#LeavingNeverland: A Man and a Mirror
Trigger Warning: Mentions of Child Sexual Abuse
There are 7 myths about male sexual abuse (Source: 1in6.org).
Myth 1 – Boys can’t be sexually abused.
Myth 2 – It was his fault.
Myth 3 – Sexual Abuse is less harmful to males.
Myth 4 – Only Gay men sexually abuse.
Myth 5 – Being a male survivor means you’re gay.
Myth 6 – Males abused by females “got lucky”.
Myth 7 – Male survivors will abuse others.
Many of my guy friends believe in these. It’s part of why they can’t “cancel” Michael Jackson. Their reasoning is wedged neatly between what seems like a threat to their masculinity, and the absence of vulnerability. That flawed logic keeps men from fully developing the emotional intelligence necessary to unpack the trauma of abuse.
There was a time in my life when I couldn’t cancel MJ, either. It seems that over the years, through the ubiquity of the internet and the rise of call-out culture, our moral compass has led us down the path of broad overcorrection. This has been a detriment to the necessary analysis of many complex issues. We flail our thumbs leaving endless internet comments and retweets, but resolve nothing. It’s no surprise, then, that we keep finding ourselves in the same awkward spot between “crying wolf” and real threats (Kavanaugh, Weinstein, Spacey, Louis C.K., Cosby, R. Kelly, et al).
In fact, it felt as though the #MeToo wave had crested. The onslaught of the 24-hour news cycle had lulled us in a new direction. Then, Leaving Neverland dropped on HBO. My girlfriend and I were at home when we saw it come up in the queue. We stared at the description:
“This two-part documentary explores the separate but parallel experiences of two men who spent time with Michael Jackson when they were young.”
The documentary was 4 hours total, plus a bonus 1 hour special with Oprah.
Are we ready to watch this right now? We knew it would be heavy. So we gave ourselves a day to build up the courage. Understanding that once we started watching it, there would be no going back.
The film journeys through the child abuse allegations as told by James Safechuck and Wade Robson. It describes their experiences meeting Michael, how he used his celebrity in order to groom the boys and their families, and goes into gritty detail about their time at Neverland Ranch, while weaving their narrative into a methodical exposé. It challenges Jackson’s legacy, and thrusts the viewer into inconvenience by taking the sacred image of the pop star and bashing it against the wall.
Since the release of the documentary both the Jackson Estate as well as die hard fans have come out in defense of the now-deceased singer. They are indignant. They talk of respect, being exonerated in court, and not tarnishing Jackson’s name. In this moment we are all grappling with the paradox of abuse: can we love people even when they become monstrous? Is it possible to hold those two things up to the light to be inspected? The irony, of course, is how much those die-hard fans voicing their dissent, now, sound just like Wade Robson during his testimony on the witness stand in 1993 and 2005. Robson believed Michael to be god-like. He would do anything for him. He loved him. Then something changed. The film explores at depth the epiphany both Safechuck and Robson experienced: fatherhood.
The filmmaker, Dan Reed, insists the documentary is not really about Michael, but rather exists for the purpose of giving voice to the young men who represent an oft ignored segment of the population. Statistics show that at least 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused or assaulted. Experts say this is likely a low estimate. That means that we are extremely behind on developing the right frameworks and language in order to help children and other victims.
One out of six. Of the hours that my girlfriend and I spent watching the film, and googling the topic, that is the number that stands out to me the most. It means all of us likely know someone who has had this experience. It can happen anywhere. In fact, take away the fame, money, and Neverland in Los Angeles.
Let’s go to Pasco, Washington, inside the church of my youth, Faith Assembly. It’s a well-to-do pentecostal house of worship. In 2017, as part of a Net Nanny Operation targeting online child predators, the children’s pastor at Faith, John Scheline, was arrested and charged with attempted second-degree rape of a child. He plead guilty.
At his hearing John, 41, and the father of two, said:
“I tell my kids all the time that there are consequences to your actions. I’m here today to accept the consequences of my actions.”John Scheline
The judge corrected him. “Let’s not, when you’re supposed to be taking responsibility for your actions, recast it as something it’s not.”
I often wonder how many years Pastor Scheline managed to get away with this? Right underneath our noses. Studies show that as many as 93 percent of victims under the age of 18 know the abuser. John had unlimited access to kids, living in a town that was small enough yet big enough, and it took a Craigslist ad posted online to reveal it.
According to court documents and a pre-sentencing report, Scheline posted an ad on Craigslist identifying himself as a “fit hairy married dad” on June 13, 2017. He wrote that he was looking for a “young guy” for a sexual encounter.Source: Tri-City Herald
John was great with kids. He was charismatic, married, and had two children of his own. They are now the only children he’s allowed to be in contact with. He is currently serving a 58 month mandatory minimum sentence. The news rocked the local community, and despite the bombshell, the topic of child abuse remains shrouded in taboo.
Are documentaries like Leaving Neverland helping catapult the conversation forward? Or are we in arrested development, clinging to the beloved illusion of central figures in our lives? The numbers are absolutely staggering. Pasco, Washington, currently has a sex offender to resident ratio of 1,499 to 1. A recent report from Axios alleges that thousands of minors have been sexually abused in detention centers along the border. Latinx communities are extremely susceptible due to community pressure and stigma. Every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. Native Americans are at the highest risk.
It seems that we are in a time of reckoning, where the mirror of honesty is being pointed directly in our faces. We are all complicit. Will we continue to look away? Or face it, and make the necessary changes.
Asking for an 8 year old, somewhere in America.