Leaving Neverland Is Not An Indictment; It Is a Plea For Safety

For almost three decades (if not more), millions of people watched Michael Jackson perform, on stage, in video. They also saw him alight from planes, from cars, and from there, walk into hotels and stadiums, living the life of a peripatetic, performing celebrity. On almost all of these occasions he was accompanied by his ‘sexual partners.’ Those scare quotes are necessary because unlike the typical male celebrity who flaunts his ‘trophy chicks,’ Michael Jackson showed off his young boys. They went everywhere with him like the girlfriends of male celebrities do; they were present in his hotel rooms; they slept in his bed at his ranch. They had privacy together; and they had sex. Of course, I should not use the phrase ‘had sex’ here. Rather, those boys were made to perform sexual acts at the behest of Michael Jackson who then swore them to secrecy on pain of the fear that their lives would be ruined.

Watching Leaving Neverland confirms, in some measure, what many folks thought of all those exceedingly strange visuals of Michael Jackson’s curious obsession with children. Yes, something really, really weird was going on. We weren’t mistaken. And it wasn’t just weird. It was downright sadistic and cruel: a grown man sexually abusing children, and manipulating them and their families to ensure their secret stayed just that.

The culture of celebrity worship that is exposed in this movie is as much a culprit as Jackson, as much a culprit as the parents of Wade Robson and James Safechuck who handed over their children to Jackson. So is a grim lesson of American life: hard work will not make you money, it will not get your children in school, it will not keep you safe, it will not bring you success in your profession; so if someone rich and famous and powerful–like Michael Jackson–offers you a hand, offering to pull you up the ladder, past all those social and economic obstacles that prevent you from winning in this rigged game, you should take it. Robson’s and Safechuck’s parents did; their children paid for their decision.

Leaving Neverland is not about indicting Michael Jackson. He will not pay for his crimes; he is dead. What it most certainly is about is making the world safer for all the children out there who are still being sexually abused and who will almost certainly be abused if the lessons of this documentary are not heeded. The saddest thing about Leaving Neverland is not just the stories of sexual abuse that it documents, it is also the knowledge that despite these testimonies, there will be those who will continue to attack Robson and Safechuck and defend Jackson, making the world a less safe for all of its children. Those Michael Jackson supporters who have continued to support their idol and have chosen to abuse Robson and Safechuck, have missed the point spectacularly–just like they missed the evidence piling up over the years. There is no material sense in which Jackson will pay. Perhaps his estate and all those who stand to make money of his name will. Maybe that’s why they continue to defend him?

Why It’s Okay To Mourn, To Cry For, The Passing Of Strangers

Many silly things are written when celebrities die. One is that you cannot speak ill of the dead. Another is that you cannot mourn for those whom you did not know personally. A variant of this is that visible expressions of grief for those you did not have personal acquaintance with are ersatz, inauthentic, a kind of posturing.

The folks who make the former claim are simply clueless about the nature of the public life. The latter are clueless about how emotion works, about the nature and importance of symbolism and its role in our memories, and thus our constructed self.

Consider for instance that I tear up on the following occasions:

  1. Watching this musically mashed-up tribute to Carl Sagan;
  2. Watching a Saturn V rocket lift-off (or reading about the death of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee while testing Apollo 1);
  3. Watching fighter jets at an airshow, or indeed, even listening to the roar of a fighter jet’s afterburners as they are lit.

I did not know Carl Sagan personally. I did not know any of the astronauts on the Gemini and Apollo programs. I did not know Grissom, White, or Chaffee personally. I do not know any of the pilots who perform at airshows or whom I have seen taking off on many occasions. Indeed, one might ask, why tear up when watching or listening to any of these things? Man up! Be authentic! Stick to the known and the personal.

Sorry, no can do. Carl Sagan was an important influence on my education and philosophical and intellectual orientation as a child; to watch that little mash-up of Cosmos is to remember my childhood, one spent with my parents, watching Cosmos on Sundays at home. And my father was a pilot who flew fighter jets; I watched the Apollo 11 documentary with him as a child. My parents are no more. Need I say more about why I tear up when I undergo the audio-visual experiences listed above? Planes, rockets, astronauts, men with crew-cuts, memories of the moonrise. How could I not?

The emotions we feel are wrapped up in the deepest recesses of our selves; they reflect memories accumulated over a lifetime, traces of experiences, formative and supposedly insignificant alike. This is why, of course, when we listen to music, we can conjure up, seemingly effortlessly, a mood, an atmosphere, a remembrance, a time long gone. Music is perhaps the Proustian Madeleine par excellence. We listen to music when we read, write, walk, run, make love, work out, play, talk to our friends–the list goes on. We grow up with music; it becomes associated with our lives and its distinct stages. We listen to some songs again and again; they become almost definitive of a particular self of ours.

So when a musician dies, one whose music we have listened to on countless occasions, it is natural to feel bereft; we have lost part of ourselves.

To ask that we confine our expressions of sympathy and sorrow to only those we know personally is indeed, not just ignorant, but also morally dangerous; it bids us narrow our circle of concern. No thanks; I’d rather feel more, not less.

Meeting The Children (And Grandchildren) Of ‘Celebrities’

Have I told you about the time I met Richard Wright‘s grandson at an academic conference? A few seconds after we had begun conversing, I blurted out, “Your grandfather changed my life, my perception of this world; I saw and understood myself differently once I had read Native Son.” My interlocutor thanked me politely; he smiled; we talked a bit more about his project to make a documentary on whale hunting, and the pressing need to conserve those majestic leviathans of the deep. As our little meeting concluded, I half-jokingly offered my services as a volunteer assistant for his project. He promised to stay in touch.

Then there was the time when, strolling down a brownstone-lined street in Brooklyn on my way to my gym, I passed, for the umpteenth time, a man strumming on his stoop–on one occasion, a mandolin, on another, a ukulele, and of course, a guitar. Finally, one day, I stopped and struck up a conversation. A few minutes later, I had been informed the gentleman I was speaking bore the last name Westmoreland. When I asked, ‘That Westmoreland?,” back came the answer: ‘Yup.’ I was talking to the son of William Westmoreland, the man who conducted the Vietnam War for many gory and increasingly pointless years. But, as his son assured me, the last word on that sorry business has not been written yet; perhaps some vindication might yet make its way to his father.

And then, of course, my daughter goes to daycare with Amartya Sen‘s grandson; his mother, Sen’s daughter, is a friend of ours. We do the things that parents of children who are friends with each other do: playdates, birthday parties, impromptu dinners. Sometimes I hear that the great economist himself stopped over at her place for a quick visit, on his way, perhaps, to another keynote address or to receive another award. (Someday, I hope to run into him and press copies of my cricket books into his hands; I’ve heard he is a fan of the game and might be tempted to check these. I hold little hope that he would be interested in my academic writings.)

Encounters with the children of celebrities are a curious business. You make indirect contact with ‘fame,’ with ‘achievement,’ with ‘success’; you sense, dimly, a glimpse of the distinctive life that they live (or lived.) You feel, as an undercurrent running through your encounters, a brush with ‘history.’ If you are so inclined, you might grasp at these insubstantial offerings, and revel in them. Celebrity spotting of any kind, even with a twist like the one noted here, is always great party-conversation fodder. But you also come to realize a simple fact about the human condition, about the gulf that separates us from other individuals. These folks, your ‘friends’ of a kind, are gloriously distinct and separable from their celebrity ancestors; they live their own lives; they are their own persons. Talk with them all you want: you won’t get an autograph; the fame they might have  known intimately won’t rub off on you.