What Kind of Mother
So these mothers were star-struck, and giddy that a superstar celebrity like Jackson would lavish so much attention and gifts on them, and they were jealous of each other, seeing their "rivals" as "gold-diggers". The price for all this was access to their children. He managed to survive two major sexual abuse scandals without getting convicted (in the first case, it never even went to trial). The mother in that case contradicted the testimony of her son.As Dan Reed’s HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland, caused me to revisit the allegations against Michael Jackson as they were covered at the time, I was unnerved, most of all, by the mothers. There was a signal lack of fellow feeling among the families who came forward alleging abuse; the Michael Jackson machine (which included staff, handlers, lawyers, as well as the singer himself) seems to have excelled at making not just the children but their parents see each other as rivals for the King of Pop’s (fickle, inconstant) favor. Many a family seems to have accordingly relaxed the ordinary standard of parental vigilance in order to give their kids a competitive edge: He wanted access, and granting it improved their children’s chances at becoming Jackson’s favorite.
One result, years later, has been a lack of common cause in their common trauma. The rivalry appears to have been most acute among the mothers, some of whom have a history of testifying against each other, and two of whom will come under fresh scrutiny because of their participation in the documentary. For Joy Robson and Stephanie Safechuck, mothers of alleged victims Wade and James, this appearance serves as a kind of act of atonement, a bid for forgiveness, and—thanks to a poor choice Reed made in structuring his documentary—a further complication of this already complicated case.
Both these mothers have a history of testifying for Jackson and against other families who made allegations similar to the ones their own sons are making now. Of one mother, Joy Robson said, “I thought she wanted to be mistress of Neverland, and that she was trying to use Michael. I thought she was a gold digger.”
That testimony cost Joy something: On the stand, she admitted that she considered Jackson family, that he’d loaned her money, that he’d bought her a car, and that he’d helped her emigrate from Australia. “The suggestion [by the prosecution] is that there was some sort of quid pro quo,” Slate’s Seth Stevenson wrote then. “Or, more bluntly: She was pimping out her son.” Joy admitted—while insisting that this was all normal and fine—that Jackson sometimes called her in the middle of the night asking her to bring her small son to him. Little Wade Robson once arrived at Neverland at 1:30 a.m. and went straight to bed with Jackson.
That was a tricky tightrope to walk—attacking some mothers for being gold diggers while benefiting financially from the association with Jackson—but Joy Robson risked it, and so, in her way, did Stephanie Safechuck. What those trials revealed, perhaps unintentionally, was how difficult it would be to hold Jackson accountable in an environment where, to quote Stevenson again, “moms jockey for status at Neverland” by creatively managing their assets—typically, their sons.
That’s exactly the kind of grim and exploitative dynamic a documentary like Leaving Neverland—which covers the alleged abuse of two Jackson protégés, Wade Robson and James Safechuck—has to handle with extraordinary care. To exonerate these mothers from criminal pandering requires clarifying the extent to which the star groomed them as well, and so, unenviably, Joy Robson and Stephanie Safechuck are charged with persuading us of their own negligence and stupidity. It’s an unpleasant position, and it feels like even appearing in the documentary amounts to an act of atonement for each mother: “I fucked up. I failed to protect him,” Stephanie says at one point. The sons agree: “Every night that I was with him, there was abuse while my mother was—you know—next door,” Wade Robson says. The shattering lack of solidarity wasn’t limited to family units jockeying for social position, in other words; the rifts include deep resentments between the children and their parents.
I’ll be blunt: The mothers are in a fragile position in this documentary. And to me, the most incomprehensible aspect of Leaving Neverland is the starry-eyed wonder with which the mothers of the two alleged victims describe their early experiences with the star. In the first half of the documentary, their faces shine as they talk about what Jackson did for their children and for them: the letters, the faxes, the phone calls, the hotel suites, the rented cars, the splendor of Neverland. “I remember getting this glow that sort of started in my heart and went to all my extremities,” Joy says. “It was an amazing feeling, when something magical was going to happen.” Stephanie describes Jackson’s friendship with her son as the answer to a prayer. The mothers seem giddy, too, when they talk about what Jackson apparently needed from them: a sense of belonging, of home, of family. It’s said that the way to earn a person’s favor is to get them to do you one; Jackson may have been a master of this technique, acting like he desperately needed mothering while psychologically isolating his victims from their moms. Still, the cynic in me wondered how these women were able to conjure such pure, uncomplicatedly positive memories of a man who destroyed their sons’ childhoods. How could their nostalgia for those early years with Jackson still seem somehow untainted?