What 'Leaving Neverland' Reveals About Systems of Abuse — and What the Church Can Learn From It | Sojourners

What 'Leaving Neverland' Reveals About Systems of Abuse — and What the Church Can Learn From It

Photo via Leaving Neverland Documentary on Facebook.

Last fall my third grade daughter asked me in the car one day if we were listening to Michael Jackson on the radio. No, I told her, this was a different artist. But I was curious: How had she heard about Michael Jackson? She told me some kids at school said that he took too many drugs because he was sad and he died; that he hated his skin color so he changed it; that he made really good music. She told me all of this without emotion — for her it was an interesting conversation, a curiosity, a pop culture icon that she knew nothing about and was trying to catch up on. She wanted to know why we didn’t listen to his music, but I simply told her I had never really thought about it.

This conversation came back to me as I was watching the new documentary, Leaving Neverland. It’s a painful exploration of the allegations by two men that Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children over multiple years. Jackson himself is a side character, showing up in pictures and in videos, but he doesn’t get to tell his side of the story here. Instead, director Dan Reed has said he wanted to tell the story of two men who had been groomed by an abuser. And that is precisely what the majority of this landmark 4-hour film is: careful, quiet explorations of what the grooming process is and how it succeeds in entrapping entire families and communities.

For this reason alone it should be required watching for those involved in churches or para-church ministries. It is a difficult film to watch, but it is not sensationalized in any regard. Reed was not interested in making a film to convince anyone of Jackson’s guilt. Instead, the camera is fixed on both Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the men who are alleging the abuse, and their families. It is an incredibly important experience, and almost disorienting as a viewer, to give so much power to these men and their stories. They describe the reality of what it means to be someone who has survived long-term sexual abuse as a child, at the hands of someone who was much older and infinitely more powerful. The secondary thread running throughout the film is the story of their family members — the mothers, the siblings, the wives — who describe how this type of abuse happens, and how victims are silenced for decades.

Sexual abuse is an evil that can be found in nearly every institution — in families, in sports teams, in mentoring relationships. And as Leaving Neverland shows, it is a complicated situation that doesn’t just involve the abuser and the victim. Both Robson and Safechuck’s mothers feature prominently in the documentary, as they explain how Michael Jackson entered into their lives and swept them off their feet. In fact, the central tension of the film revolves around the question: How did these women not know what was happening to their children, right under their noses? For those who do not come from families or institutions or systems that perpetuate abuse, the question makes sense. But for those who are familiar with grooming tactics, it is all horribly normal.

Suceptibility in the Church

Sociologist Erving Goffman studied and described the phenomenon known as “tactful inattention” that allows bystanders to ignore or keep quiet in the face of social boundaries being crossed, including abuse. Leaving Neverland is almost a case study in how this happens: how the abuser grooms not just children but their parents, showering them with attention, gifts, trips, even houses, which then causes people to change their boundaries of what is considered normal or acceptable.

Wade Mullen is a professor who has extensively studied how abuse operates with an emphasis on Christian organizations. Mullen told me that when it comes to tactful inattention, people are “more likely to ignore grooming behavior and boundary-crossing when the person engaging in the behavior has been iconized to any degree by the community. Choosing tactful inattention is easier than considering that someone you respect and admire, perhaps even model your own life after, is potentially abusive.”

Mullen, whose dissertation is on impression management strategies used by abusive organizations and individuals (and in particular, evangelical churches), believes that Christians are woefully undereducated about grooming practices, including how abusers shower attention, isolate their victims, cross boundaries, and deceive people. Mullen also points out how in Christian communities, tactful inattention keeps abusers in a position where they can continue to harm people, because to bring attention to abuse could detract from the larger purpose of the organization. Churches and individuals silence victims and perpetuate abuse by conflating the work of the institution with the gospel — to bring abuse to light could harm the church, could harm the work, leading to people being willing to let boundaries be transgressed in order to keep a false peace.

There are too many instances to include here about how Christian churches are just as culpable as any industry when it comes to proliferation of abuse, and how it is currently being exposed in the cultural moment of #MeToo and #ChurchToo. And instead of placing the blame solely on the perpetrators, I think it is important to hone in on where the majority of us find ourselves: as the bystanders in these scenarios — as the people who potentially enable abuse to happen because of our ignorance, or how we have been groomed, or how our culture has rewarded tactful inattention in order to maintain power and peace.

This is what makes the Michael Jackson case so compelling. Along with Leaving Neverland, HBO also produced a one-hour special Oprah Winfrey interview with both Wade Robson and James Safechuck, and director Dan Reed. In the special, called After Neverland, taped in front of an audience comprising childhood survivors of sexual abuse and their families, Robson tells Oprah that, in effect, Jackson was grooming the whole world. He was one of the most famous people in the world, he created charities for children, he was constantly gaining sympathy by drawing attention to his troubled childhood, claiming that he surrounded himself with little boys because he never got to be one. When both Robson and Safechuck met Jackson (at the ages of 5 and 9, respectively) they already felt like they knew him, as did their mothers. They felt safe. And the grooming was so successful that neither Robson nor Safechuck were able to identify what happened to them as abuse until both of them were fathers with children of their own.

How to Move Forward

A fascinating example of how to move forward after watching something like Leaving Neverland can actually be found in the trajectory of Oprah Winfrey herself. In 1993 Winfrey did a live interview with Michael Jackson at Neverland Ranch, his first televised interview in 14 years. In the video (which you can find on Youtube) Jackson says that he wanted to participate because there were so many “God-awful” stories being told about him in the media. “If you hear a lie said often enough, you begin to believe it,” he said. Stories of his skin changing color, his plastic surgeries, among other things, were already swirling. Just a few months after Oprah’s interview with Jackson aired, child molestation charges began to appear. In hindsight, the 1993 interview appears very much like an impression management strategy, with Jackson repeatedly bringing up his lonely childhood, how sad he was, his abusive father, how he created Neverland Ranch to give joy to children because he himself never had a childhood. At one point he tells Oprah: “I’m trying to be like Jesus, because he said to love children, to be like children.”

Now, in 2019, Winfrey has made the radical decision to shift the narrative, to place it squarely in the hands of the people who do not have power. Winfrey, in a way, is trying to make restitution — to pay back the debt she has incurred by (unknowingly) giving an alleged abuser a platform for him to make the case for his innocence.

For those of us who, either consciously or unconsciously, have enabled abusers to continue to abuse, this is a good example of how to move forward. It will involve reckoning with what we have done, how we have enabled, and making restitution. It will mean centering survivors and their stories, and listening to them as they help us rebuild what appropriate boundaries are.

Leaving Neverland does this by intentionally giving a platform to stories that our society would prefer remain buried, as they are examples of our communal negligence, of our communal longing to uphold charismatic institutions and individuals and in the process trampling those who have already been victimized.

Besides listening to victims, Mullen and others who study abuse in organizations, recommend changing the way we view leadership and boundaries. Churches can be susceptible to giving too much power to people based on charisma. An important point to remember is that abuse almost always works because the abuser is someone who is known and trusted — they are usually charming, witty, good at their jobs, which makes it even more easy for people to not believe or even shame victims when they speak up. Mullen told me that oftentimes what ends up happening when abuse is reported, a community “takes the very behaviors used to groom a victim and offers them up as evidence of innocence. This is indicative of a biased community that chooses tactful inattention because they have a special interest in maintaining order so that they can continue benefiting from their icon’s life and work.”

Leaving Neverland is a case study in how this happened. At the end of the 4-hour film, both of the mothers are devastated, in different ways, by how they let their children be abused for years. They were blinded by Michael Jackson and his attention, and they profited off it socially and financially. In the film director Reed asking James Safechuck if he has forgiven his mother. And it ends with James smiling slightly, and honestly saying that it is complicated. He later clarified to Oprah that it hurt his mother that he didn’t say publicly that he forgave her. But he said that he didn't want to lie. If they were going to have a relationship going forward, then it needed to be real. And so he wanted to be honest that forgiveness was a road, that it was going to be a lifelong journey, just like his own recovery would be.

What Leaving Neverland forces is the realization that in many ways, the allegations are not necessarily shocking. Rumors, lawsuits, and bizarre behavior was frequently recorded around Jackson and his fascination with children, and young boys in particular. But most of us have forgotten, or dismissed these claims, and that is something we will all have to live with.

I thought about my daughter, in the third grade, and all of her beautiful, complicated, chaotic classmates. And I thought about how when she asked me about Michael Jackson, I only thought about his musical legacy.

Leaving Neverland has changed me, in this regard. It has forced me to ask myself what else have I forgotten in the name of keeping the peace or of pushing away the narratives that trouble my world? It’s a question more of us need to be asking. In the age of #MeToo and countless abuse scandals, it is time more of us started to see our own role in perpetuating and sustaining systems of abuse. It is time to start grappling with the idea that more of us might be enablers, and that the road to forgiveness might be a long one back.

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