I’ve managed to annoy a few of my friends recently by insisting that they watch “Leaving Neverland,” the documentary in which two young men recount, with steadfast clarity, the abuse they suffered at the hands of Michael Jackson. “Everyone has to watch it,” I said, not a little vehemently.
“It’s too upsetting,” one of them said. “It’s too awful, said another. “I just don’t want it to be true.” “I just can’t watch it,” said one. “It’s too disturbing.”
There are shows I avoid, too. One series, in particular, features so much rape, incest and violence that it’s prompted critics to do a statistical tally of its sexual violence. (They toted up more than 50 rapes in the first six seasons.) That show is, of course, “Game of Thrones,” which drew a record 17 million viewers for its recent season opener. By comparison, “Leaving Neverland,” was watched by 1.2 million people.
Still, everyone seems to be talking about “Leaving Neverland.” Including people who haven’t seen it – and others who say they have no intention of doing so. Some, many of them Michael Jackson fans, have condemned the movie sight unseen. But the people who upset me are the ones who say they “just can’t.”
My view, as a someone who experienced sexual abuse as child, is that everyone who’s ever listened to a Michael Jackson song, has a moral obligation to watch this show. It’s a way of bearing witness. A way of supporting those who speak out. When someone says ‘it’ – sexual abuse - is too awful, I feel as though they’re saying I’m too awful. Not a totally rational response, I know, but it’s indicative of the way secrecy and denial compound the shame survivors already feel. When my friends -- intelligent, well-informed civically involved people -- say they can’t watch something “so upsetting,” I want to challenge them: I know they watch climate change documentaries, human rights films. What is so “awful” about looking squarely at abuse?
I also want to tell them that their reluctance to deal with the fallout of abuse sends perpetrators the signal that the public is willing to look the other way at their crimes.
The documentary IS hard to watch. For me, it brought up memories and feelings I’d rather deny. But it was even more destabilizing, in the wake of the ‘Me, too’ movement, to hear Michael Jackson apologists trying to discredit the young men who told their stories. It was especially disheartening to hear playwright Lynn Nottage Lynn Nottage, after watching the documentary, say that she believed the men were telling the truth, then turn around and later tell The New York Times, “I pray it isn’t true.” That kind of magical thinking – seeing the evidence and wishing it away - is called denial.
Her stance, if you can call it that, is especially troublesome because Nottage is set to make an important play about Jackson – with the blessing of the Jackson estate. That estate, by the way, has made $2 billion since his death – a fortune they’re using to fight the accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, in court and in the media.
The “I don’t want it to be true” excuse is the one that really gets me, though. Survivors of childhood abuse don’t want what happened to us to be true, either. We work overtime to convince themselves that our fathers, our uncles, our priests, and our brothers didn’t do what they did. And yet, we know they did. Our healing – our sanity – depends on the ability to hold conflicting truths in our heads. Namely: that the people we trusted did, indeed, do despicable things. We had to accept that the same parent who abused us also made the pancakes the next morning, taught us to ride a bike, paid for our braces, put us through college. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask others to just watch a documentary about the darker side a pop star.
Besides – please forgive the tortured syntax that follows - not watching the show doesn’t make the accusations not true.
To date, millions of people have watched nearly 70 hours of ‘Game of Thrones,’ including episodes where one character dies after eating a pie made from the flesh of his own children, and where another is stabbed in the eye, another is eaten alive by his own dogs, and another by rats and a young girl is burned alive. So, really, how upsetting can it be to watch four hours of two young men sitting in arm chairs calmly giving testimony? Very upsetting. Which is why everyone needs to watch it.