When we first saw Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch on television in the late 1980s, a sarcastic friend of mine wisecracked, “Wow, that looks like a pedophile’s paradise.”
I tried not to laugh. Like multitudes of others, I had been following Jackson’s hit songs and dazzling dance moves since his early days with his brothers in the Jackson Five from Gary.
I excused his odd excesses — his cosmetic surgeries, his pet chimp, his ranch in Santa Barbara County with its own amusement park and petting zoo — as an understandable consequence of his breathtaking wealth and perhaps his urgent need to construct his own fantasyland to make up for the normal childhood he never had.
My excuse-making ended with the airing of Dan Reed’s unsettling HBO documentary, “Leaving Neverland,” a two-part, four-hour re-examination of sexual abuse charges by Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men who say Jackson sexually abused them at the Neverland Ranch when they were children.
We can now add Jackson’s name to those of R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and others whose commercial success has been disrupted by allegations of sexual misconduct that, in Cosby’s case, resulted in a guilty verdict and prison on three counts of aggravated indecent assault.
Sure, it is important to remember, as the Jackson family points out in a response to the documentary, that Robson and Safechuck gave statements on the pop star’s behalf in a 1993 sexual abuse case brought by a different boy and settled out of court. Robson also testified on Jackson’s behalf in the 2005 case in which a jury found Jackson not guilty of child molestation and administering an intoxicating substance. In its statement, the Jackson family denounced the documentary as a “public lynching.”
Yet, the documentary and the hourlong town hall-style discussion led by Oprah Winfrey that followed make a gut-wrenching case study of what she calls a widely misunderstood and underappreciated aspect of child abuse: the grooming process in which the predator befriends the family, draws the child away from his or her parents and tightens emotional bonds with the child.
After noting that she has hosted 217 episodes on child sexual abuse on her TV talk shows, Winfrey concluded, “Sexual abuse … is also sexual seduction.”
That’s a bracingly important point. Our stereotypes of pedophiles as violent rapists defy the more common reality of children being persuaded to sympathize with and aid the predator as a sign of love and devotion. Typically, these are children too young to understand what love or sexual relations are all about.
Still, one of the great mysteries that emerged in the early days of the Neverland scandal still haunts us: How could parents leave their children alone with Jackson for what became days at a time?
The answer appears to be a complicated combination of trust and denial by parents who were starstruck themselves by Jackson and his generosity in booking fancy suites and transportation for the families while he went off alone to sleep with their children. “I always get what I want,” one mother in the documentary quotes Jackson as saying to her. Indeed, many fans worldwide indulge and even worship superstars like Jackson in a way that can easily encourage a star’s worst instincts _ and a deep sense of denial among the rest of us.
Or, as Oprah declared, “Celebrity supersedes criminality.”
My biggest surprise in watching the Neverland documentary is how much it disturbingly echoed Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary, which preceded recent sexual abuse charges against him in late February.
In 2008, Kelly was found not guilty of child pornography charges connected to an alleged videotaped encounter with a 13-year-old girl. But the singer, whose real name is Robert Kelly, was indicted Feb. 21 in Chicago on 10 charges of aggravated criminal sexual abuse of four victims, three of whom were underage. Kelly has been released from jail on $100,000 bond.
In both cases, we again see celebrities facing renewed allegations of sexual misconduct after years of gossip and rumors. But this time we are in the #MeToo era, and the headwind that alleged victims used to face in trying to be heard largely has been replaced by a tailwind that helps them to be heard.
This does not mean, as the Jussie Smollett alleged hate crime hoax in Chicago should teach us, that all complaints are valid. Everyone is still entitled under our system of justice to be considered innocent until proved guilty. But alleged victims also have the right to have their complaint taken seriously.
Should we now boycott the artistic creations of controversial artists? I, for one, cannot hear the music of Jackson and Kelly and the comedy of Cosby without also feeling that a sense of revulsion has replaced my former sense of delight.
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