Oprah Takes a Powerful Stand on ‘Leaving Neverland’ Controversy: ‘This Moment Transcends Michael Jackson’
Winfrey calls society’s widespread, ignored sexual abuse ‘a scourge on humanity’ in a new interview with the ‘Leaving Neverland’ Jackson accusers.
By the time the second part of Leaving Neverland concluded Monday night, the documentary, in which two men explicitly detail being sexually abused by Michael Jackson, had already become a cultural phenomenon.
The stomach-turning stories shared by Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the two accusers in the film, made headlines. The Jackson estate erupted in fury. “Truthers”—Jackson fans staunchly defending the late pop star's innocence—flooded social media with attacks against the filmmakers and journalists reporting on the documentary, armed with caches of “evidence” that they claim forever exonerates the star. The jarring nature of what Robson and Safechuck allege triggered a cultural hysteria over Michael Jackson and his legacy.
We needed Oprah.
In After Neverland, a special that immediately followed the documentary’s conclusion, Winfrey interviews Robson, Safechuck, and the film’s director, Dan Reed.
The impressive second part of Leaving Neverland does important work moving beyond the salacious details of the sex acts the two accusers say Jackson seduced them into. It follows Robson and Safechuck as they become married family men forced to come to terms with the abuse they spent a lifetime burying and not understanding, eventually being moved to come forward.
And After Neverland continues the important work, doing what the confessional-focused documentary couldn’t in its four-hour running time by contextualizing and explaining the psychology of abuse to viewers at home.
“This moment transcends Michael Jackson,” Winfrey said in the special. “It is much bigger than any one person. This is a moment in time that allows us to see this societal corruption that is like a scourge on humanity.”
In all of the think-piecing, debating, and reporting on Leaving Neverland, a special like this, especially from a person like Winfrey, was needed to distill what we’ve seen, what it means, and to allow us talk about how we can reckon with it, process it, learn from it, grow from it, and stop it from happening again.
She is right: this moment transcends Michael Jackson. But it takes a person like Oprah Winfrey to make that happen. There is no discounting or underselling the dignity and validation she just gave, not just to Robson and Safechuck’s stories, but to all survivors by using her platform in this way, and amidst such volatile feelings about this documentary.
Child sex abuse was a frequent topic on Winfrey’s talk show—in fact the subject of 217 episodes of her long-running program—and the host has long been an advocate for victims. She said she reached out to Reed herself after she saw the film. "I said, 'Dan, you were able to illustrate in these four hours what I've tried to explain in 217," she recalled.
In the documentary, Robson and Safechuck recount incidents of masturbation, kissing, oral sex, being forced to caress Jackson’s nipples, bending over for him while he pleasured himself, and being coaxed into painful anal sex. But, as Winfrey explained, the conversation must expand beyond that, because the trauma didn’t stop with the sex acts.
“So many people put emphasis on, was there sexual penetration or not,” she said, repeating something she had tried countless times to get across on The Oprah Winfrey Show. “The emphasis should not be on the sex act itself, but what happens afterwards... It is the holding of the secret, it is the shame, it is the confusion, it is the guilt, the depression, and then the nervous breakdown that happens to so many people.”
More than 100 sex abuse survivors were in the audience for the interview taping, which was preceded by a special screening of the four-hour documentary. That made for a heightened emotional energy in the room. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the audience erupted in applause when Safechuck’s mother reacted to Jackson’s death in 2009 with relief, rejoicing that the singer would never have another opportunity to hurt another child.
Winfrey made the point that children—as Robson, who was 7, and Safechuck, who was 10, were—don’t have the language to explain what is happening to them. “As young boys, these two men did not feel abuse until later on in life,” she said.
Later on in the show, she reiterated that point. “When you’re 7 years old and someone is stroking your penis, it feels good. You don’t have a name for it, but it feels good.” It’s been a sticking point for her across many of her 200-plus episodes on the topic. “If the abuser is any good, you’re going to be in it and not even know it happened.”
Robson said he had no understanding that what Jackson had done to him was abuse. “From night one of the abuse, of the sexual stuff that Michael did to me, he told me it was love,” he said. “He told me that he loved me, and that God had brought us together.” The sexual acts, Jackson told him, was how they showed their love. Robson believed him, because this was Michael Jackson, his idol. He was trained from the start to cover up for him, which he would later do in court. As a little boy he didn’t have the capability to see the pattern.
Safechuck said it wasn’t until Robson came forward that he realized that what had happened to him was abuse. He said he panicked, “like I was being caught.” It took him weeks to sort through that. “Michael had drilled in you over and over as a kid, if you’re caught your life is over,” he said. “It’s drilled into your nervous system.”
Winfrey takes special care to make sure that reality and pattern of behavior—the grooming—is clear. It’s happening “everywhere,” she said. It doesn’t have to be a celebrity.
Yet the fact is that Leaving Neverland concerns a celebrity, and as such has faced criticism. Robson and Safechuck had both previously testified that Jackson never abused them, and Winfrey grilled them on what was going through their minds then and why they decided to come forward now. She also asked about previous lawsuits they had filed against the Jackson estate, leading to accusations that this is just a money grab.
Winfrey also gave Reed the opportunity to defend his decision not to include comment from the Jackson estate or any of the family’s perspective in the film.
"What is at issue here is what happened when the bedroom door closed and the lights went out. So, who knows about that? What happened is between Wade and Michael and James and Michael,” he said. "What is the journalistic value of interviewing someone saying, 'Michael was a really nice guy. He never did anything to a child.' And that person has a gigantic vested interest, a financial interest, in smearing these two young men."
While Winfrey did mention the number of times she had made sexual abuse a topic on her show, she also detailed how many times she had Jackson and his family on her show, which as we all remember was often, including a sympathetic interview following his death. But she’s taking a stand now. As she admits near the end of the special, “We’re all gonna get it”—that is, become targets for the Jackson estate’s formidable ire and the singer’s fans’ oppressive attacks—for taking the bold action of producing the special.
To that end, we all knew the Michael Jackson open secret. We were all, in some ways, complicit. None of us have our hands clean. It’s time to soap up. And that means that the discussion Leaving Neverland brought from whispered corners—or, more often, victims’ own personal shame—to the surface must not go away once the attention on this film wanes.
“Don’t let anybody in your world make it about what Michael Jackson did or do not do,” Winfrey said. “It’s about this thing, this insidious pattern that’s happening in our culture that we refuse to look at.”
“I hope we can get past Michael Jackson, the icon,” she concluded. “Stop staring into the sun and do what is necessary to heal our children and heal ourselves.”