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‘Leaving Neverland’: Why You Wanna Trip on Me?

Willa: Hi Lisha. It’s so great to talk with you again! Though I wish it were under happier circumstances. I’m just heartsick about this Leaving Neverland documentary.

Lisha: Hey Willa! Great to chat with you again too, but I think we’re all heartsick about this film.

Willa: You’re probably right, though I have to say, a part of me also feels some small stirrings of hope. I’m trying not to be overly optimistic, but I wonder if this might actually be the turning point when the mainstream media finally begins to look at the evidence surrounding the allegations. I mean, there was such an outcry following the release of this film, and now it appears that some key statements in it simply aren’t true. So I wonder if that might lead to some sort of public reckoning.

Lisha: I really hope so. Not the “MJ Reckoning” that Slate magazine proposed, with an overkill of largely uncritical, unskeptical articles, but a more careful response to how sexual allegations are mediated in general. Accusations are not proof of a crime, so we need to be cautious about assuming guilt based solely on salacious claims. Especially when huge sums of money are involved, as is the case with the lawsuits that Wade Robson and James Safechuck filed against the Michael Jackson Estate.

Willa: Yes, and the new evidence that’s just come out really raises some questions about their lawsuit filings as well as their testimony in the film. For example, in his lawsuit, James Safechuck claims that Jackson began abusing him in 1988, when he was 10, and continued until 1992, when he was 14. And in the film, he says this abuse often occurred in the train station at Neverland:

At the train station, there’s a room upstairs. And we would have sex up there too. It would happen every day. It sounds sick, but it’s kinda like when you’re first dating somebody, right?, and you do a lot of it. So it was very much like that.

However, Mike Smallcombe, the author of Making Michael: Inside the Career of Michael Jackson, investigated this and discovered that the train station didn’t exist at that time. According to county records, the building permit was issued in the fall of 1993.

Here’s a tweet from Smallcombe about this, and it includes an image of the construction permit, with a date stamp of September 2, 1993.

Lisha: Excellent work by Mike Smallcombe!

Willa: I agree! Major kudus for some crucial investigative journalism.

Lisha: It’s amazing how one piece of information can cast doubt on the entire story.

Willa: Or at least make you wonder why Safechuck isn’t being truthful about this. And it appears this part of his story can’t be true, even if you try to force the pieces together to make them fit.

Construction of the train station was completed in 1994, when Michael Jackson was away from Neverland and had a lot going on – the Chandler accusations had become public, he spent quite a bit of time in rehab, he married Lisa Marie Presley, and he was living in New York. He didn’t move back to Neverland until 1995. Here’s an article with additional information, and it includes a brief video clip of the train station segment of Leaving Neverland.

So putting all this together, the earliest any episodes of alleged daily abuse could have occurred in the train station would have been in 1995, when Safechuck was 17. In a response to Smallcombe’s tweet, Dan Reed, the director of Leaving Neverland, replied that the abuse must have gone on for more years than Safechuck originally stated. Here’s a screen capture of Reed’s response.

Dan Reed tweet

So Dan Reed is trying to make the pieces fit. And so is a recent Cosmopolitan article which says that “it’s not uncommon for traumatic experiences to muddle memories, including dates and details, for victims.” I imagine that’s true, especially when the victim is a child.

However, extending the period of abuse by three years, so that it continued into 1995 rather than ending in 1992, isn’t just confusing dates. It’s changing the entire arc of Dan Reed’s narrative, which is that Michael Jackson preyed on young boys and then abandoned them as they entered puberty. Safechuck claims that when he was 12 and starting to show signs of puberty, Michael Jackson began to distance himself from him and turn his attention to younger boys. And he says that by the time he was 14, Michael Jackson had painfully rejected him. Daily sexual abuse of a 17-year-old doesn’t fit this narrative at all.

In addition, Safechuck implies in the film that the train station was one of the first places where abuse occurred: “it’s kinda like when you’re first dating somebody, right?, and you do a lot of it.” So that suggests the late 1980s, when Safechuck was 10 or so. But the train station didn’t exist then. There just doesn’t seem to be any way that all of Safechuck’s claims can be true.

Lisha: Yes, and don’t forget both Safechuck and Robson say they were not traumatized at the time of the alleged abuse. They claim the trauma they experienced came much later – after imagining their own children being abused. So I don’t see how this explanation makes sense. Besides, doesn’t trauma enhance memory rather than distort it? I recall Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony last summer, when she explained that traumatic memories are actually much more vivid than normal memory function.

Willa: Well, it’s complicated. People can be traumatized without realizing it – what I mean is, without realizing what an effect the trauma has had on them. For example, a lot of times soldiers with PTSD don’t realize they have it until they are diagnosed.

And as I understand it, sensory memories from traumatic events can be very vivid, while things like dates or, in Christine Blasey Ford’s case, the location of the house where the abuse occurred or the memory of how she got home that evening, can be confused or forgotten.

Lisha: That’s exactly why the police routinely record interviews with victims, witnesses, and suspects. If you ask someone to go on the record and tell what happened, you can nail down their story and try to corroborate it. It’s often the first thing police do – separate all the known parties and ask them to recall what happened. We know that child sexual abuse cases are very difficult to prove because physical evidence of the crime itself is rarely available. So it’s the other elements of the story that need to be corroborated.

Willa: If possible, but sometimes there isn’t much corroborating evidence, especially if victims aren’t able to come forward until years later, after they’ve had a chance to process what happened to them as children. That’s what makes these cases so challenging.

I’ve been doing some research on the Start By Believing campaign, and I understand and support their goals: to prevent victims of sexual assault or abuse from experiencing additional trauma when they tell their stories, encourage other victims to come forward, and tear down the cloak of silence and shame that surrounds sexual abuse. I think those goals are admirable, and I support them.

But when a prosecutor Starts By Believing the victims, as Tom Sneddon did in 1993 and 2003, or much of the media did when Leaving Neverland came out, that presumption of guilt can lead to injustice.

Lisha: I think this is where the Michael Jackson case can contribute to a broader conversation about how we discriminate between false accusations and valid claims of sexual abuse. We cannot simply assume that all accusers give accurate or truthful information.

Willa: Unfortunately, that’s true. And it isn’t just Safechuck. Smallcombe has uncovered contradictory evidence about Wade Robson’s story as well. In the documentary, Robson says the first time he was abused was in 1990, when he was 7 years old and his family left him alone at Neverland while they went to the Grand Canyon. However, Smallcombe unearthed a 1993 deposition where Wade’s mother, Joy, says the entire family went to the Grand Canyon. She also says that the first time she left Wade alone at Neverland was three years later, in 1993 – just a few months before she gave her deposition, so at a time when her memories about these events would have been fresh.

Again, here’s a tweet from Smallcombe:

And here’s an article with additional information.

Lisha: So we know that the information presented in the film cannot be taken at face value. In fact, how do we know anything in the film is accurate?

Willa: That’s a good question, Lisha. Maybe as more evidence emerges, we’ll be able to figure that out. Just as importantly, I hope that information like this may finally force the mainstream media to look back and reevaluate all of the allegations, and actually look at the evidence this time.

Lisha: I do, too.

Willa: Unfortunately, I’m afraid it’s a slim hope. I was talking to a friend a couple weeks ago who was editor-in-chief of the local newspaper for many years, and now teaches journalism classes at the local college. He’s a really nice guy and I respect him a lot, but he told me that, to be honest, he’d written Michael Jackson off as a freak a long time ago, regardless of whether he was a child molester or not. He said that evidence about this or that particular point didn’t matter to him. His general feeling about Michael Jackson was already set and not likely to change.

I’m worried a lot of people feel that way, including other journalists. For example, I get the sense from the national media that they don’t care much about the evidence either. Instead, there has been almost universal condemnation of Michael Jackson, as well as public shaming of anyone who dares to defend him.

Lisha: I think this is why we need to step back and think about the cultural response to the film, apart from trying to evaluate every scrap of evidence.

Willa: Hmmm… I still think looking at the evidence is crucial, but that’s a good point, Lisha. I think you’re right – the two have to happen in tandem.

Lisha: Yes, I agree. Uncovering the facts is critical. But what does it say about the culture when a film of this nature – four hours of imagining graphic pedophilic acts – generates so much buzz? It’s worth thinking about why an entertainment product like this has so much appeal.

For me, the worst part of Leaving Neverland has been the relentless, sensationalized media coverage. I really didn’t see that coming. So often it feels like it is coming from one uncritical voice, despite all we’ve learned about these cases over the last six years. The Robson/Safechuck lawsuits have already been dismissed twice, with prejudice. Major outlets reported the claims back in 2013. Plus, Michael Jackson died in 2009! So why did this suddenly explode into public consciousness and generate such a massive response?

Looking back at some earlier media analysis, I see a familiar story. For example, back in 1998 media scholar John Erni described the coverage of the Chandler allegations as both “arduously simplistic and blatantly homophophic,” and I think that still applies. Too many journalists are simply accepting these claims at face value. And in a culture that “tirelessly recycles the myth of gay people as child molesters,” once again we see a homophobic containment of Michael Jackson and difference.

Willa: Absolutely.

Lisha: But I’m struggling to understand why this narrative has come roaring back with a vengeance. Why now?

Willa: That’s a really good question, Lisha. I think maybe it’s because the allegations were presented in a film, like a story, with people that viewers could see and connect with – what psychologists call the “identifiable victim effect.” There was an article about this in Salon recently.

Lisha: Great article! I’m sure that this a big piece of the puzzle.

Willa: Well, you’re probably right, Lisha, that this is only one of several reasons why Leaving Neverland caused such an outcry. But I think it’s an important one. It seems that we as humans are hard-wired to respond emotionally to stories. I think that’s one reason Freud turned to Greek mythology so often when he was mapping out and naming human psychology. (There’s Eros and Narcissus, Oedipus and Electra, … ) It’s like we as humans create stories, but our stories have also created us. Over the millennia our stories have shaped our minds, our cultures, and our understanding of what it means to be human. As a result, our stories are able to move us emotionally in ways that can be hard to fully understand.

So seeing a film like Leaving Neverland, and watching a fellow human tell a horrific story – even one that has been circulating for several years, as Robson and Safechuck’s allegations have – rouses our emotions and affects us very differently than reading a news report about a court case, even if both convey the same information.

Lisha: It’s true that this film relies entirely on affective and emotional capture, which is a totally different way of taking in information than say, reading legal documents. Even if the information is the same, film allows the viewer to evaluate non-verbal information, which can be very powerful.

Willa: That’s true.

Lisha: I noticed that Untouchable, the new documentary about Harvey Weinstein, follows the same approach. It premiered alongside Leaving Neverland at Sundance, and similarly focused on the accuser’s allegations. One reviewer explained it this way:

Newspaper and magazine stories can tell us the details, but cinema, an image- and time-based medium, can do what print cannot. It can make us sit with victims and serve as witnesses while they recount their experiences.

Willa: Yes, that’s a good way to describe it. And putting us in that uncomfortable position can be powerful: it can force us to confront harsh realities, unleash strong emotions, and possibly bring about important social changes. But the sheer force of those emotions can also get us into trouble.

Lisha: That’s for sure. I’ve noticed this is where the #MeToo movement has gotten a little wobbly – encouraging us to “believe the victims” while inadvertently cuing us to leave our critical thinking skills behind. Some have even tried to explain the sudden interest in Leaving Neverland as a part of the #MeToo movement. But I tend to think if this were the case, we would have seen a much bigger response to Untouchable and the upcoming trial of Harvey Weinstein – a living, breathing human being.

Willa: The differing reactions to Untouchable and Leaving Neverland are pretty striking when you put them side by side like that, Lisha. I think you’re right that there’s more going on – something that generates a much stronger emotional response for Michael Jackson’s accusers than for Weinstein’s.

And again, we need to be wary of judging the truth of a story based on our emotional reactions. Just because a story is compelling doesn’t mean it’s true. Some of our most emotionally wrenching stories are fiction. But because they move us so deeply, they feel true on some level.

Lisha: Yes, that’s right. On a psychological level, I’ve often thought many fictional stories are true! Maybe even more than mere presentation of fact

Willa: I know what you mean. Fiction can convey important psychological truths, even when the storyline is a complete fabrication. In fact, sometimes fiction can express something more profound and move us more deeply than a strict adherence to actual events. I recently saw Never Look Away, an amazing film about art’s ability to express truths that even the artist may not understand. In a recent article, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the director of Never Look Away, said that “Sticking to every fact and chronology tends to weaken something. Citizen Kane would be a lesser film if it were called Citizen Hearst.”

Lisha: Interesting!

Willa: I think so too. That comment really struck me. So directors try to convey stories in a way that stirs emotions – they work hard to move our emotions. And those emotions may spark important insights, but they can also lead us astray.

For example, emotions can generate a kind of mob mentality that sweeps people along. I think that’s one reason Michael Jackson watched To Kill a Mockingbird over and over during his trial – to understand how that mob mentality works, especially when a white person accuses a black man of a sex crime. It can be nearly impossible in those situations, when emotions are running so high, to get the general public to pause a moment and not rush to judgment before they’ve considered the evidence.

Lisha: History is littered with these kinds of events and cultural products – Birth of a Nation comes to mind – showing how easily we get trapped by cultural narratives and knee-jerk reactions. Leaving Neverland was crafted to evoke an intense emotional response and that has turned into an effort to modulate Michael Jackson into some kind of cultural folk devil, to use sociologist Stanley Cohen’s term. Because this trial-by-media demonization of Michael Jackson includes calls to ban his music, I think we need to be vigilant in dealing with this cultural moment. Banning music and art is a very dark impulse.

Willa: Well, it’s a complicated subject. I agree we must be vigilant, as you say, anytime we see signs of that sort of mob mentality. Mobs are scary things, especially in person but even online. And it’s troubling that there’s been so little discussion of actual evidence, or the presentation of multiple points of view. For a while there, it seemed like Joe Vogel’s article in Forbes was the only one out there pushing back against Leaving Neverland and the all-too-familiar narrative of Michael Jackson as a sexual predator of young white boys.

But to be perfectly honest, I can understand why most viewers of Leaving Neverland are outraged and feel sympathy for Wade Robson and James Safechuck. I have a dear friend who was sexually abused more than 40 years ago, and it still affects almost every aspect of her life. It was such a deep betrayal. It’s almost impossible to convey in words the effect it has had on her. I have another friend who discovered one day that her husband had been sexually abusing their two children. She told me she went to work that morning thinking she had a strong marriage and a happy family, and by the end of the day everything she thought she knew was turned inside out.

Lisha: That’s heartbreaking, Willa.

Willa: It is. It’s heartbreaking and devastating and completely disorienting. She told me she kept asking herself, How could I have missed this? How could I have misread my husband as a fun, happy extrovert when he had such darkness inside him? How could I have misread his relationship with our children? She really lost confidence in her ability to read people, and I’m not sure she’ll ever fully recover from that.

Lisha: That’s incredibly sad because people who commit these crimes are not proud of their behavior and go to great lengths to hide it. No doubt this was carefully hidden – especially from her. But unfortunately, mothers often take the blame for failing to protect the children – another cultural narrative that deserves more scrutiny.

Willa: That’s true. We see that in Leaving Neverland also.

Lisha: Painfully so.

Willa: Anyway, my point is that I’ve seen how sexual abuse can rip people apart, not just victims but their families too, and I’ve seen the long-term effects it can have on the deepest reaches of a victim’s psyche. So I can understand why most people watching Leaving Neverland would feel shock and anger and disgust.

Lisha: I can certainly understand empathizing with someone who is suffering and wanting to help those who have been victimized. It seems only natural to want to offer as much support and comfort as possible.

Willa: Yes, I think so too.

Lisha: But I also want to think about the victims of false accusations, too. What is missing from the Leaving Neverland conversation for me is an acknowledgement that there has been a heightened cultural awareness of child sexual abuse for decades now, since the 1980s as I recall it. This is not a social problem that we’ve swept under the rug or pretended doesn’t exist. We have been inundated with all kinds of information on child sexual abuse. Oprah alone claims to have made 217 television programs on the topic. At times, the intense interest in this topic has risen to full-blown panic and hysteria. In the words of Mike Lew, author of Victims No Longer (a book that Wade Robson recommends on his website): “One would have to have been living in a cave to be unaware of the reality of sexual child abuse.…”

Along with this heightened awareness of abuse comes the knowledge of how destructive false accusations can be. Just as we see in cases of abuse, false accusations can ruin people’s lives and tear families apart, too. So these claims have to be evaluated very carefully.

Willa: Yes, especially when the accusers are white and the accused is not.

Lisha: Excellent point! Race complicates this discussion exponentially, especially with accusations of black-on-white sexual violence.

Willa: It really does. You know, I grew up in the South, so I’m very aware that those powerful feelings of anger and outrage can be manipulated, especially against men of color. Repeatedly throughout American history, white men have accused non-white or racially ambiguous men of sexually abusing white women and children, and then used the intense fear and anger that resulted for political and financial gain.

For example, this strategy was repeatedly used against American Indians during colonialism to justify the violation of treaties and forfeiture of Indian land. What I mean is, white settlers would spread stories of Indians abducting and abusing white women and children, and then use those stories as justification for driving Indians from land that was rightfully theirs. This strategy had an interesting effect: it allowed white settlers to paint themselves as victims, even as they were committing violence against indigenous peoples and taking their land.

A similar strategy was used against Chinese immigrants in the 1880s and against Mexican immigrants in the 1930s (as well as the 2016 presidential elections) to effect changes in immigration policy. And it has been turned against black men for generations. Thousands of freed black men were lynched in the decades following Reconstruction, and a false accusation of sexual assault was often the justification used to stir up mob violence, destroy successful black businesses and communities, and confiscate black property.

In a 1892 pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, journalist Ida Wells suggests these vicious lynchings also had an over-arching political purpose: to suppress freed black people, especially black men, following the abolition of slavery. Wells went on to warn her readers that using a false allegation of rape to justify white-on-black violence had become so prevalent that “it is in a fair way to stamp us a race of rapists.” (By the way, thank you to Eleanor Bowman for sharing Wells’ pamphlet with me. I’ve learned a lot from it. If anyone else would like to read it, the complete text is available here.)

Unfortunately, I think Wells’ prediction came true to some extent – over the decades this narrative did “stamp” African Americans as “a race of rapists” in the minds of many people. So now, a lot of white Americans especially are predisposed to see black men and other men of color as sexual predators. This history has a powerful influence on how whites perceive and respond to black men accused of sexually abusing white women and children. But I think a lot of white Americans either don’t realize this, or don’t want to admit it.

Lisha: Cultural narratives are so much a part of our daily lives that we’re rarely even aware of them – that is, until they get challenged. It’s important to point out that the culture industry (e.g., music and film) is a site where these myths and cultural blind spots are continually reinforced (and sometimes contested). It is one of the ways that the dominant culture holds onto their social advantage.

Willa: That’s true.

Lisha: This reminds me of a recent article on Leaving Neverland that deals with these issues in terms of cognitive bias, including racial bias, and explains how this impacts viewer response to the film. It is titled “How Your Judgment Can Be Skewed About the Michael Jackson Documentary” and was written by a psychiatrist, Dr. Srini Pillay. Pillay said he had trouble finding a publisher for this piece because it was not in step with dominant media narratives about the film. He of course points out this is also strong evidence of cognitive bias!

Willa: It really is, especially since this is an insightful article from a trustworthy source: a Harvard psychiatrist and brain researcher. It says a lot that he wasn’t able to find someone to publish it.

Lisha: I think that any time we observe the media speaking in one voice, it’s a signal that we’re in a danger zone, culturally speaking. It makes me want to look around and see if I can detect what is hiding just beyond our peripheral vision.

Pillay shows how bias operates in both overt and subtle ways. For example in the documentary, the white accusers are “the only people with a voice or perspective,” while “the alleged black perpetrator not only has no voice, but is dead.” That strikes me as an example of overt racial bias.

But there are more subtle manipulations going on as well. What surprised me most was a study he cited on the “posthumous demonization and criminalization” of black men, showing that “black men are at increased risk of racial bias against them, especially after they die.”

Willa: That surprised me as well.

Lisha: I think that’s incredibly significant here, considering that Michael Jackson has been dead for almost ten years.

Willa: Yes. I’d never thought about the “increased risk of racial bias” black men face after death. They face so much during life! But it does bring to mind Martin Luther King Jr, for example, and everything that was done to tear done his legacy after he died – like all the stories of affairs and one-night stands. Why was that made public, and why then?

Lisha: That’s a perfect example! The struggle for Dr. King’s legacy triggered an old (and still active) cultural myth about black male hypersexuality, and that theme repeats itself in the struggle for Michael Jackson’s legacy.

Willa: I agree completely.

Lisha: Pillay also describes the bias against successful people, which we can think about in relation to Dr. King as well. Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke about this in a 2005 interview with Bill Maher, in reference to Michael Jackson: “whether you are Jack Johnson or Paul Robeson or Martin King or Mandela, seemingly when blacks hit very high spots, they’re in the line of fire. Michael perceives himself to be in that line.”

Willa: Yes, that’s a good point. It’s like the Star is Born effect, where we repeatedly tell the story of a talented person making it big, achieving incredible success, and then crashing and burning. We tell that story over and over again. And it’s especially true of successful black men. As Michael Jackson himself said in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson, “there has been kind of a pattern among black luminaries in this country.”

Lisha: It’s practically a national pastime at this point: the “swift and sudden fall from grace.”

Willa: Exactly. In that clip you shared, Lisha, Jesse Jackson describes another phenomenon that’s relevant here too, I think: that Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela were reviled when they were alive, and then their image was sanitized and celebrated after they died.

So I think we saw a number of different phenomena with Michael Jackson, at different phases. He was scorned the last decade or so of his life, then celebrated immediately after he died – like Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela were. But now there seems to be a kind of backlash setting in. Once again he’s becoming “the beast you visualized,” to quote another of his lyrics. It’s like we need him to fulfill that cultural role.

Lisha: Yes, you’re right. It’s that mob mentality again and the impulse to manufacture a cultural folk devil. Now add to that the creativity bias …

Willa: Right, I thought that was a really interesting part of Dr. Pillay’s article too. I mean, just think of the popular image of the famous composer or painter who’s half mad, or think of all the songs or folk tales where an artist makes some sort of pact with the devil to gain success or creativity. There really does seem to be contradictory perceptions of creative people – that they should be celebrated for their talents, but also that there’s something not quite right with them. Michael Jackson explicitly addresses that bias in Ghosts. After all, the main character is a “maestro,” and the village people feel threatened by his creativity as much as anything.

Lisha:  There are many cultural narratives about artists – Ghosts rehearses a lot of them. And I think we could even create a subset for popular music. I mean, fill in the blank: Musicians are ________ (sexually promiscuous, drug addicted, reckless, irresponsible…) There’s even a cultural short-hand for it: “Sex, Drugs and Rock-n-Roll.”

Willa: I see what you mean!

Lisha: So there is a lot of complexity driving viewer response to this film, including one more significant factor, which is the final element that Pillay identifies: memory bias. As it turns out, memory isn’t nearly as stable and reliable as we like to believe.

Elizabeth Loftus is a leading memory researcher who flagged the Wade Robson accusations early on as being suspect, especially when initial reports characterized his claims as a repressed memory case. Although Robson walked this back and publicly said that his memories were never repressed, on his website he recommends a popular psychology book, Courage to Heal, that has been widely criticized for promoting the theory of repressed memory. Dr. Loftus addresses this specifically in her own book, but perhaps this is a longer discussion for another time!

Willa: I think so. It sounds like there’s a lot to learn and a lot to unpack about that topic! And I look forward to another discussion. It’s always so great to talk with you, Lisha!