Tom Reardon has worked with victims of sexual violence in the Phoenix area for more than two decades. After watching Leaving Neverland, the HBO documentary about Michael Jackson's alleged sexual relations with children, he was moved to write this series of stories for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month. Today is the second of four lessons from the documentary.
As the one of the subjects of the two-part, four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland, Wade Robson's interactions with Michael Jackson started off completely benign. Robson, now 37, was a devotee of Jackson’s music and dancing long before meeting him in his native Australia. The chance to get to know his idol was a dream come true. When Jackson’s 1987 tour came to Brisbane, Robson won a dance contest where the prize was getting to meet the “King of Pop” himself.
It is clear early on in the documentary how the groundwork was already laid for Jackson to abuse his position of power with Robson well before the two actually physically met. The young dancer had posters of Jackson on the walls of his room; Robson says on camera how his love for Jackson began after seeing the “Thriller” video and he “slowly but surely started plastering (his) walls with images of Michael. It literally became, like, the wallpaper, so (he was) going to sleep, waking up, in Michael Jackson land.”
The documentary painstakingly details how the relationship between Jackson, who was about to turn 29 when they met, and Robson grew into something more than an innocent, if not completely odd, friendship. Not only did Jackson develop a bond with young Wade, but he also developed a seemingly loving and trusting relationship with Robson’s mother, Joy, which conceivably would have afforded him greater access to the boy.
Let that sink in again. A 29-year-old man befriends a 5-year-old boy. Nothing strange about that at all. Most people with almost a quarter-century age gap have a ton in common, right?
As a viewer, whether you believe what you are seeing and hearing in Leaving Neverland, there is power in the story that is evolving before your eyes as it echoes the information shown in the first part of this series from the 1in6.org website. Jackson did have extensive opportunities to abuse his personal power, as well as the blind worship of his young fans, on a regular basis. The film also details how the interactions between the adult (Jackson) and the children in question (Robson and James Safechuck) were choreographed, much in the same way as the singer’s famous dance routines, to allow the children to end up alone with Jackson and often in his bed.
Many of the children I have spoken to in my own career in working with them have described similar situations. The perpetrator of the crime convinced them that what they were doing was okay, and often described situations where the abuse was gradually perpetrated over the course of years. The children were also groomed into believing the behavior was normal and even an example of a typical “loving” relationship.
Several boys I spoke with over the years, for example, talked about the sexual abuse being a “game” or “just for fun.” In Leaving Neverland, Robson and Safechuck both discuss how Jackson allegedly introduced the sexual activity as something “normal” and “fun,” but also something that was definitely to be kept a secret, threatening that they could both (Jackson and the child in question) get in trouble if anyone found out. It is not uncommon for children to feel as if they are responsible for the abuse as well, even going so far as to feeling like they were at fault for what was happening.
In many of the most heartbreaking cases, the child in question begged me to not tell anyone else what had happened to them. They just wanted to tell someone but didn’t want to get the abuser in trouble or upset the rest of their family. In one case, a second-grade boy from a school in Maryvale shared with me that his loved his stepfather very much and didn’t want to lose him, but he wanted the “games they were playing to stop.” He also shared that he had told his mother what was going on, but she didn’t believe him.
As sexual violence prevention professionals, we teach children to keep telling an adult you trust until someone believes you. We know, for example, that the FBI statistics indicate that only about 2 percent of sex crimes that are reported turn out to be false accusations. This indicates that people do not make up these accusations nearly as much as the public sometimes thinks. Obviously, the conviction rates do not proportionally reflect the FBI’s statistic when it comes to sexual abuse and/or sexual assault (rape), but this is due, in the majority of cases, to a lack of physical evidence and/or witnesses.
Think about this: How easy would it be for you to convince someone that someone touched you on the private parts of your body when you were 10? What proof, outside of your word, could you give them?
Another interesting and completely disheartening thing Reed’s documentary does is weave Robson’s story with that of Safechuck, who unknown to Robson at the time, was also allegedly being sexually abused by Jackson. The parallel nature of these stories is alarming as it shows a pattern to Jackson’s behavior that mirrors that of other sexual predators as he slowly and methodically became the most important figure in the child’s lives, as well as a trusted ally to at least one parent, and a financial benefactor.
Later in part one of Leaving Neverland, Safechuck talks about meeting Jackson on the set of a Pepsi commercial the two did together. He states, "How do you explain Michael Jackson? He's larger than life. There's no stars like that now. Everyone wanted to meet Michael."
Safechuck was 9 years old at the time, and shortly after the commercial shoot, Jackson began calling him at home and inviting him and his family to his home for dinners, as well as beginning to give Safechuck gifts, such as the red leather jacket he famously wore in the "Thriller" video.
Safechuck said, "Mom and Dad, I think they were in awe. We were just starstruck and at the same time, (Jackson's) becoming a real person. He's not this sort of two-dimensional icon. He gives you focused attention and I think at that age you want to be important. You want to be noticed and loved. I think it was a powerful attraction."
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Jackson was not a stranger to the Safechuck family at this point. He was inserting himself firmly into the family dynamic. According to Safechuck, Jackson would come to his home a lot to hang out and they would watch movies and eat popcorn and take walks. They would give each other gifts and "it was more like hanging out with a friend that's your age," said Safechuck.
The National Center for Victims of Crime website, victimsofcrime.org, has a fairly thorough description of the grooming process (found here) which is important for parents, teachers, and caregivers of children to read if they are unwilling to watch Leaving Neverland. Unfortunately, many people who are responsible for children’s safety are painfully unaware of how this crime typically unfolds, while still espousing a mantra of “stranger danger” to their kids.
Talking to children about what is okay and not okay when it comes to their bodies is the first step in keeping them safe from sexual violence and as hard as it may be, this talk must convey the possibility that someone the child knows, loves, trusts, and looks up to might put them in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation. Sexual violence is a confusing crime, but the more we can come to terms with talking about it openly, the safer everyone will be.