In a November 2010 episode of her eponymous daytime talk show, Oprah Winfrey invited 200 adult men, all of whom had said they’d been sexually assaulted as children, to join her studio audience. The opening shots of the episode panned across the room, to the men holding photos of themselves at the age when they said they were first abused. A harrowing chorus rang out as some of the men described their experiences in the sequence that followed: I was 6. I was 12. I was 7.
After the episode’s introductory montage, Winfrey interviewed the mega-producer Tyler Perry, who had shared his own account of childhood sexual abuse on her show weeks earlier. Together, along with the trauma psychologist Howard Fradkin, they spoke candidly about the long-lasting effects of sexual abuse and the specific stigma that male survivors face. The episode left many viewers moved, but for some of its subjects, the opportunity to address past trauma without blame was transformational.
That same rare warmth and candor was palpable Monday night, during the special Oprah hosted immediately following the premiere of HBO’s two-part docuseries, Leaving Neverland. The documentary, from the British director Dan Reed, focuses principally on two men who allege that they were abused by Michael Jackson when they were children. Both Reed and the two men, the 36-year-old Wade Robson and the 41-year-old James Safechuck, joined Winfrey onstage to discuss the film and their now well-publicized allegations. (The Jackson estate has vehemently denied both men’s allegations, and the late singer was found not guilty in a 2005 criminal case brought by another young boy in his orbit.)
The special, After Neverland, aired on both HBO and OWN, the network Winfrey co-owns. Crucially, Winfrey’s interview continues the specific work of Reed’s generous, empathetic film by prioritizing the men’s healing—and that of all alleged victims—over the more common public impulse: frenzied, defensive hand-wringing over the accused’s legacy. Winfrey, who has spoken publicly about her own experiences of sexual assault, opened the interview by noting that the audience was composed of more than 100 people who said they had also survived childhood sexual abuse. “Watching this documentary was an intense and very emotional experience for many people here,” she said, then offered a mission statement for the evening after introducing her onstage guests. “Here’s the reason why I’m here: In 25 years of The Oprah [Winfrey] Show, I taped 217 episodes on sexual abuse. I tried and tried and tried to get the message across to people that sexual abuse was not just abuse; it was also sexual seduction.”
If her use of the word seduction seemed interpretable as an attempt to romanticize accusers’ relationships with their alleged abusers, Winfrey quickly dispelled any confusion about her sympathies. “After I saw Leaving Neverland for the first time, I called up Dan Reed—I didn’t know Dan Reed—and told him, ‘Dan,’ I said, ‘You were able to illustrate in these four hours what I tried to explain in 217,’” Winfrey continued. “And I know people all over the world are gonna be in an uproar and debating whether or not Michael Jackson did these things or not, whether these two men are lying or not lying, but for me this moment transcends Michael Jackson. It is much bigger than any one person. This is a moment in time that allows us to see this societal corruption. It’s like a scourge on humanity.”
Winfrey’s After Neverland is framed as a kind of communal healing from the effects of this plague. She referred to her own experiences, at one point noting that it was only in her 40s, after hearing an admitted child molester explain on her show how he groomed his victims, that she learned to stop blaming herself for her own assault. Along with Safechuck, who looked visibly distraught throughout the interview, she repeatedly spoke in the second person: “When you are a child … you don’t have the language to explain what is happening to you,” she said at one point. Later, after Robson spoke about the difficulty of having lived with his secret, Winfrey offered a weighty affirmation of his experience: “Your whole childhood is a lie. All the decisions that you make about anything come from that space of a lie, so that’s why you have that feeling of disconnection.”
The special is, like Leaving Neverland itself, at times jarring in its frankness. Acting as a kind of proxy for skeptical viewers, Winfrey asked the men startlingly direct questions about the nature of the abuse they say they suffered, as well as why they didn’t speak up sooner, and whether they continue to blame their parents for allowing them to be near Jackson. Safechuck and Robson relive intimate interactions with Jackson, recount bouts of self-hatred and depression, and revisit the feelings they experienced when defending Jackson against similar allegations during his 1993 trial. (Robson also defended Jackson during the 2005 case.) The men, particularly Robson, express regret that they felt incapable of contradicting the lies they say Jackson groomed them to tell. It is grueling television, with a handful of tense moments. But even as she pried, Winfrey buffered the men’s accounts with the comfort of a shared understanding. She made clear that their stories merit thoughtful inquiry, not just as individual accounts, but also as examples that illuminate a much larger systemic issue.
To underscore that point, Winfrey drew her special audience into the conversation. Throughout After Neverland, Winfrey addressed both the studio audience and viewers at home nearly as often as she addressed Reed, Robson, and Safechuck. Her requests for explanation from the three were framed less as attempts to get the men to justify their stories to her, and more as moments of opportunity to address misconceptions that plague all victims. As Robson and Safechuck spoke, the camera cut often to several recognizable figures in the audience, among them Winfrey’s close friend, the CBS News anchor Gayle King, and the #MeToo founder Tarana Burke. King, Burke, and others in the room nodded emphatically as the men spoke, and as Oprah offered her own insights. The onlookers’ eyes were visibly teary, their demeanor subdued.
Winfrey also explicitly harkened back to her landmark 2010 episode about male sexual-assault survivors. Two men who had been in the studio then appeared during After Neverland, both affirming Jackson’s accusers partly by sharing how difficult it was for them to come forward with their own stories: the ER actor Anthony Edwards, whose 2017 essay Oprah referenced as a poignant reminder of how hard it is for young boys to disclose experiences of assault, and the former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Al Chesley, who described having been allegedly assaulted by a police officer as a devastating abuse of power.
As a prominent black woman with a mononymic empire, Oprah was well aware that her support of Jackson’s accusers would attract scrutiny. “I’m gonna get it,” she said with a laugh toward the end of the special, referencing the fury of Jackson’s superfans. “We all gon’ get it, we gon’ get it, we gon’ get it.” It was one of several moments of levity that might seem out of place for those who do not share similar experiences. It’s decidedly in-group gallows humor, an acknowledgment of the incredibly high stakes that come with publicly alleging sexual abuse. Oprah’s lightness, and the men’s own resigned laughter, emerge against a backdrop of threats—made against her, HBO, Reed, and most punishingly, Robson and Safechuck. On-screen, it is at once disarming and comforting.
After Neverland, then, is a rare kind of narrative platform. By treating her interview subjects’ stories with this kind of rigor and familiar thoughtfulness, Winfrey—like Reed—reframes the lens through which abuse allegations are discussed. Before a long embrace with Robson, Safechuck offered a heartfelt meditation on the importance of the space After Neverland has created: “Doing the movie I tried to set a healthy expectation, which was that I would talk to other survivors and that was my audience,” he said. “This moment is why.”
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