On How We Talk About the Mothers of Leaving Neverland

Everytime Michael Jackson has been accused throughout the years, the focus always shifts to the parents. When Jordan Chandler first came forward, blame was diverted from Jackson, onto Chandler’s allegedly money hungry parents. This was a defense Jackson himself used to convince the Safechucks of his innocence. With Gavin Arvizo, it was how aggressive his mother was in court. There’s a clip in Leaving Neverland of a juror, fresh off delivering Jackson his acquittal, complaining she didn’t like how Arvizo's mother spoke and snapped her fingers at the jury. Every time allegations against Jackson emerge, there follows the conversation about how parents of victims are supposed to act or what their intentions are. But the biggest question Leaving Neverland has everyone talking about – What kind of mother could let this happen?

And it’s a question Wade Robson and James Safechuck are still living with. There are a lot of horrific experiences and familial tensions described in Leaving Neverland. Just one of many was how Robson’s mother refused to hear the details of the abuse, afraid it would give her nightmares. He revealed in an interview with Buzzfeed, that she even had director Dan Reed skip over that excruciating part of the HBO documentary for her. And that is maybe what’s most frustrating about the mothers to their families and audiences watching. The inability, or even flat-out refusal, to share the burden and trauma of the abuse the boys faced. The way they enjoyed the perks of celebrity while their children were assaulted in secret closets hidden behind Jackson’s hallway of alarm bells and locked doors. How they toured Neverland Ranch, saw all the red flags up close, and didn’t think anything of it. The way they washed Jackson’s clothes and cooked him dinner before letting him into their child’s bedrooms.

          Joy Robson in Leaving Neverland

Yes – what kind of mother could let this happen? – is an important, unavoidable question and a large part of what makes Leaving Neverland so compelling. But it also feels like a very personal question, reserved more for the victims and their families to grapple with. And like with Chandler and Arvizo, the questions around the parents have quickly become scapegoats for defenders of Jackson. The question for us viewers unattached to these families, is maybe more – Why are we more comfortable blaming the mothers instead of the abuser himself?

I know, there’s an obvious answer. Safechuck’s mother says it herself in the documentary. “I had one job, one child. I fucked up, I failed to protect him.” But the way the blame shifts so greatly onto the mothers feels like overkill, more a means of avoiding the difficult task of re-examining Jackson’s place in our culture, than a call for justice.

Another frustrating clip in Leaving Neverland, TMZ staff discussing Robson coming forward and suing back in 2013. “He should sue his mom for letting him go sleep with Michael Jackson when he was 7 years old.” Maybe instead, TMZ should take a look at the way platforms, just like theirs, give power to celebrity and make it almost impossible for victims to come forward. It’s easy for us now, decades later in retrospect, to say we know better. But it's clear from how we've perserved Jackson's legacy in those passing decades, that we don't. Jackson’s celebrity was unique and so far, still unmatched. It had to do with the amount of change and time Jackson went through in the public eye. As Wesley Morris wrote in The New York Times, “He lived in defiance of physics and race and gender, and we just kind of lived with that. We ate it up. Just the odyssey of his nose from bulb to nub seemed somehow like a people’s journey.” Then there was also the specific breed of celebrity given to performers around the 80’s-90’s. As Craig Jenkins wrote for Vulture, “They were like demigods. They sang about love, peace, politics, and matters of planetary significance. Their art paused time and advanced culture.”

            Jackson performing at the 1993 Super Bowl Halftime Show 

Regardless of whether you believe Robson and Safechuck, Leaving Neverland presents ugly sides of Jackson’s celebrity we’ve ignored for decades. Regardless of what happened behind all those locked doors, there are other forms of devastation Jackson left behind in the lives of these families. Leaving Neverland leaves you with complex questions to sit with about how we interact with celebrity. To speak only of the mothers and to only question how they could’ve let it all happen, is to ignore our place in it all and let history repeat itself. Jackson is unavoidable at this point. It’s not just down to taking “Thriller” off Halloween playlists, his influence is totally ingrained into much of today’s music and culture. But it’s important that we stop taking everything Jackson presented, all the power he possessed, with the same blind faith the mothers did.

It’s frustrating that Robson’s mother won't listen to her son recount the abuse. He told Buzzfeed that it’s hard for him, “It’s like, come on, mom, you’ve gotta face this whole thing.” But the journey to Robson’s mother maybe someday eventually facing it all and helping shoulder some of her son’s trauma, will be a personal and private one. In the meantime, we also have to be the ones to “face this whole thing,” and put more blame where it belongs.