse is. That even when there are signs of something not being right. People (adults) look away. It’s so shameful. All of it, from the abuse of power he displayed to the fact that the parents were so caught up in the fame, the money, the man himself, that they couldn’t see it.
Second, that even though they confessed what happened to them, I sensed a deep love that they had for the man, a kind of love that I’m not sure would compare to another abuser/victim relationship. It was fascinating.
Third, the statute of limitation laws need to change. If the me too movement should get behind changing some of those laws. That could define their moment and really impact sexual abuse survivors. The reality is that it takes that long to admit that something like that happened. In the cases of these two men it was the birth of their children that triggered them to confess. This is often the case, having your own children, watching them grow can trigger the ptsd symptoms that you hadn’t experienced in the past.
Bravo to these two men for telling their story. My heart goes out to them and to all children that have had their childhoods stolen and their voices silenced.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment Beth. It was odd to see their “deep love.” Somewhat hard to fathom in light of the abuse but it does show the wide variety of reactions to trauma.
I am very interested to watch the documentary now.
Thank you for simply stating a truth we need to keep reinforcing: “…abusers use power to enact suffering, maybe we can all finally agree that no amount of artistic, financial, political, or social power excuses such acts.”
We also need to acknowledge those power differences can be both subtle and obvious.
Let me know what you think about it. Thanks for reminding us that power differences are not always evident.