Sycamore Valley Ranch, once known as Michael Jackson’s “Neverland,” sold recently for 78 million less than originally listed in 2015, according to the Wall Street Journal. The length of time the ranch was listed, along with the extraordinary pay cut, was no surprise to anyone. This ranch, and the land beneath it, carries a classic warning about real estate investments: never purchase a haunted mansion. Billionaire investor Ron Burkle ignored this and purchased it anyway, perhaps with an intent to stave off the ghosts lurking behind the walls of the many structures, and described the investment as a, “land bank opportunity.” If we’ve learned anything from horror movies like Poltergeist, it’s that you can’t build over corrupt land. Neverland will continue to haunt us unless we make some collective changes.
In the documentary film Leaving Neverland, child stars James Safechuck and Wade Robeson recount the traumatic abuse they experienced at the hands of Michael Jackson at Neverland. In the documentary, dozens of other instances of child sexual abuse and molestation are hinted at, described, or fully recounted, shedding light on the decades-long question of whether Michael Jackson did or did not rape children.
I believe them for a number of reasons, one of which can be found in the one star comments section of the Amazon Prime Video where the documentary currently airs. A brief Google search also reveals many editorials and articles arguing the two are lying and simply out to get money from the Jackson estate. I believe these arguments are misguided and show a stark misunderstanding of sexual assault and it’s aftereffects.
The main reasons I believe Safechuck and Robson relate to clues embedded in the way in which they tell their stories. These clues can help friends and family members of sexual assault survivors understand the brutal position their assaults have placed them in. They can also serve as warning signs for parents concerned their children may be experiencing similar trauma.
One of the most chilling scenes in the documentary occurs when Safechuck reveals the ring Jackson gave him in order that the two may be “married.”
“We filled out some vows and it was like we were bonded forever,” Safechuck recounts. “It felt good. And the ring was nice. It has a row of diamonds with a gold band.”
While speaking, he holds the ring in his fingers, toying with it in a detached, almost clinical fashion. His eyes seem to lose focus, and his voice becomes breathy, as if the air around him has thinned. As I watched, something cold and metallic gripped the center of my chest, deep inside my sternum, the feeling ghost story fanatics and horror writers seek when describing those haunted mansions. While I’m a huge fan of such stories, the horror that gripped me when watching Safechuck’s story was so profound, I had to stop watching until my breathing returned to normal.
For many, the clinical detachment in both Robeson and Safechuck is further proof the two are lying. One Amazon reviewer comment suggests there’s, “no concrete way for abuse victims to act when telling their stories. Some have eractic (sic) emotions or more subtle emotions — but Wade & James have no emotions at all while saying all these graphic horrible things.”
Comments like this are an example of the privilege of not having been sexually abused or molested, especially as a child. Anyone who has either studied the phenomena of sexual assault or experienced it will understand the detachment that corresponds with retelling such a story, even if it’s been recounted dozens of times.
There are many psychologically recognized reasons for the cold, clinical detachment so many abuse survivors utilize when sharing traumatic episodes.
Time and memory perceptions can be negatively altered for abuse victims. The effects of trauma on time perception have been studied extensively and include case studies of victims recalling time as either “slowing down or speeding up” during the initial traumatic event. This strange initial perception of time creates even stranger memories and makes it difficult to recount stories of abuse. Though I am a big believer in how storytelling can help sexual assault victims and write about this in the article below, I also understand how deeply challenging it is to tell these stories.
How Storytelling Can Help Survivors of Sexual Assault
Our narratives ring louder than we know
We question ourselves because our sense of the original event is hazy and carries an unreal quality since it’s so ungrounded in time, whereas a clear understanding of time is something research has indicated as fundamental to our development of our sense of self. We are trapped in time, trapped in these past events we often can’t clearly recall, and this dramatically distorts our perceptions. This can also exacerbate the unbelievably difficult process of disclosing the abuse to others, something only 38% of child victims are reported as doing.
No wonder Robson initially defended Jackson, and we mustn’t blame him for doing so.
Childhood sexual abuse can obliterate a person’s own memories. The abusive experience takes such center stage that there is little room left for other memories as the abuse is reenacted over and over. Many people have trouble recalling childhood experiences, but for victims of childhood sexual abuse, it’s not just a lack of recall, it’s as if an actual void has replaced the experiences themselves. I was about thirteen when I recalled my earliest abuse memory at the age of seven. I lay in my bed, staring at the ceiling, repeating “this happened, this happened, this happened,” over and over and over. Patches of images surfaced, but the darkness replacing whole sections of memory so many victims describe was there for me, too.
You can see this darkness, this lack of clear recall, all over Safechuck’s and Robson’s stories.
Sexual abuse is a scythe that slices connections between past, present, and future.
Childhood sexual abuse causes intense dissociation. For decades, I had this bizarre ability to cut off all feeling below my waist, though didn’t realize this was an indication of dissociation. Myself and many other victims feel that their body isn’t theirs, that they can use it like a tool, and simultaneously watch this tool being used, as if from afar. When both Robeson and Safechuck describe their experiences with Michael Jackson, we can see the shadows of dissociation in their eyes and in the way they move their hands, as if through some kind of mist, when elaborating or articulating the particulars.
Living like this, in a constant fog where your perception of time is damaged and your memory is full of massive black holes that sometimes function as vacuums is devastating. To add the additional layer and trauma of thousands of people calling you a liar is a fate I cannot possibly imagine going through, and my heart goes out to both Robson and Safechuck for what they continue to endure in this regard.
This is why we must believe survivors. If we don’t, they will continue to silence themselves and question their faulty memories, and in so doing will continue to foster abuse.
Just because Michael Jackson has millions of fans across the globe doesn’t mean he didn’t molest children, and it doesn’t give anyone the right to silence those strong enough to speak out.
What we can do as friends, families, parents, and advocates for survivors is listen and understand the sometimes incoherent space survivors can inhabit, knowing that their stories may be muddled, confusing, and lost in time. Their stories are this way because their reality was formed this way. Most importantly, none of this was their fault.
No one ever asked for any of it.