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The Larger Lessons of ‘Leaving Neverland’

As Oprah explained in her remarkable post-show-slash-group-discussion: “This moment transcends Michael Jackson”

Illustration of Michael Jackson covering his face with a hat HBO/Ringer illustration

In the days leading up to the premiere of Leaving Neverland, the four-hour, two-part HBO documentary detailing the accounts of Michael Jackson’s sexual abuse from Wade Robson and James Safechuck, I heard many variations on a single question: “Do you think this will mean anything?”

The unspoken second half of that query is “to the legacy of Michael Jackson,” an already fraught concept Leaving Neverland largely leaves offscreen. Though the stories about Jackson were already widely known thanks to a 1993 lawsuit and 2005 trial, would the graphic details and post-#MeToo timing of these latest ones force a larger reckoning? Would our relationship to Jackson’s music face the same scrutiny as the ones we have with living abusers? How would one even begin to topple Michael Jackson from our nation’s pantheon of celebrity, or undo his influence on the culture?

Following the conclusion of Leaving Neverland’s second half, Oprah Winfrey was waiting to help us process these questions, as she so often is. In After Neverland, an hour-long conversation with Robson, Safechuck, and director Dan Reed, Winfrey made explicit what the documentary’s airtight focus on its subjects’ stories already implies. “This moment transcends Michael Jackson,” Winfrey begins. It’s about something even bigger than the biggest pop star the world has ever seen: child abuse, how it works, and helping people to understand it so that it never happens to someone they love. Leaving Neverland can mean something, after all—if not to how history treats Jackson, then to how we discuss the invisible problem he became an example of.

Winfrey is a presence suited to many kinds of difficult subjects, but especially this one: a survivor of childhood sexual abuse herself, the host opened the special by reminding viewers that she’s dedicated 217 episodes of her show to the subject. Spreading awareness of the problem has been a passion of hers since long before Leaving Neverland’s Sundance Festival premiere this January, and, as a television veteran, she’s experienced in communicating it to a mass audience in a way that’s both honest and sensitive.

Winfrey also has another connection to the Jackson story: that of the celebrity whisperer who conducted an exclusive interview with Jackson in 1993, before the accounts of abuse initially surfaced. In that conversation, Jackson advanced the story that allowed him to surround himself with children for years without major objections. “People wonder why I always have children around,” Jackson said. “Because I find the thing I never had through them: Disneyland, amusement parks, arcade games.” In After Neverland, Robson cites this spin as one reason he and his family felt comfortable enough around Jackson to make themselves vulnerable. “The grooming had started long before we ever met him,” the Australian-born choreographer explains.

But Winfrey largely left her own relationship with Jackson unmentioned. Leaving Neverland is Robson’s and Safechuck’s story first, an explanation of how abuse functions second, and a commentary on Jackson a distant third. Her special followed suit; rather than further explaining what made Jackson special, After Neverland emphasizes what made him perfectly, terrifyingly ordinary as one abuser among many. The effect is that of a PSA combined with a group therapy session, conducted by Winfrey’s ever-steady hand. Questions frequently begin with statements like “I wish people would understand” and “I wish people would hear,” followed by counterintuitive truths about abuse embodied by Robson’s and Safechuck’s experiences. In the moment, she reminds viewers, sexual abuse can feel pleasurable; abuse survivors often love their abusers and want to protect them; abusers ingratiate themselves with entire families, communities, or in Jackson’s case, the world, not just individuals.

To that end, Winfrey brings in outside experts to put Leaving Neverland in its wider context of abuse rather than fame. Howard Fradkin, a psychologist and expert in treating male survivors of sexual abuse, speaks up to outline the commonly understood pattern of abusers making survivors feel at ease before introducing a sexual element to their relationship. Actor Anthony Edwards and former NFL player Al Chesley appear in their capacity as spokespeople for 1 in 6, an organization for male abuse survivors named for the proportion of men who’ve experienced childhood sexual trauma. #MeToo founder Tarana Burke is visible in many crowd shots, though she never takes the microphone herself.

Together, Winfrey and her collaborators position Jackson’s behavior as part of an age-old, still-ongoing story. Crucially, though, the specificity of Robson’s and Safechuck’s accounts remains intact. Safechuck reveals that his recognition of Jackson’s abuse, and continuing recovery from it, was kick-started by Robson’s decision to come forward on The Today Show in 2013. Over the course of the conversation, it becomes clear that Robson seems slightly further along in his healing process. In terms of body language, while both men appear upset after sitting through a full screening of the film, Safechuck seems almost on the verge of tears, anxiously shifting in his seat. At one point, Oprah asks each man whether he’s forgiven himself for acquiescing to Jackson’s advances. Robson says he has. Safechuck says he has not.

When After Neverland was first announced last week, the name seemed slightly uncomfortable. Was branding the special like a postgame discussion, as if it were a prestige drama instead of a harrowing true story, in good taste? But upon viewing, the title takes on a different cast. Leaving Neverland itself is a rebuttal to the idea that Jackson’s death in 2009 means the end of the Jackson abuse story; his survivors are still living, and therefore living with the consequences. What After Neverland accomplishes is to push the narrative forward, from the struggle to wrap one’s head around Jackson’s behavior to putting that anger and sadness toward a more constructive end. No one turns ambiguity to certainty quite like Oprah Winfrey. Here, she uses that superpower to suggest what comes After Neverland is a world that can recognize abuse for what it is—even when it has the voice of an angel.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.