The new documentary about Michael Jackson challenges the toxic myth that talented people can’t do terrible things – and that’s a force for good, says Stylist columnist Lucy Mangan.
I’m still reeling from Leaving Neverland, the documentary detailing allegations of years of child abuse that James Safechuck and Wade Robson say they were subjected to by Michael Jackson starting when they were aged 10 and seven respectively.
The Jackson estate denies all allegations, as the singer himself did during the last 16 years of his life when he was the subject of numerous similar ones by other boys (one of whom accepted an out of court settlement, the other of whom went to trial where Jackson was acquitted).
The accounts of the now adult Safechuck and Robson of what they say they suffered at Jackson’s hands after he gently and effectively seduced them and their families with his money, fame and talent and then gradually isolated them from each other are painfully detailed and beyond harrowing. But once the initial horror and shock at what you have heard from them subsides, you are left with an odd feeling of hope.
Hope because, amongst many other extraordinarily valuable things like explaining the psychological impact of grooming, as they say Jackson engaged in here, and their thought processes as victims and how complicated and counterintuitive those can sometimes be, their testimony further damages the relentlessly pernicious lie that people can be only one thing.
Even under ordinary, benign circumstances this is a wasteful, stupid myth. I remember once having an argument with a friend’s parent who said my dad couldn’t work in the theatre and like football (as if I, his 10-year-old daughter, must be mistaken about one of these evident facts). But even at that level of inconsequentiality the supposed incompatibility of the two things confused and angered them.
But it builds from there in a million different directions (e.g. you can’t be athletic and feminine) and in a million different ways (you have to be bookish or like clubbing), until we find ourselves fully internalising the insane belief that every individual is one entirely homogenous mass; and either a good one or a bad. And this does incredible harm.
It means, for example, that a musical genius cannot be a paedophile. That anyone with any kind of talent – for acting, film production or presenting – cannot possibly be any kind of abuser too. And in less rarefied fields, it means that anyone who is a good manager, or a funny guy to hang out with, or who works for a charity, or who’s a good cook cannot be anything or anyone else behind closed doors. We can’t believe that anyone is very much different from the way they are with us, or from the face they generally present to the world.
And that of course plays right into the hands of abusers. The default position becomes to disbelieve their victims. Sometimes when I hear the words, so prevalent in the reporting of rape cases, “It’s her word against his,” I think – if only things were even that fair. Survivors of violence are almost always up against far more than a simple evaluating of testimony. They are up against our ingrained belief that people are what they seem, which serves only to constrain those who are capable of multiple good things and free those who are capable of terrible things.
Safechuck and Robson’s accounts are a powerful, high-profile challenge to this toxic mindset and strike a huge blow for redressing the imbalance between survivors and perpetrators. I believe them, and I thank them.
Images: Channel 4