Leaving Neverland and the Burden of the Postmortem Exposé

The HBO documentary about the alleged abuses perpetrated by Michael Jackson tries to get viewers to reconsider the pop star’s canonization. But is it too tall an order?

Michael Jackson flanked by children onstage at the 1996 World Music Awards in Monaco (Stephane Cardinale / Corbis via Getty Images)

“Can we continue to celebrate the genius in the face of the monster?” asked the writer Pearl Cleage in the title essay from her 1990 collection, Mad at Miles. Cleage was attempting to contend with both the cultural legacy of the jazz legend Miles Davis and the man himself, who had a history of domestic violence against women. Her question and palpable feelings of outrage at Davis are not unlike those of this current moment, in which fans and critics are reckoning with Michael Jackson’s legacy and the long-standing allegations of child sexual abuse against him. For many, though, Jackson—arguably the world’s greatest entertainer—remains pristinely frozen in amber.

Leaving Neverland, the two-part HBO documentary that debuted on March 3, details the accusations levied by Wade Robson and James Safechuck—two men who say they were molested by Jackson when they were children. The film is aesthetically deliberative in its tight camera shots and long pauses, which allow Robson and Safechuck to fill the space themselves, thereby minimizing Jackson. There are no experts present in the film to contextualize what the effects of long-term child molestation are. In the four hours of Leaving Neverland, audiences are granted a front-row seat to the alleged abuse, as it is explained in painstaking and alarming detail. On-screen, Robson and Safechuck, now 36 and 41, respectively, are visibly navigating how to confront and heal from their trauma. As a viewer, I was heartbroken for them. (Jackson denied the accusations throughout his life, and his family maintains his innocence. The Jackson estate is suing HBO for violating a non-disparagement agreement.)

The work of the postmortem exposé is often corrective in nature. It challenges prevailing assumptions about a person and asks viewers to reconsider their own memories of events. Nostalgia’s grip, though, can blur patterns of alleged predatory abuse in plain sight. It seems difficult to translate, in 2019, the magnitude of Jackson’s popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. For many, the entertainer’s death in 2009 marked an end to the era of the mega pop star, whose global celebrity garnered unparalleled, fevered fandom. Media back then were smaller and more limited, far from the fractured universes of today, in which each fan’s relationship with her celebrity of choice is siloed, intimate, cultish. (Instagram and Twitter can provide a false sense of singular closeness to a star.) But Jackson’s popularity was universal—and fans were swept up in rapturous grief when he died. News of his passing broke the internet, and an estimated 1 billion people, myself included, watched the funeral. Many live-tweeted it, trading memories of favorite performances and moments.

By the time he died, Jackson’s legion of fans already knew the narrative of his road to superstardom, made possible in part by sacrificing his youth, enduring extreme loneliness, and being subjected to emotional and physical abuse by his father. In a public address in 2001, Jackson told an Oxford University audience, “The cheery 5-year-old who belted out ‘Rockin’ Robin’ and ‘Ben’ to adoring crowds was not indicative of the boy behind the smile.” He continued, “What I really wanted was a dad. I wanted a father who showed me love. And my father never did that.” Jackson was so effective at communicating the roots of his own grief that it was easy for some people to discount the allegations of abuse against him.

That grief, he would say, fueled his desire to help children, which included re-creating a kiddie paradise on his sprawling 2,500-acre property in Santa Barbara County, California. “If I am guilty of anything, it is of giving all that I have to give to help children all over the world,” Jackson said in a 1993 video statement denying charges of child molestation. “It is of loving children of all ages and races; it is of gaining sheer joy from seeing children with their innocent and smiling faces; it is of enjoying through them the childhood that I missed myself.” His story charmed many, and even when certain moments gave people pause—like when Jackson would surround himself with dozens of kids during his live performances—some fans might have chalked it up to the star’s growing eccentricity. It is this Jackson that fans and viewers must grapple with, one who always controlled the narrative and weaponized empathy.

“He made it clear that he was very lonely; he didn’t have any friends,” Safechuck’s mom, Stephanie, says in Leaving Neverland, explaining how her family’s close relationship with Jackson unfolded. The film later revisits a 1993 CNN interview in which Jackson dispatched the Robsons to defend him against abuse charges. When Robson’s mother, Joy, was asked during a radio interview that same year whether it was “unusual” that Jackson, then 34, hosted sleepovers with kids, she replied, “Not when you know Michael’s background. Under normal circumstances, possibly yes, but Michael, everybody knows he didn’t have a childhood.”

Leaving Neverland complicates the story of the vulnerable, big-hearted star. Robson had, for decades, denied any abuse by Jackson, which makes Robson’s present allegations all the more stunning. “The story that I had been telling all these years, the lies I had been telling about, you know, that none of this sexual stuff ever happened … the whole foundation of this story was bullshit,” Robson says in the film. In the same way the births of their sons forced Robson and Safechuck to revisit the histories they say they buried, the allegations they bring forth in Leaving Neverland demand a reexamination—on society’s part—of Jackson’s relationships with children.

The film may never yield the same level of accountability that’s been demanded of powerful living men. But maybe that’s not the point. It’s possible that its impact is far more important than complicating, or tarnishing, the memory of a dead pop god. The film is part of a continued moment that makes space for the stories of alleged victims of abuse, for the continued conversations about their healing. Still, viewers and fans alike can no longer resist taking a harder look at Jackson the man. “Art orders contradictions and unwelcome longings,” the author Margo Jefferson wrote in her 2006 book, On Michael Jackson. “[It] glorifies what’s perverse or infantile, lavish and dream-bright, suave, abject, incurably romantic.” Leaving Neverland and its revelations insist on a reevaluation that engages these contradictions and questions the canonization of a deeply flawed man.

Can we continue to celebrate the genius in the face of the monster? If society continues to tell the story of the greatest pop star who ever lived, it needs to do so in its entirety. That means shattering the amber, revisiting the legacy, telling the truth, and believing survivors.