The Art of a Monster

Michael Jackson’s music is a gift. What do we do with it now?

Michael Jackson
Mike Segar / Reuters

The camera flies high above the palm trees of Hollywood, soaring north and west, all the way to the suburb of Simi Valley, where it slows down to seek out a certain street, and then slows some more until it finds a particular house. It hovers above it, and then swoops down, pushing in all the way to the doorstep, where it rests, impatient. It is the house where James Safechuck, one of the two men at the center of Leaving Neverland, an HBO documentary, grew up, but in a way it might as well be the Darlings’ house: “Peter Pan chose this particular house because there were people here who believed in him.”

But the Safechucks are not the only people who believe, because here is another suburban house, and here again is that seeking, searching intelligence, the camera pushing closer and closer. It is the house in Brisbane, Australia, where the other subject of the documentary, Wade Robson, grew up. The implication is clear: Michael Jackson could have any little boy in the world; all he needed were parents who would serve up their sons to him.

The two mothers, Stephanie Safechuck and Joy Robson, interviewed at length in the film, are a remarkable pair. Their eyes glimmer with excitement as they talk about hotel suites, meeting movie stars, the lavish guest rooms at Neverland Ranch and its excellent wine cellar. (“That was just something I really enjoyed,” Stephanie says in a matter-of-fact way, as though describing a nice feature of a resort.) They tell us that living in the orbit of Michael Jackson was a “dream,” a “fantasy,” even as one of them admits that she spent a lot of her time at Neverland alone, playing with the chimps, because Jackson and her son avoided her all day long. Most damning is the women’s tacit and unexamined admission that the central proposition upon which their fantastical stories depend—that it never occurred to them that Jackson might pose a threat to their sons—is false. Here is Stephanie pressing her ear against a hotel bedroom, trying to hear what is happening inside; here is Joy, realizing that a new boy appears every 12 months.

In early March, the physician Drew Pinsky said on the Daily Pop talk show that he suspected both of these women had themselves been the victims of childhood sexual abuse, before quickly walking back the statement to a less slanderous avowal that he did not know either of them, and was merely guessing. But his speculation offered the only explanation outside the demonic for the most harrowing of the women’s remarks; when Jackson asked Joy whether her son could live with him for a year, she offered a modified plan:  She would not leave Wade with him, but would “share Wade” with him.

The fathers, as is so often the case in stories of child sexual abuse, are largely absent from their sons’ lives. Pedophiles tend to skulk away from fathers, and for good reason. They believe that even an inattentive father—even a bad one—will usually stir to action if he senses that his children are under threat from an adult male. Both men seem to have enjoyed the material delights offered by Jackson’s obsession with their sons, but they were often called away to the drudgery of their own Dickensian jobs: James’s father had inherited a family rubbish business; Wade’s owned a couple of small fruit shops. Both marriages were unhappy.

“What the hell is wrong with Michael?” Chris Rock asked in Never Scared, which was filmed in 2004, the same year the pop star was indicted on a second child-molestation charge. “Another kid?” he asked, stunned, before summing up the situation perfectly: “We love Michael so much, we let the first kid slide.” In 1993, the parents of a boy named Jordan Chandler filed a civil suit against Jackson, which the entertainer settled for an estimated $25 million. The 2004 molestation charge against him was supported by evidence gained during a 2003 police raid on Neverland Ranch, including photographs of a hidden closet outfitted with multiple deadbolts and a bed, life-size mannequins of children that could be bent into various positions, and enough children’s toys to fill the lair of a figure from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In 2005, Jackson was found not guilty of the molestation charge, and other charges against him. But the photographs and their terrible implications lived on, even as Jackson’s true believers insisted he was an innocent man.

Like Hannibal Buress’s bit about Bill Cosby raping women, Leaving Neverland is what finally got many people to admit to themselves what they already believed. The testimony of the two men is so intimate, so drenched with the sorrow of ruined childhoods, that it cannot be denied. They talk about falling in love with Michael Jackson, about childhood sexual pleasure, and all the other aspects of this kind of abuse that we don’t want to understand. During descriptions of the sex acts, the film sometimes cuts away from the speaker to show pictures of the little boys they were at the time of the events. They were beautiful children, so young that a parent might still have read bedtime stories to them.

The most grievous moment of the film is when Wade describes the horror of a particular sex act forced on him: “To be graphic about it … a full, adult, grown-man-sized penis in my mouth … in a little 7-year-old’s mouth.” And the most heartbreaking moment takes place when James describes what it was like to meet the fate that all these children apparently met: being replaced by another boy and, his bond with his own family already broken, abandoned. One night, James went to spend the night at Jackson’s Century City apartment, but another little boy was also there. Jackson took that child to his bedroom and closed the door, leaving James to sleep alone on the couch. “I cried and cried,” he tells us of that long night, “and I cried out for my mom.”

There is one moment in the film in which it is possible to think that Jackson—otherwise portrayed as monstrous—might have had moments of self-awareness, even of guilt. Wade says he once woke up in the middle of the night to find him sitting in the corner of the bedroom, sobbing. Jackson told him that he was sad because the boy was scheduled to return to Australia the next day, but throughout Jackson’s long, public life were hints that on some level, he was grappling with the deep horrors that he was allegedly committing in private.

Jackson’s childhood was marked by terror of his father. He said that just catching sight of the man could make him vomit; that Joe Jackson beat his sons with razor strops and belts when they made slight mistakes rehearsing. Michael’s sister La Toya accused their father of sexually abusing her in her early adolescence, but the claim was roundly denied by members of the family, who also deny the sexual-abuse allegations made in the documentary. (Jackson’s estate is suing HBO for $100 million, for violating a nondisparagement agreement.)

One of Jackson’s most famous songs grapples with the notion of guilt—“I’m starting with the man in the mirror/I’m asking him to change his ways”—and the “Thriller” video is about a young man trying to convince people that he turns into a monster at night. Perhaps, as he began to develop his relationships with young boys, he was testing the public, waiting for a punishment that never came. His plastic surgery seemed to become an act of self-erasure. In the end, the only way he could conquer the night was to have a doctor come and put him under anesthesia.

And through this terrible man, this destroyer, poured a force that can only be truthfully described as art. Michael Jackson’s dancing is no mortal enterprise: James Brown’s shuffle, Fred Astaire’s precision, and some other element that exists so far beyond anything as simple as influence, or talent, that we can only say we know it when we see it. It’s not a gift; it’s the gift itself.

The ancient question: What moral stain awaits us if we cannot abandon the art of a monster? None.

Edmund Wilson taught us in “The Wound and the Bow”—nominally about Sophocles’s Philoctetes, an obscure play about the great archer who was bitten by a snake and suffered from its suppurating wound for years—that “the victim of a malodorous disease which renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless is also the master of a superhuman art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs.” T. S. Eliot wrote in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” More to the point, Don Cornelius said, “It is always a pleasure to find something that matters.”

Michael Jackson’s art matters. It matters not because of any sociopolitical significance, although many of his songs bear uplifting messages. It matters not for its implications about race in America. It matters because of the simple fact that it is, in every sense, the gift revealed.

A generation ago, young people read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift to understand how to live meaningful lives by cultivating within themselves the ability to receive art: “An essential portion of any artist’s labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except, perhaps, by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that ‘begging bowl’ to which the gift is drawn.”

You can cast away Picasso because Hannah Gadsby told you he was cruel to women. But can you cast away Guernica? Art isn’t something mere; it doesn’t exist as the moral bona fides of the person who made it. That person is a supernumerary. Separate yourself from any art—even popular art; even art created simply as entertainment—and you separate yourself from all of it.