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3 Things to Keep In Mind Before Watching 'Leaving Neverland'

Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Juliette Virzi, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.


Editor's Note

The following post contains spoilers for “Leaving Neverland.”

In life and after his death, rumors of Michael Jackson’s molestation of young boys have swirled around the King of Pop. HBO’s new documentary “Leaving Neverland” — which airs March 3 and 4 — hopes to shed light on what really went on behind closed doors.

The four-hour documentary centers on the stories of James Safechuck and Wade Robson, two men (now in their 30s and 40s) who met Jackson as children and claim he sexually abused them for years.

The documentary has generated controversy because both men previously denied having been molested by the pop star. The men have since reversed their original stories due to ongoing depression and emotional trauma.

“I want to be able to speak the truth, as loud as I had to speak the lie for so long,” Robson said in the official documentary trailer.

If you are considering watching “Leaving Neverland” this weekend, here are three things to in mind:

1. The documentary features graphic details that may be hard to listen to.

Much of the buzz around the documentary has to do with the graphic nature of Robson and Safechuck’s allegations against Jackson. If you are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse or are sensitive to this topic, the documentary may be potentially triggering.

In an interview on the Today Show, director Dan Reed addressed why he thought it was important to include graphic details of the alleged sexual encounters between the boys and Jackson.

For many years, Michael Jackson kind of hid in plain sight,” Reed said. “He portrayed himself as someone who never had a childhood and therefore was living out his childhood very much in the public eye.”

Reed elaborated on how the public accepted this narrative.

He’d be seen everywhere holding hands with a little boy — and he said that his interest in little boys was entirely innocent. He admitted that he slept, spent nights with them, but nothing happened. And so for many years, the public bought into this. Everyone bought into this. And he was able to spend so much time in the company of little children without people thinking there was anything strange about this.

In addition to graphic details of sexual acts and molestation, the documentary also highlights harrowing allegations of grooming. One example The New York Times called “shattering” was Safechuck’s memory of exchanging vows with Jackson when he was just 7 years old.

If you are considering watching “Leaving Neverland,” we want you to know it’s more than OK to fast-forward scenes that go into explicit details of abuse if you find them triggering or emotionally distressing. Or if you need to skip watching the documentary altogether that’s OK too! Check in with yourself and decide what’s best for you.

2. The documentary addresses why speaking out about childhood sexual abuse can be complicated.

Because both Robson and Safechuck previously denied that they were molested by Jackson — Robson even doing so in his court testimony during the 2005 molestation suit against Jackson — some believe the two men are just seeking financial gain. Reed confirmed on the Today Show that the two men were not paid to be in the documentary.

The Jackson estate has doubled down on these criticisms in an effort to discredit the allegations and the documentary. In a scathing statement released after “Leaving Neverland” premiered at Sundance, the estate said,

‘Leaving Neverland’ isn’t a documentary, it is the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death. The film takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened 20 years ago and treats them as fact. These claims were the basis of lawsuits filed by these two admitted liars which were ultimately dismissed by a judge. The two accusers testified under oath that these events never occurred. They have provided no independent evidence and absolutely no proof in support of their accusations, which means the entire film hinges solely on the word of two perjurers.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard the “false allegation” argument. It comes up almost anytime there is an accusation of sexual assault in the media. But in a study on false allegations of sexual assault, it was found that the prevalence of false allegations falls between two and 10 percent.

In addition, Jackson estate’s argument overlooks the impact of grooming on a child who has lived through sexual abuse. In the official trailer, Robson said Jackson told him if anyone found out, they would both go to jail.

“That’s the tragic thing here, a deep attachment forms between the abuser and the victim,” Reed told the Today Show. “And the sexual relationship, even at such a young age, becomes normalized. And you think, ‘This is love’ and ‘I’m special.’ And the victim sees it as a good thing, doesn’t see it as abuse.”

Robson echoed this sentiment in an interview in 2013.

This is not a case of repressed memory. I never forgot one moment of what Michael did to me, but I was psychologically and emotionally completely unable and unwilling to understand that it was sexual abuse.

Opening up about childhood sexual abuse is complicated, and there are a lot of reasons why a survivor might not feel comfortable sharing.

This is something Mighty contributor RC can relate to. In her piece, “To the Family Member Who Sexually Abused Me as a Child,” she explains to her parents why she kept the abuse secret from them:

To my parents who are still struggling to come to terms with all that has happened… I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I know I’ve only spoken briefly about what has happened to me but I hope that one day, I can be completely honest with you about this. I’ve always been afraid to tell you about it because I didn’t want to hurt you with the truth. 

If you experienced childhood sexual abuse and need a place to talk, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

3. The documentary adds important voices to the #MeToo movement.

“Leaving Neverland” is an important addition to the #MeToo movement, a movement that has been criticized before for primarily elevating the voices of white women. Through Robson and Safechuck’s accounts, we will be presented with the voices of victims we often overlook: male childhood sexual abuse survivors.

In response to the backlash from Jackson’s estate about creating a documentary the late Jackson couldn’t respond to, Reed said, “The film isn’t about Michael Jackson. It’s about Wade and James.”

Oprah Winfrey, a childhood sexual abuse survivor herself, welcomed Robson and James onto her show for a special episode entitled, “Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland.” The episode will air on Monday. Of the documentary she said:

For me, this moment transcends Michael Jackson. It is much bigger than any one person. This is a moment in time that allows us to see this societal corruption. It’s like a scourge on humanity and it’s happening right now. It’s happening in families. We know it’s happening in churches and in schools and sports teams everywhere.

If you are a sexual assault survivor and this news is hard for you, you’re not alone. It’s more than OK to take a step back from the news if you need to and lean on the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline if you find yourself in crisis and need to talk to a trained professional.

Part one of the two-part documentary premieres on HBO this Sunday, March 3, and part two will follow on Monday, March 4.

Screenshot via HBO YouTube channel