Can We Finally Leave Neverland?

Separating Michael Jackson the Man, from the Myth, and the Legend

March 5, 2019

In September of 1993, I was seven years old, and on the bus home from second grade. Everything about my trip to and from school on that day was typical, save for one interaction. It has stuck with me, for 20 plus years, for reasons that continue to evolve in significance.

I was your standard 90’s kid. I came equipped with a Beauty and the Beast backpack stuffed with Lisa Frank folders, Yikes pencils and a few spare scrunchies. I was a mighty little fan of Disney movies, the Ninja Turtles, dinosaurs, my new pink Skip-It, Nickelodeon, and of course, Michael Jackson.
I sat in front of the TV, eyes wide and in awe when the Black or White music video was released. At the time, the video was groundbreaking in its use of morphing, and I was mesmerized as I watched people’s faces transform seamlessly.
My parents had recently reprimanded me for checking the Dangerous CD out of the library, for what must have been the twentieth time (why they never broke down and bought me the album, I don’t know). My favorite song was Heal the World, and I sang it to myself on a loop.
I was also currently spearheading a heated childhood campaign, with the support of several other dancers in my Jazz class, to perform to Will You Be There, Jackson’s song from the epic 90’s movie Free Willy, at our recital that year. (We were successful).

To say I was obsessed with the King of Pop would be accurate.

On this particular afternoon, I sat shyly in my seat, listening casually to the schoolbus chatter. This was long before iPhones, iPods, even Diskmans, so my only source of entertainment was whatever obviously intelligent conversation spouted forth from the mouths of the kids on the bus.
One voice rose and cut loudly above the rest, as a fifth grader stood and proclaimed
Michael Jackson is a pervert! He touches little boys!

This outburst was met with laughter from the older kids on the bus, and as they chuckled, my tiny fists clenched with rage.
How could he say something like this about Michael? And how could everyone just laugh?

Even at the age of seven, I wasn’t in the dark when it came to Michael Jackson’s controversial personal life. I had some idea of what was going on in the news, but I didn’t believe it. Not for a second.
Michael was my hero. In my mind, I was on a first name basis with him. We were connected. He didn’t know me, but he cared about me, and I cared about him.
I knew, in my seven-year-old heart, that Michael Jackson was creating a better world for kids everywhere. Kids like me, and the ungrateful loudmouth a few rows back, whether he knew it or not. And I was gonna make sure he knew it.

I remember the rage boiling up in my face as I climbed on the plastic bus seat, taking advantage of whatever height it could give me, peered over the graffiti strewn ledge, and sternly announced that Michael Jackson was a hero, who would never hurt kids. 
I literally stood up for what I believed was right. I stood up for my hero. To the older boy I shouted at, I’m sure I looked like a mouthy little pipsqueak who didn’t have a clue about the real world, but I didn’t care. I was making my first ever stance for perceived justice (it should be noted, this was the first of many).

I have always looked back on this moment with pride. I was so brave, so brazen, and so willing to defend what I felt was right. This stance was indicative, at such an early, age, of the person I would become. I see this moment differently now.

This weekend, as I watched the excruciating four hour HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, I have to come to terms with the fact that when I made my school bus declaration, I was the same age as some of Jackson’s victims. Seven.

The two-part film features interviews with Wade Robson, James Safechuck, and members of their respective families.
It’s an often brutal and frank account of the continued abuse both boys claim to have suffered at the hands of a man that they, like me, had loved and idolized.

Early in the documentary, Robson and Safechuck recounted their infatuation with Jackson. Robson watched his videos, like I did. He studied his every move in his living room, just like me. He had his movies, his CDs, his posters. I felt an overwhelming sense of familiarity, almost fraternity as I watched. They, especially Robson, understood. They got what it was like to worship the icon, the image, the legend that was Michael Jackson.

Devastatingly, as they came to know their idol, the person, they describe years of manipulation, deception, and sexual abuse.

Their story has been heard before, and has been told, with alarming similarity, by multiple boys and men. It was in every newspaper in 1993, and on every TV screen in 2004 and 2005.
But so many of us didn’t want to listen. I didn’t want to hear it.
Even as a child I had rejected the idea that someone I loved, could be bad, could do something so wrong.
It’s an idea that Safechuck and Robson state they have also struggled to come to terms with, on a much more brutal level.

Emotions I felt as watched this appalling tale of abuse play out, ranged from shock, to confusion, to sadness, and eventually, shame.
I’m ashamed to say, I was once a person who wouldn’t have believed these men.
In 2005, when Jackson was acquitted, I cheered. I celebrated.
I celebrated because I didn’t have to face a harsh truth. I didn’t have to admit that a hero of mine, was no hero at all.
I got to keep on believing. And I got to do that, at the expense of someone else's pain. A child’s suffering. And for that, I am deeply ashamed.

So what now. How do we let go of the legend, and accept the man Michael Jackson likely was?

If Robson and Safechuck can bravely, publicly, and openly accept that a person whom they loved, did unspeakable wrong; can we, his once fervent fans, begin to admit that too?

This is a question Leaving Neverland poses, and it puts responsibility, in no small way, on us, to find the strength again to stand up for what’s right.
Sadly, this time, it does not mean blindly defending the artist that brought us Billie Jean and Thriller, as we have so many times before.
It means we must symbolically let the image of our hero die, so hopefully the truth, and some small sense of justice, can live.