Saturday 24 August 2019

Groomed to perfection 

Pictured Above: Wade Robson, aged 7, with Michael Jackson

This article first appeared in Malta Today

The documentary about Michael Jackson ‘Leaving Neverland’ was a hard watch – and not just because it was four hours long. 

It is always difficult to see icons which you would have once admired being shown in an unflattering light – the same happened to many of us when Bill Cosby was first accused of sexual assault.  Your brain doesn’t want to accept it or believe it at first, but then when one woman after another echoed that the same thing had happening to her,  it could no longer be ignored. 

With Michael Jackson, the allegations being made in this documentary have the ring of truth not so much because of the number of people who have come forward (two men in this documentary and two boys in previous years in two separate lawsuits) but because Wade Robson and James Safechuck who were interviewed at length were very, very credible.   They were aged 7 and 10 respectively at the time the alleged abuse started to take place and the documentary carefully builds up the way the relationship with the King of Pop changed and morphed in what is commonly known as ‘grooming’.

Of course, the documentary has had its share of criticism, and I have read and listened to a lot of it as I tried to weigh in my mind what the truth could possibly be.  The behaviour of Jackson himself over the years as he became more and more weird, reverting to outlandish stunts and changing his facial features beyond recognition, pointing to someone who definitely had issues (to put it mildly) certainly did not help his case.  His fans dismiss all this eccentricity as ‘oh you know, that was just Michael’, but the one thing which he never denied and which is probably the most damning of all is that he asked these boys to sleep with him in his bedroom, in his bed.  It has been explained away by the fact that MJ was still emotionally and psychologically a ‘boy’ himself, trying to recapture a childhood he never had, and that the sleepovers were innocent.  “It’s not sexual, we’re going to sleep…I tuck them in at night, it is very charming, very sweet”, he once said in a previous documentary.  He spoke in a whispery baby voice, was openly childish in his behaviour and surrounded himself with an extravagant theme park and endless amounts of candy.  

But he was not a boy, he was a man in his mid-30s.

What swayed me the most, however, were the graphic, detailed descriptions of what went on as recounted by Wade and James. Many have torn Wade’s version apart because he had testified twice in Jackson’s defence: when the first allegations made by Jordy Chandler (13) came out in 1993, followed by another court case involving a different boy, Gavin Arvizio (13) in 2004. Wade’s first testimony was at the age of 11 and the second testimony was at the age of 23.  So how, the detractors are claiming, can he be believed now if he lied twice on the stand?  

James, on the other hand, while he never testified, had always denied to his mother that there was anything inappropriate in his relationship with Jackson.

In the interviews, however, both men give a very credible explanation of why they defended Michael Jackson for so long and the answer is quite simple: for a long time, they did not view the behaviour as “abuse” mostly because they became willing participants.  It is for this precise reason that it is called grooming because this was not a case of someone jumping out at them from behind the bushes and sexually assaulting them, but a careful, gradual process by the most famous pop star in the world who thrillingly included these very young, impressionable boys into his jet set lifestyle, wooing them with lavish presents and expensive trips until the boys were literally in love with Michael.  When he told them that “this is the way you show someone you love them” they believed him – remember they were aged 7 and 10 at the time.  It became their secret, their pact which no one could know because “no one else understood it” and as he kept drumming into them, not only Michael but they too would end up in jail as well. 

Another key factor in all this which is a crucial part of what happened are the families, more specifically the mothers, who allowed the boys to spend so much unsupervised time with Michael.  I admit I found this the hardest part to understand until I watched an after show discussion about the documentary led by Oprah Winfrey. As it was explained by Wade himself: “The grooming began before we ever met him, he had seduced the whole family.  He had seduced and groomed the whole world to see him as an angel, with a troubled childhood, who loved children”.

That’s when it clicked: The mothers, too, were just as thrilled and excited, flattered and overwhelmed by becoming part of Michael’s inner clique.  Wade’s mother left her husband and oldest son in Australia to travel with Wade and Michael all around the world on tour. James’ mother eventually admitted that Michael had paid for their house.  Were they hopelessly naive or ruthless golddiggers ready to close an eye to possible abuse because they did not wish to give up this lifestyle? Many discussing the documentary find it preposterous to believe that the mothers did not know, but on the other hand, to this day his legion of fans also simply refuse to believe that someone as famous, gentle and kind-hearted as Michael Jackson could have such another, darker side to him.  

As op-ed writer Margaret Dowd eloquently described it “celebrity supersedes criminality…how can you look clearly when you are looking into the sun?   How can an icon be a con?” 

James spoke about the confusion and mixed feelings, especially the overwhelming feeling of shame, and the feeling that even now that he has spoken up after his death, a part of him still feels that he has let Michael down.

As they got older, both men suffered mental breakdowns, and found they had to finally confront what had happened to them when they became fathers to boys; looking at the innocence of their own sons, the full impact of their bizarre relationship with Michael hit them.

I found the Oprah Winfrey discussion in front of an audience of child abuse survivors to be very significant because (even if one leaves the seduction of fame out of the equation) it sheds an important light on how men groom children to initiate them into sexual behaviour.  It is often someone they know and trust like a close acquaintance or relative as we have seen in cases in Malta where grandparents, uncles, teachers and priests have been found guilty of such crimes. “In every family you have to accept that the same person who can do good things can also be an abuser,” Oprah says at one point.  

One man in the audience, who had been sexually abused between the age of 13 – 18 by a friendly neighbourhood policeman whom everyone respected summed it all up: “This type of abuse is usually the child’s first sexual experience and that is why it’s so cruel, you are killing that child’s spirit.”   

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