×
Home Culture Culture Features

‘Leaving Neverland’ Asks an Uncomfortable Question: How Culpable Are the Parents?

How much blame should the parents of Leaving Neverland accusers Wade Robson and James Safechuck get for enabling the alleged abuse?

leaving neverland abducted in plain sight

HBO, Top Knot Films

Warning: This piece contains spoilers for Netflix’s Abducted in Plain Sight and HBO’s Leaving Neverland.

****

There’s a moment toward the end of Abducted in Plain Sight, the Netflix documentary about the repeated abduction and rape of the then-12-year-old Jan Broberg, when Bob Broberg, Jan’s father, explains how his family managed to cope with the trauma. “I think we did a few things right among the mistakes,” he says. “We loved Jan, and that made all the difference.”

The moment has a darkly comic feel to it, because if you know anything about Abducted In Plain Sight, you know that the Broberg family made a lot of mistakes: not only did they fail to notice the warning signs of Bob Berchtold’s developing an obsession with Jan, but they let him sleep in her bed and travel with him alone, even after he abducted her for the first time. Indeed, one of the film’s most astonishing revelations is that the Brobergs were so deeply in Berchtolt’s thrall that they both separately began sexual affairs with him, which he would later use as leverage to gain access to Jan. 

But the willful ignorance and naivete of the Brobergs pales into comparison to that of Joy Robson and Stephanie Safechuck, the two mothers whose sons, Wade and Jimmy, recount their alleged sexual abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson in the two-part documentary Leaving Neverland. In the first half of the series, Reed documents in painstaking detail how Jackson earned the parents’ trust, lavishing them with gifts, first-class plane tickets and even a house, in order to gain access to their young sons.

Like the Brobergs, Joy and Stephanie are portrayed as hopelessly credulous, ignoring red flag after red flag in order to keep benefiting from the spoils of Jackson’s wealth and fame. Throughout the course of the film, they recount increasingly egregious acts of parental negligence, decisions that would be unthinkable to most parents in any context. At one point, Wade recounts how the Robsons left him at Neverland Ranch with Jackson for five days while they went camping in the Grand Canyon; Wade was 7 years old at the time, and had just met Jackson. “I fucked up, I failed to protect him,” Stephanie flatly states, and it’s difficult for the viewer to not shout back, “Yeah, no fucking kidding.” 

In our hyper-moralizing culture, it is easy for us to deliver verdicts on other parents’ actions, to play armchair pundit and point the finger at Robson and Safechuck for delivering their children straight into the hands of a predator. It is easy to view them as stupid at best and, at worst, as cynical opportunists pimping out their sons in exchange for access to wealth and fame. And though we can never know the truth about what goes on inside someone’s heart, the film does present arguments for both of these interpretations, skewing more toward the former than the latter. 

Some have interpreted Leaving Neverland and Abducted thusly, arguing that the parents of Jackson’s victims are just as culpable as Jackson in perpetuating the abuse. And to a degree, Robson and Safechuck seem to share that view: as Safechuck says, he has never fully forgiven his mother for allowing the abuse to continue. “Forgiveness is not a line you cross, it’s a road you take,” he said at the Sundance Festival earlier this year.

Yet Leaving Neverland and Abducted can be seen less indictments of bad parenting than as a condemnation of the cultural mechanisms that allow the individual power of personality to go unchecked. Even though Jackson was a pop superstar hailed as a musical genius, and Berchtold a small-town salesman and Mormon dad of five, both were, by all accounts, men who knew exactly how to wield their charisma as a weapon; both were highly skilled at disarming and seducing adults (in Berchtold’s case, literally) in order to gain access to their children. “We gave a performer carte blanche to live however he wanted because the music was more important to us than the reports of what might’ve been going on behind the scenes,” Craig Jenkins wrote in Vulture. “No one deserves that much power.”

This power is not limited to mega-celebrities like Jackson; it is shared by all serial abusers, who are allowed to let their horrific acts go unnoticed simply because there is something about them — be it wealth, money, good looks, or just plain likability — that is compelling enough to escape even the most responsible and sober-minded adult’s attention. 

The process of grooming a child for abuse is often just as much about grooming the adult to create the space for that abuse to occur, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in Neverland and Abducted. Just as Bob Berchtold zeroed in on the Brobergs’ cheerful naïvete and sexual innocence to prey on their daughter, Jackson apparently was sophisticated enough as a predator to spot a certain wide-eyed, starstruck quality in Joy Robson and Stephanie Safechuck, one that he (correctly) suspected would become even more pronounced with increasing proximity to wealth and fame. We can say all we want that, because Robson and Safechuck were the parents, they should’ve known better, but parenthood in itself does not make you smarter and more emotionally sophisticated; it does not automatically equip you with the skills and mental acuity necessary to insulate yourself and your family from danger. Yes, parents should know better, but as anyone who has ever been raised by an absent or unstable parent can attest, that is not always the case.

Further, Leaving Neverland does not make the case that the Safechucks and Robsons simply dropped their children at Michael Jackson’s doorstep and allowed him to do whatever he wanted with them. With both families, Jackson made a concerted effort to prove that he wasn’t a threat before actually becoming one. With the Safechucks, who did not initially allow their son to sleep in Jackson’s bed, Jackson did not make any advances until they had allowed their son to go on tour with him; in the same vein, the Robsons did not allow Wade to sleep alone with Jackson until after he had had a sleepover with his sister Chantal. Although Jackson’s defenders have long argued that he was simply too guileless and childlike to know that his behavior with children would be seen as inappropriate, Leaving Neverland makes an extremely powerful argument that this was not the case; he knew exactly what he was doing, and he spent years perfecting his methodology to be able to do it well. 

One of the most disturbing aspects of Leaving Neverland is how Reed makes child abuse seem like the slipperiest of slopes, with each seemingly innocuous decision the parents make (allowing Jackson to come over for supervised visits, for instance, accepting first-class tickets to visit him on tour, writing off his cultural fascination with young boys as mere celebrity idiosyncrasy) giving way to a more questionable and ultimately dangerous ones (allowing Jackson to sleep in the same bed). Initially, the parental permissiveness seems totally justifiable, even envy-inducing: of course you would let your child go backstage to meet the biggest pop star in the world; of course you would accept his offer to turn your aspiring-dancer son into a star.

To hear Stephanie and Joy describe those early days of Jackson’s grooming — as a “fairy tale” as a “dream come true” — it’s easy for the audience to get caught up in how the Robson and Safechucks must have felt at the time they befriended Jackson: like they hit the jackpot. So why would they start questioning the motives of this extremely famous, lonely, childlike and apparently guileless man? Why not just accept this as a stroke of good fortune, a respite from the dreariness and the chaos of parenthood, and just take everything as it comes?

As a parent myself, after I watched the first part of Leaving Neverland, I started to wonder, under what circumstances would I have made the same decisions that the Safechucks and Robsons did? What if there had been a chaperone in the bedroom during sleepovers? What if the celebrity in question had been a goofy, non-threatening everyman, like a Tom Hanks or Chris Pratt type, and not one of the most famous, Elephant Man-skeleton-owning weirdos in the world? As I started asking myself these questions and attempting to justify their decisions to myself, I realized the truth: under the right circumstances, any parent would have made the same choices these parents did, because few of us are truly impervious to the lure of money and celebrity and ease and the fairy-tale allure of a mysterious stranger showing up to make your problems go away.

It is easy to judge the Robsons and the Safechucks and the Brobergs, but then again, it is easy to judge any parent to whom a horror or tragedy has befallen; otherwise, our brains simply can’t make sense of it, can’t comprehend the breadth of the injustices of the universe. Otherwise, we could stumble upon the truth: that it could just as easily happen to our children, too.

So better not to judge the parents for the mistakes they made. Better to take a lesson from the children, who in both films demonstrate a tremendous capacity for empathy. Jan Bromberg has spoken openly about how the love of her parents helped her recover from years of sexual abuse, referring to them as fellow victims of Berchtold’s manipulation; while Robson and Safechuck do not handle their mothers as gently  — “every night that I was with him, there was abuse while my mother was — you know — next door,” Robson says at one point — their understanding of their parents’ actions far outweighs their resentment. 

At the end of the day, the Robsons and Safechucks must live with the knowledge that they led their children directly into the lion’s den — and that, arguably, is more of a punishment itself than any of the allegations that they directly invited the abuse or profited off it. More than 25 years after the alleged abuse, they can take some small comfort in knowing that they are protecting them now, simply by appearing in the documentary and atoning for their sins in full view. In that sense, just being there may be one of the few right things among the mistakes.

Newswire

Powered by