“Leaving Neverland,” which HBO aired in two parts on Sunday and Monday, offers the Me Too era’s most detailed portrait of sexual abuse to date. In profiling two men who say Michael Jackson charmed his way into their childhoods, only to molest them repeatedly and later cast them aside, Dan Reed’s documentary shows how an alleged predator courts and manipulates vulnerable targets, leaving behind emotional wounds that are hard to mend.
However thorough the film may be, it leaves many unanswered questions. Reed had a lot of ground to cover in order to piece together a resonant compendium of Wade Robson’s and James Safechuck’s experiences, so even with a four-hour running time, “Neverland” skirts certain particulars.
I’ve attempted to fill in some of those gaps. If you’ve seen the doc, let’s dig into a few omissions. (You can also learn more about the movie via my interview with Reed, conducted a few days after “Neverland” premiered at Sundance.)
First thing’s first: Macaulay Culkin. When’s the last time he spoke about his relationship with Jackson?
As recently as January. On an episode of the celebrity interview podcast “Inside of You with Mathew Rosenbaum,” Culkin said that nothing untoward happened with Jackson ― a refrain he’s repeated time and again over the years, including when he took the stand during Jackson’s 2005 molestation trial. “It’s almost easy to try to say it was weird or whatever, but at the end of the day, we were friends,” Culkin told Rosenbaum, calling the relationship “normal” and “mundane.”
Based on what we know from Culkin’s 2005 testimony, many of his experiences with Jackson ― extensive phone calls, limitless shopping sprees, childlike games ― mirror those of Robson and Safechuck. A key difference, as Culkin tells it: The bed they shared was platonic.
“He enjoyed my youthfulness,” Culkin said on “WTF with Marc Maron” in early 2018. “He liked being a kid with me. It never struck me as odd. I never felt uncomfortable. That was just the way he was.”
I reached out to Culkin’s publicist to ask if the “Home Alone” actor would talk about “Leaving Neverland,” vowing to treat the interview with care given the sensitive subject matter. “We are receiving myriad requests all with the promise of intent to ‘handle the topic responsibly,’” she responded. “We appreciate your interest Matt, however no thank you.”
Let’s talk about the other members of Jackson’s entourage mentioned in the documentary. What about the makeup artist who escorted Safechuck to Jackson’s trailer on the set of the Pepsi commercial?
That’s Karen Faye, who worked for Jackson for almost three decades, until he died in 2009. She was fiercely loyal and attentive, so much so that gossip mongers wondered if she and Jackson were having an affair while he was married to Lisa Marie Presley. Faye testified in his 2013 wrongful-death trial, describing the painkiller dependence Jackson developed after his hair caught fire while shooting a 1984 Pepsi ad.
It appears none of that loyalty has faded. On her unverified Twitter account, Faye has spent the past several weeks defending Jackson against Robson and Safechuck.
Where can I see Safechuck’s Pepsi ad?
What about the housekeeper mentioned in Part 2?
That’s Blanca Francia, who worked for Jackson from 1986 to 1991. Francia said during the 2005 trial that she spotted Jackson showering with a 7-year-old Robson, something she’d alluded to years earlier in an interview for the popular TV tabloid series “Hard Copy.”
Francia’s son, Jason, was allegedly molested by Jackson on three occasions ― twice at Neverland Ranch and once at Jackson’s Los Angeles apartment known as “the hideaway.” In 1996, the Francias reached an out-of-court settlement with Jackson worth a reported $2 million. Jason testified against him in 2005.
Then there’s Adrian McManus, another housekeeper, who defended Jackson in a 1994 deposition because she worried about potential ramifications but reversed course on the witness stand in 2005. McManus isn’t directly referenced in the documentary, but she recently told the Australian edition of “60 Minutes” that she saw Jackson “kissing” and “petting” boys at Neverland, including Culkin and Jordan Chandler, whose family settled a civil lawsuit against Jackson outside of court in 1994. (Investigators later opted not to pursue criminal charges because Chandler did not want to testify. In the process, they found two other alleged victims who also declined to testify, according to the Los Angeles Times.)
McManus said she signed a confidentiality agreement and was “conditioned” not to question the singer’s behavior. “I was threatened,” she revealed on the program. “His bodyguards told me that if I ever came up on TV that they could hire a hitman, take me out, slice my neck and we’d never find my body. … I lived in fear for many, many years.”
Where have I seen the lawyer with the white hair before?
Thomas Mesereau, who helped get Jackson acquitted in 2005, has made a career out of defending celebrities accused of things like sexual misconduct or murder. The list includes Bill Cosby, Mike Tyson, Suge Knight and Robert Blake.
“I am 100 percent convinced Michael never abused a child, never harmed a child, certainly never molested a child,” he maintained during the same “60 Minutes” piece that features McManus. “I think this is hogwash.”
What else happened during the 2005 trial?
A lot, including testimony from Martin Bashir, the journalist responsible for the damning 2003 TV documentary “Living with Michael Jackson,” which became evidence because it featured footage of 13-year-old accuser Gavin Arvizo nuzzled up against Jackson. (I asked Bashir to discuss “Leaving Neverland,” but his manager declined on Bashir’s behalf.)
If there’s a defining takeaway from both the 1993 and 2005 lawsuits, it’s how similar Chandler’s and Arvizo’s accounts are to the ones Robson and Safechuck outline in “Leaving Neverland,” including the tactics Jackson used to coach them and the progression of his alleged sexual acts.
You can reach all about the ’05 trial in the excellent Esquire explainer.
Why doesn’t “Leaving Neverland” feature accounts from members of Jackson’s entourage?
Dan Reed, the director, has been fielding this question a lot. When I asked him about it at the Sundance Film Festival in January, he said he saw little value in including perspectives from people who, unlike Safechuck and Robson, don’t know what unfolded behind Jackson’s security-laden bedroom door. Reed apparently spoke to various legal investigators and Neverland Ranch employees who could only produce “circumstantial corroboration.”
“What we have in the story is from the horse’s mouth,” he explained. “We have the child speaking about what happened to him, and I didn’t know how much more credible it would appear if I have a maid going, ‘Well, yeah, I saw Wade.’ … I never found a single investigator who didn’t think Michael was guilty, and I never came across anything at all that led me to doubt either Wade or James.”
Reed doubled down on “CBS This Morning” last week, responding to accusations of one-sidedness by pointing out that “Neverland” includes Jackson’s perspective via footage of the pop star’s denials from 1993 and 2005. “This isn’t a film about Michael Jackson,” he said. “It’s a film about Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two little boys to whom this dreadful thing happened long ago. It’s the story of them coming to terms with that over two decades, and the story of their families.”
Jackson’s inner circle was huge, so the collective cover-up also must have been huge, right?
In a word, yes. It’s impossible to glean exactly how much everyone knew about the molestation allegedly going on at Neverland and elsewhere, but there’s no doubt that Jackson employed a lot of people who turned a blind eye or reduced his behavior to mere eccentricities. Every time the Robsons or Safechucks were summoned to Neverland, it surely wasn’t Jackson who was booking their plane tickets, chauffeuring them to and fro, or tidying up after them. For comparison’s sake, a striking aspect of last year’s Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” was realizing the breadth of R. Kelly’s co-conspirators.
“It was very rare that Michael was alone,” Robson told Oprah Winfrey during a special that aired after “Leaving Neverland” on Monday. “He had a machine around him at all times. Secretaries organized most of my phone calls and cars to pick me up to bring me to him. Security guards were always there outside of the door. There were so many people around. There’s no way that Michael could have abused at the level that he did and the number of kids that he did without a machine behind him helping him do that.”
Here’s a big one: How are we supposed to feel about the mothers?
Your conclusion is as good as mine, but it’s certainly complex. Something “Leaving Neverland” does particularly well is grant every subject what amounts to a full profile, respecting everyone’s vantage no matter how objectionable.
Jackson didn’t just court Wade and James ― he courted their parents too, quickly ingratiating himself as a pseudo family member and showering them with gifts. As James says, “It’s all a big seduction.” And so it’s easy to see how these middle-class parents with talented sons got swept up in the enchantment, deluded by what Stephanie Safechuck calls “the life of the rich and famous.”
But at what point does myopia become willful blindness? Neglect, after all, is a form of child abuse.
It’s not impossible to understand the mothers’ positions, though; in America, wealth is an addiction and fame an elixir. These moms thought Jackson, who held all the power in the situation, was fostering their sons’ budding artistic careers. The innocent facade that Jackson projected ― long explained away as a Peter Pan complex stemming from the physical abuse and general frenzy he suffered in his own childhood ― lent them false comfort.
On the other hand, who in her right mind would leave her 7-year-old at a celebrity’s mansion while spending a week at the Grand Canyon? Who would leave her son in Jackson’s hotel suite overnight after learning that Jackson’s staff had booked her own room far away from his?
They were a pre-Kardashian era’s version of opportunistic momagers. At a certain point, sympathy turns into befuddlement, even if they never lose their humanity ― a conflict that Robson and Safechuck are still grappling with in their adult lives. During a Q&A at the Sundance premiere, Safechuck said his mother is seeking forgiveness that he has struggled to grant.
One quick, peripheral detail: Do celebrities always give away memorabilia willy-nilly?
This is hardly the most vital tidbit from “Leaving Neverland,” but it is mind-blowing that Jackson gave a young Safechuck one of the red jackets from the “Thriller” video. (I say “one of”because another “Thriller” jacket sold for $1.8 million at auction in 2011.)
Safechuck also made off with a bullwhip from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” given to him by the one and only Harrison Ford. I guess when you spend most of your life surrounded by props and costumes and … just … stuff, you stop caring about one little jacket or whip, even if they’re worth millions.
Let’s fast forward to the present day. What’s going on with Neverland Ranch?
It’s currently for sale, if you have $31 million and don’t mind living in an alleged pedophile’s home. The 2,700-acre California compound was first listed for $100 million in 2015 but ― surprise, surprise ― found no takers. With the discount, someone will inevitably think it’s a steal, right?
Neverland Ranch, now called Sycamore Valley Ranch, was raided during Jackson’s child-molestation investigation in 2003, but it remains largely unchanged, minus the wild animals and train.
Will Jackson’s music be muted?
The first, and to date only, major institution to remove Jackson’s discography from its rotation is BBC Radio 2, the United Kingdom’s most popular station.
A jukebox musical based on the making of Jackson’s 1992 world tour is slated to open on Broadway in 2020. It’s being developed by the Jackson estate, which has already collected a reported $2.1 billion since the singer’s death. I reached out to the writer, Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage, to ask if production plans had changed and whether the show would include Jackson’s allegations, but I didn’t hear back.
I sent similar inquiries to Spotify and Sirius XM, but no responses there either. Spotify, for its part, nixed R. Kelly from official playlists but did not scrub the alleged child abuser’s catalog altogether; time will tell whether it does the same for Jackson.
There’s also a Jackson-themed Cirque du Soleil performance running in Las Vegas. “Because of current legal proceedings involving one of our partners, we will not comment on this situation,” a representative said in a email.
Are there more survivors who haven’t spoken out?
Yes, though it’s impossible to say how many. Reed told me he knows of at least one more who declined to participate in the doc. Not counting the two anonymous victims the Los Angeles police located in 1994, that brings the total number of accusers to six: Jordan Chandler, Jason Francia, Gavin Arvizo, Wade Robson, James Safechuck and the unknown man Reed met.
“I do think there are others out there,” Safechuck told “CBS This Morning.” “But I also don’t expect them to just come out now that we’re coming out. It’s such a difficult thing to do, to come out. You have to do it when you’re ready.”
What’s up with all the Jackson superfans still defending him?
Oh boy. My Twitter notifications have been inundated ever since I tweeted about the documentary at Sundance. Meanwhile, Reed has received death threats. Loyalists are targeting the contradictions in Robson’s and Safechuck’s accounts, as the men previously maintained that Jackson hadn’t touched them inappropriately ― a commonality among sexual assault survivors who once felt affection for their abusers. (Robson, for one, said in a sworn statement that he didn’t grasp the nature of what happened to him until undergoing therapy in 2012.)
The coalition of superfans is operating offline too. Seany O’Kane, a British disciple, raised money to purchase advertisements on London buses that promote a website proclaiming Jackson’s innocence. (Another woman is apparently attempting to do the same in Los Angeles.) Almost $7,000 of the roughly $16,000 that O’Kane raised came from the Michael Jackson Chinese Fan Club, according to Vice.
If anything, fans’ refusal to recognize Jackson’s flaws speaks to our limited understanding of sexual trauma and the way hero worship becomes a blinder. He is almost inarguably the most beloved public figure to fall in the Me Too era, having soundtracked childhoods, proms, weddings and other cherished memories. However inexcusable, it’s easy to see how someone would dupe himself into trusting Jackson the same way his accusers did.
What’s disheartening is that many of those fans probably won’t even watch “Leaving Neverland,” much like Jackson’s relatives, who are denouncing the film and suing HBO for $100 million despite refusing to see it.
But the arguments leveled by Jackson’s siblings are vague and limited, specifically the claim that Robson and Safechuck are only out for money. A judge dismissed the sexual assault lawsuits Robson and Safechuck filed back in 2013 and 2014, respectively ― and not because they lacked credibility, but because California’s statute of limitations invalidated them. (Both suits are pending appeal.) Furthermore, Reed said the men, who are subjecting themselves to relentless scrutiny by speaking out, weren’t compensated for participating in “Neverland.”
Robson told Rolling Stone he agreed to take part only to “help other survivors and play [a] small role in education and prevention.”
Safechuck, meanwhile, said, “[We started this] pre-Me Too, so I had to set realistic expectations, which I try to do for myself. I figured we were gonna get trashed by everybody else, so I didn’t expect people to believe us or come out in support of us. My focus was just on other victims, that they could hear the story and hopefully see themselves in it.”
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