HBO's controversial documentary Leaving Neverland has reignited the all too familiar debates when survivors speak out: Attacks on the accuser’s credibility, vehement denials, and in this particular case, the polarization of even the most tried and true Michael Jackson fans. Yes, here we are again even in light of the #MeToo movement.
Leaving Neverland details James Safechuck and famed choreographer Wade Robson’s alleged childhood sexual abuse by Michael Jackson, arguably one of the biggest cultural icons of our time. The film confronts viewers with what survivors have known all along: An abuser can be anyone. It’s not some creepy dude wearing a black cloak and the Scream mask lurking in the bushes. It can be friends. Family members. Neighbors. Police officers. Priests. Coaches. Beloved men and women, young and old. Or in the suggested case of Leaving Neverland, the nurturing, kind, prolific King of Pop himself. And that extreme duality is what makes it a lot harder for most of us to reconcile.
I grappled with this issue in my own life late last year. Instead of Michael Jackson, it was my dear friend Mason.*
Mason, my friend the metalhead, the football fan, son, and brother. We were 18 years old when we met. He was the new drummer of my then-sort-of boyfriend’s band. There was a sincerity and slight shyness about him that girls loved. While other guys our age were just learning how to be a gentleman, Mason held doors, picked up the tab, and never hesitated to give anyone a ride home—if you were willing to ride in his goofy hand-me-down minivan that is.
Sometimes he’d stop by my house after band practice for a quick smoke. We’d sit on the curb in my neighborhood cul-de-sac smoking cigarettes while I bored him with my neverending playlist of boy troubles. He was one of the first friends I got high with—because I felt safe getting high around him. I was a lightweight then much like I am now. “Why does my mouth feel so sticky?” I asked him once after smoking a bowl of weed. “You have cotton mouth,” he said, laughing. Later he became one of the first of my friends to get a grown-up job, even quitting smoking weed altogether in order to comply with his new employer’s drug testing policy. “Sell out!” we teased him.
Today Mason is an inmate and registered sex offender, serving a 17-year sentence in federal prison. When he is released, he will have to re-register as a sex offender every year, remain in court-ordered therapy, and be monitored for the rest of his life. And rightfully so, for the safety of everyone. He makes no bones about the morality or consequences of what he did because that’s Mason—or at least the Mason I grapple with knowing now.
I knew him to be a good guy, a kind and gentle soul, and a dear friend. But now I must also know him as a sex offender, a man who committed monstrous deeds. He carries so much light yet also harbors so much darkness. How can both things be true? And why? Since when? These questions have weighed heavily on my heart since I found out about his incarceration. It’s where my mind wanders when the world is quiet. It’s behind the tears that sneak up on me when a letter from him arrives and I see the return address.
I knew him. Didn’t I? I knew how his mind worked—that is until it “broke.” (His words, not mine.) Common sense tells us that a man with a self-proclaimed broken mind cannot be trusted. Common sense tells us that a 7-year-old boy should never be allowed to sleep in a grown man’s bed, even if he is the biggest global superstar of our lifetime. But I trusted Mason, even though I have trusted so few in my life.
Not surprisingly, learning of a loved one’s dark shadows and grappling with two conflicting truths can feel akin to betrayal, according to therapist and grief specialist Janie McGlasson LMFT. “In grief from betrayal, we’ll go back through interactions, stories we know about their families, their dating history, etc., to try to create a narrative of how a person we care for could have had such a tumultuous undercurrent without us knowing,” McGlasson tells Broadly.
And I did just that when I first heard the news about Mason. I tried to recall every interaction, every text message, every phone call. I replayed countless conversations in my head, scouring my now-fragmented memories from the past decade for clues or red flags that he had been this stranger all along and not the good friend I had known for more than ten years. But my efforts yielded nothing. I couldn’t recall a single memory that could be even remotely interpreted as an early warning. Nor did I feel like he had pulled the wool over my eyes and befriended me under the guise of being the kind of guy who led his life from a good place day in and day out. That left me with two conflicting truths about the same person, both of equal weight and validity.
“The memories that you had with that person—the good times, the connecting conversations, the thoughtful moments – those still happened,” McGlasson says.
My challenge then is parsing through the mindfuck that is two sides of the same person and figuring out how to move forward with or without them. In regards to Michael Jackson, is it possible to remove the art from the man? Can we continue to love someone who has been accused of hurting others? The answer is clear for some and murky for others.
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey following the airing of Leaving Neverland on HBO, Robson says, “Life is not this or that. It’s this, that, and the other at the same time.”
I believe “this or that” is the binary system in which most of us navigate the world. It allows us to make sense of this complicated thing called life. Love or hate. Guilty or innocent. Man or monster. And up until now, the public discourse surrounding sexual abuse allegations has followed that same framework. Some side with the accused rather than the accuser, refusing to believe that someone so revered in our communities can also be capable of hurting anyone or committing such heinous acts.
But as Leaving Neverland shows us, our culture is struggling to shift toward one that believes and embraces survivors for coming forward. We are entering a new reality, one where this, that, and the other is slowly being set aside to prioritize sexual assault survivors.
*Mason is not his real name.