“I didn’t protect my son. That will always, always haunt me.”
In the final few minutes of HBO’s devastating Leaving Neverland, the two-part, four-hour documentary about two men who say they were sexually abused as children by pop icon Michael Jackson, Stephanie Safechuck comes to this chilling conclusion about herself.
It is clear after watching Leaving Neverland that both Safechuck and Joy Robson feel enormous remorse and regret for letting their respective sons, James and Wade, spend so many nights alone with Jackson. But it’s also impossible to come away from this documentary without thinking, repeatedly: How could these mothers let their boys sleep in a bed with a grown man?
It’s a question that arises, in bold letters with an exclamation point after the question mark, while watching another recent documentary about child sexual abuse, Abducted in Plain Sight. The 2018 film about the kidnapping and abuse of Jan Broberg became a Netflix sensation earlier this year precisely because viewers were so befuddled by how Broberg’s parents enabled and turned a blind eye to what happened to their daughter. After watching that film, then experiencing Leaving Neverland, I was struck by the number of parallels between Bob Berchtold, the man who victimized Broberg in the ’70s, and Jackson. Both men worked from a similar template to groom their chosen children, keep them silent, and make sure their mothers and fathers would never suspect a thing.
At this point, I must state, for the record, that the Jackson family continues to deny all these allegations against Jackson, and that the Jackson estate is suing HBO for airing the documentary. For the purposes of this article, I am taking Robson and Safechuck at their word that they were abused; it’s difficult to watch Leaving Neverland and conclude otherwise. But it is worth noting that Jackson’s family or other representatives never get the opportunity in Leaving Neverland to respond to the allegations.
To be clear, there are certainly notable differences between the situations presented in these two projects. For one, Broberg’s mother, Mary Ann, expresses much less obvious anguish on-camera than her husband Bob or either of the mothers in Leaving Neverland, which makes it more challenging to sympathize with her. Abducted in Plain Sight also suggests that, even today, Mary Ann still hasn’t fully reckoned with her role in what happened to Jan. Then there’s the fact that both of the Brobergs had sexual relations of their own with Berchtold, which, in Mary Ann’s case, included an ongoing affair that transpired after Jan was kidnapped the first time. (That’s right: She was kidnapped twice by the same guy, who remained a family friend even after he snatched away the Brobergs’ daughter.) Alarm bells should have sounded loudly for all of the parents of these kids, but they were, in my view, more deafening in the Brobergs’ case.
That being said, it’s both fascinating and upsetting to trace the common denominators in the ways these men ingratiated themselves into the lives of their victims and their victims’ supposed protectors. Berchtold slowly built a sense of trust between himself and the Brobergs by making himself seem like one of the family. His wife and their kids spent time with the Brobergs in their Idaho hometown, and he was kind to and adored by their children. It no doubt helped that he and the Brobergs were respected members of the local Mormon church. The family’s faith in their new friend was informed by their personal faith and the belief that, given their shared religious values, he would never do anything inappropriate, certainly not with a child.
The Robsons and Safechucks were also misguided by their shared faith in a God. That God just happened to be Michael Jackson. James Safechuck was awestruck by Jackson after co-starring with him in a Pepsi commercial; Robson worshipped the singer, studiously mimicking his dance moves, dressing like him, and eventually perming his hair so it would more closely resemble Jackson’s slicked-back ’80s- and ’90s-era curls. Their mothers were also dazzled by the King of Pop and flattered that he wanted to spend so much time with them, be it in their own homes, while he was at Neverland Ranch, or on tour.
Whether we are willing to admit it or not, it’s easy to understand why these women felt this way because, in the ’80s, we all felt this way. Michael Jackson was so integral to our culture by that time that we — and I do mean we, as his appeal knew no boundaries based on age, race, gender, or sexual orientation — breathed him in like oxygen. As Wesley Morris said in a brutally honest review of Leaving Neverland, Jackson’s work was formative and still is. “Michael Jackson’s music isn’t a meal,” Morris wrote. “It’s more elemental than that. It’s the salt, pepper, olive oil, and butter. It’s how you start.”
Many of us first became acquainted with Jackson when we were kids ourselves and Jackson himself was still a boy, leading the Jackson Five and begging us in his endearing falsetto to “give me one more chance.” Or perhaps it began for us the way Robson’s fixation did, when we practiced those “Thriller” dance moves, over and over, until we could do it just like Michael did. As the documentary points out, Jackson was basically endorsed by society, including our presidents. If you were a kid in the 1980s and MJ had shown up at your front door, offering you his glitter-gloved hand, you would have taken it. Whether your parents would have let you set foot out of the house, hand in that glove with no other adult supervision, is another matter. Still: In a way, we were all groomed by Michael Jackson.
Unlike Berchtold, Jackson didn’t try to seduce Safechuck’s or Robson’s parents, at least not sexually. But he did appeal to the maternal instincts of their mothers, both of whom say he felt like a son to them. If Berchtold made the Brobergs blind to the nature of his feelings for Jan by demonstrating his sexual interest in grown-ups, Jackson did something similar by making Stephanie Safechuck and Joy Robson feel like he was a both a brother and father figure to their sons. The smokescreens are different, but the effect is basically the same.
By Jan’s own account, Berchtold made her feel special and loved to a degree that she has never been able to duplicate, even though, as an adult, she obviously understands that what he did to her was wrong. The way she speaks about him is echoed in the words of Robson and Safechuck. I lost count of how many times each of them said they loved Michael. They both also speak about how generous Jackson was, and how the sexual activity they engaged in with him didn’t feel dirty or wrong because Jackson had emphasized it was natural. “You and I were brought together by God,” Robson recalls his idol telling him. “We were meant to be together.”
The notion that such an inappropriate relationship was mandated by something supernatural is also an idea Berchtold sold to Jan Broberg, albeit via much more outlandish means. After drugging her and playing audio of what sounded like an alien dictating a series of commands, Berchtold was able to convince Jan that if she didn’t have sex with him and conceive a child by the age of 16, creatures from outer space would harm her family and possibly destroy the world. Children have an enormous capacity to believe in things that seem bigger than their reality, even fantastical things like grand destiny and E.Ts. But that gift, if used against them, also becomes a curse.
The other thing that Berchtold and Jackson have in common is they successfully scared their victims into silence. That alien myth brainwashed Jan into thinking she could not talk about what this much older man did to her without something horrendous happening. Berchtold used a more conventionally manipulative strategy with her parents, luring both into committing adultery and ensuring that he had something to hold over their heads should they ever decide to turn on him. Jackson engaged in a form of blackmail with his victims as well, telling them that if anyone ever found out about what they did in private that he, as well as they, might go to jail. Abusers don’t just abuse. They inflict a sense of fear and shame that makes it very difficult to even acknowledge, in the private spaces of one’s own mind, that the abuse actually occurred. It’s notable that Jan Broberg, James Safechuck, and Wade Robson all say they couldn’t process that they had been abused until years later. Broberg confronted her experiences when she started to consider romantic relationships with boys her own age; Safechuck and Robson say they didn’t truly reckon honestly with everything until they became fathers themselves, and began to understand their own responsibilities as guardians of a child’s safety.
Unlike the Brobergs, the mothers in Leaving Neverland talk about trying to set some boundaries between their sons and Jackson. Joy Robson remembers refusing to let Wade stay with Jackson for several months, although that request seems like the kind of bright red flag that should have made her think something about the situation was unhealthy. Instead, she later uprooted and broke apart half of her family so that she could move Wade and his sister from Australia to Los Angeles and be closer to Jackson.
Both mothers also recall asking their sons multiple times whether Jackson had ever inappropriately touched them, especially once Jackson was first publicly accused of such behavior in 1993. Both of the boys said no repeatedly, not only to their mothers but to law enforcement. (Also, in Robson’s case, the jury in Jackson’s 2005 criminal trial.)
These women believed their sons because they trusted them. But believing their denials also made it much easier for them to ignore their own culpability and failures as parents. The fact that the Brobergs never even asked Jan to explain what Berchtold had done to her, and took a doctor’s assessment that her hymen was still intact as the final answer on whether she had been raped, speaks to an even more extreme form of closing one’s eyes to the truth.
Leaving Neverland will no doubt spark an intense conversation about how we regard Michael Jackson and his legacy going forward. It already has. But if we learn anything from it or Abducted in Plain Sight, it should be to pay closer attention to behavior that comes right out of the pedophile playbook, because there is indeed a playbook. It’s also time to acknowledge that denial is a universal coping mechanism. There may be a spectrum when it comes to denial, but we’re all capable of it — and when it comes to Jackson, we all may have engaged it in ourselves. If we believe Robson and Safechuck’s allegations in Leaving Neverland are true, we’re all guilty of watching Michael Jackson, the man who sang “Have you seen my childhood?,” abducting the childhoods of young boys, in plain sight of all of us.