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.
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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.”