Leaving Neverland grapples with the culpability of parents by giving Robson’s and Safechuck’s mothers, Joy and Stephanie, about as much screen time as their sons. By the end, though, the women are not exonerated. The final scene is of Safechuck saying he’s “working on” forgiving his parents. Robson’s brother says he might never forgive Joy. Joy and Stephanie do not forgive themselves. Says Stephanie, “I didn’t protect my son. That will always, always haunt me. I had one job, I had one child … and I fucked up.”
But if the parents are not excused by Leaving Neverland, they are left better understood. As child sexual abuse moves back to the center of the cultural conversation due to high-profile documentaries—including Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly and Netflix’s Abducted in Plain Sight—what’s being reckoned with is not only the awfulness of men who would allegedly target young people. It’s also the actions of young people’s parents, who demonstrate eerily commonplace kinds of gullibility—about fame, about power, about the dark intentions that might lie behind a smiling face.
How does a parent let her child sleep in an adult stranger’s bed, even if she believes the context to be platonic? Leaving Neverland revisits the early days of friendship between Jackson and the families who came into his orbit. Deception, naïveté, and foolhardy ambition play roles in what is alleged to have happened. But so does, apparently, a skewed form of love.
Robson says he was 7 when he had his first sleepover with Jackson, but he was even younger when they first met. At home in Australia, the child became—as many kids of the era did—obsessed with the superhero on TV named Michael Jackson. Unlike most children, though, he was an incredibly talented performer. When he was 5, his mother entered him in a dance competition. He won, and the prize was to meet Michael Jackson backstage at a concert.
Robson’s mother, Joy, tells of that first encounter as feeling supernatural and wonderful—and as something that could positively transform her son’s life. Jackson said during the meet and greet that if he’d known Robson was at the show earlier in the night, he would have invited him to perform with him. “The stage mother in me kicked in,” she recalls. “I said, ‘We’ll be there tomorrow night,’” referring to Jackson’s second of two concerts in Brisbane.
The footage from that next evening testifies to how miraculous that episode must have seemed. Little Wade, outfitted in buckles in an adorable evocation of the “Bad” video, steals the spotlight from Michael Jackson and the other kids he brought onstage. He was so caught up in his kick-and-point routine that he kept going even after the other performers started to file offstage. Jackson, with a laugh, ran back and took Robson by the hand.
Jackson’s tour left Australia, but Robson’s fascination with the singer persisted. His talent for impersonating the King of Pop led to him becoming the star of a dance troupe, which eventually booked a gig at Disneyland, in California. On that trip, Joy cold-called someone in Jackson’s camp to let them know that the little boy from the concert a few years earlier was in town. Not much about that is strange, a mom trying to make magic happen for her son. What’s strange is that Jackson enthusiastically responded, inviting the Robson family to his recording studio, and then to his Neverland Ranch.