neverland: my childhood fantasy and adult nightmare

March 6, 2019
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When I was young, there was nothing I wanted to do more than meet Michael Jackson. I was born in 1991, when the magic and power of Michael Jackson had already been cemented in the world. It was, and still is, impossible for me to imagine a world where Jackson’s wonder wasn’t present. Two things I knew in my childhood: The sun rises in the morning and Michael Jackson was the most talented man on Earth. I’d watch The Jacksons: An American Dream, the biopic about Jackson and his brothers, religiously. I can still quote the film’s dialogue as if it was Bible verse; and, in some ways, the film was scripture. It was the origin story of the man that grew to romance African queens, walked on the moon, and made some of the most infectious and electrifying sounds I have ever heard. How generous, I thought, that the universe provided the story of my hero. My early life was submerged with Jackson’s immense talent and his groundbreaking visuals, and when I saw his interview with Oprah Winfrey — that included a tour of Jackson’s Neverland ranch — I began to fantasize. I was a poor, feminine Black kid with a single working mother in New York City, so I’d imagine Michael Jackson riding in his limo, seeing something special in me, and taking me away to a place where money didn’t matter, fantasy was real, you never grew up, and Michael Jackson, the most magical man in the world, would see me. I deeply wanted both this escape and this validation. When I reflect on this make-believe as an adult, I still feel the warmth, naivety and innocence of those fantasies, because they can only be located by someone who doesn’t know the world or the nature of people.

HBO’s Leaving Neverland is a documentary that details the experience of two men, Wade Robinson and James Safechuck, as it pertains to their relationship with the late superstar, and to Jackson’s alleged sexual predation. The documentary is graphic with the details of pedopholic abuse, filling in the gaps as to what happened and why it happened. The film explains why the victims once denied the allegations, and highlights the regret of people who defended Jackson in order to characterize the artist as somebody who could never do such a thing. But because of gaps in the story where the victims once denied allegations of abuse, Jackson’s power to intimidate and manipulate them — even in death, via his estate and enormous fanbase, through a litany of other reasons (race and sexuality included) — there remains room to not believe their stories, even as the subjects lay out evidence and answers as to why what happened in the past, did actually happen.

I believe the victims. My belief is not informed only by the documentary — though that should be enough — but because of my own experience with pedophilia and sexual predation. That was the other reality of my childhood, one I also knew well. I knew the sun would rise in the morning, I knew Michael Jackson was magic, and I knew my childhood body did not belong to me and would occasionally belong to a family friend. From the age of five onward, these were my truths. Leaving Neverland made me reevaluate my abuse, and remember uncomfortable truths about my experience.

I had a crush on the 16-year-old who abused me at five years of age. As I began to experience my own realization of queer sexuality, I adored the masculinity and maturity I perceived in my predator. He was attractive and funny, and girls his age loved him. I would have never told my mom. (I still have not told her because of the pure exhaustion the thought of having that conversation brings me.) In childhood, I would have never told because I physically and emotionally enjoyed the sexual predation. He introduced sexual sensations to my body I did not know existed. When it was not violent, because I could not perform in ways he desired, there was an emotional and physical delight in the death of my innocence. The sexual component of the abuse was one element, but also feeling like an adult at such a young age was enthralling. Even today, at age 28, people tell me how mature I am for my age. So, I thought, perhaps, I’m being granted space in adulthood early because of how smart and mature I was then. Perhaps, this is a journey all old souls go on. Back then, I did not want to ruin the experiences with my predator, even if they were occasionally terrifying and disorienting. His disinterest in me and my body once I grew into a pre-teen did not feel like an escape from violence, but heartbreak. As a child my thinking was, if I could not be found by Michael Jackson’s limo, then perhaps this pleasure, as forced and secretive as it was, would suffice, since I’d never go to Neverland.

It was not hard for me to understand Jackson’s victims, because continuous sexual predation of children seldomly relies on violence and force, but on seduction, pleasure, and levity. The predator may even change his voice and pretend to have childhood interests to make themselves appear as a peer, like my predator did. I did not fully understand my abuse until I turned 13. It was then that I recognized I could never do the things that were done to me and my body to anyone, let alone a young child. Leaving morality on the floor, the pure thought of sexualizing children instinctually disgusts me, and I began to, for the first time, contextualize my experience as abuse.

Just like my mom’s absence (she was working) facilitated the abuse in some ways, her need to choose between her child and labor — and often, a lack of childcare options — because of the violent structure of white supremacist capitalism, I was vulnerable to predation.

It’s also obvious to me how the victims’ parents own white paternalism and internalized white supremacy facilitated the predation of their children by Michael Jackson. Throughout the documentary, the parents of the victims detail how they saw fully grown, unthinkably famous and hyper-wealthy Michael Jackson as a son — not a brother, uncle, cousin, but as their own son, another child. I do wonder how much Jackson’s performance — child-like and simple — facilitated the alleged abuse. His public persona as a soft and effeminate, self-hating negro who desperately wants to be white, who just wants to create the most enticing and enthralling act for the eager audiences, made him non-threatening. So, of course for folks socialized into white supremacy, the idea that white people are more clever and sophisticated than Black people, even one of the most powerful and savvy figures of our era, is natural. Even if the figure is exhibiting wildly inappropriate and troubling behaviors that would make Willy Wonka blush. Combined with blinding fascination with fame, wealth and power, this buy-in facilitated some of the most heinous acts I’ve ever heard of. For abuse this elaborate to exist, the answers have to be complex, too. There’s no single answer or reason for Michael Jackson’s behavior, but a variety of lenses to look at him through.

As I turn 28, go to therapy, and practice emotional and spiritual habits that help me deal with past traumas and how to navigate life today, I am aware I could not react to this documentary or to Michael Jackson like I did as a child. I could not turn into a music-loving five-year-old, all naive because Michael Jackson’s work is in the fabric of my life. I had to deal with the reality: one of my favorite musicians and the most genius creative artist I’ve ever experienced was also among the most advanced and relentless public child predators our age has known. I’m still processing this and what it means, but one thing is definite: any lingering fantasy that I’ll be rescued from the realities of white supremacist capitalism by a magical man in a limo who will make up for my own spiritual and emotional need, is gone.