On Monday night, as soon as HBO finished airing “Leaving Neverland” — the two-part documentary in which two men detailed allegations of childhood sexual abuse by Michael Jackson — the network continued its Jackson coverage. This time, it was anchored by Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey, in conjunction with her network OWN, hosted the hour-long special “Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland,” in which she interviewed the two men — Wade Robson and James Safechuck — and director Dan Reed.
The studio audience was made up of sexual abuse survivors, as well as their supporters and family members. Winfrey, who revealed on her talk show decades ago that she was sexually abused when she was young, said Reed’s documentary did an excellent job of illustrating what she had always tried to explain — child sexual abuse is also about seduction.
“I know people all over the world are going to be in an uproar and debating whether or not Michael Jackson did these things and whether these two men are lying or not lying. But for me, this moment transcends Michael Jackson,” Winfrey said. “It is much bigger than any one person. This is a moment in time that allows us to see this societal corruption. It’s like a scourge on humanity. . . . If it gets you, our audience, to see how it happens, then some good would have come of it.”
Winfrey said Jackson’s estate has vehemently denied the accusations and called both Robson and Safechuck liars. Jackson fans have been vicious, as Winfrey received backlash before the interview. But she didn’t really seem to care — the topic was too important. Here were three of the main takeaways from the hour:
A child’s understanding of ‘abuse’
Winfrey started by discussing how the word “abuse” lacks accuracy, and children often can’t articulate abuse to their parents because they literally don’t have the language to explain what happened, as they have been “seduced and entrapped.”
“As young boys, these two men did not feel abuse until much later on in life,” Winfrey explained, and turned to Robson, who denied experiencing abuse during testimony in a 1993 child sexual abuse case against Jackson that was later settled. “Were you thinking about it as abuse then? Did you know you were being abused, and you were just defending Michael?”
Robson responded that both times he testified (he made the same claims in Jackson’s 2005 molestation trial), he had “no understanding that what Michael did to me sexually was abuse. I had no concept of it being that.”
“From night one of the abuse, of the sexual stuff that Michael did to me, he told me it was love,” Robson said. “He told me that he loved me and God brought us together. … Anything Michael would say to me was gospel.”
Safechuck echoed a similar experience and said there was “a lot of panic” in talking about Jackson: “Michael drilled in you, ‘If you’re caught, we’re caught, your life is over, my life is over.’ It’s repeated over and over again, it’s drilled into your nervous system,” he said. “It takes a lot of work to sort through that.”
When Winfrey asked Robson about his testimony, he reiterated: “I didn’t think about it, as far as that concept. . . . I couldn’t even go there, I couldn’t even question Michael. If I was to question Michael and my story with Michael, my life with Michael, it would mean I would have to question everything in my life. It wasn’t even an option to think about it.”
Robson said he first started to think about the behavior being abuse when he had a son of his own and began to learn about how children think. Safechuck said his process started when Robson first spoke out, and he realized he wasn’t alone.
The Jackson estate response
Winfrey read the scathing statement that Jackson’s family released when the documentary premiered at Sundance this year. It called the film “a public lynching” and read in part, “We are furious that the media, who without a shred of proof or single piece of physical evidence, chose to believe the word of two admitted liars over the word of hundreds of families and friends around the world who spent time with Michael, many at Neverland, and experienced his legendary kindness and global generosity.”
“You know the Jackson family disagrees with everything that is being said here today,” Winfrey said, and asked Reed about a criticism from the estate: Why didn’t he interview anyone in the Jackson family?
“This is a film that’s not about Jackson. It’s about what happened to Wade and James,” Reed said, adding that no one in the Jackson family “disputes” that Jackson spent many nights with young boys. “What’s the journalistic value of interviewing someone who says, ‘Well, Michael’s a really nice guy, he would never do anything to a child’? Especially when they have a financial, vested interest in smearing and discrediting these men."
When Winfrey pointed out the family believes that Jackson (whose brand is worth around $2 billion) is the one being smeared, Reed emphasized that neither Robson nor Safechuck has any financial interest in the “Leaving Neverland” documentary. Winfrey asked why Robson sued the Jackson estate five years ago if he wasn’t looking for compensation. (Both Robson and Safechuck have lawsuits against the estate that were dismissed but are under appeal.)
Robson said about nine months into his healing process, he started wondering, “With this horrible thing that happened to me, what could I do that could maybe turn it into something good?” He thought a lawsuit would be the best way to get the attention of the estate. Plus, he wanted to go back to court.
“Michael trained me and forced me to tell the lie for so many years, particularly on the stand, really traumatizing experiences for me that had a huge impact on the rest of my life,” he said, adding he wanted the opportunity to “reprocess” those memories. “I wanted to get on the stand again, because now I’m able to tell the truth.”
Winfrey was well-aware of all the hate that she would get from Jackson fans for the interview, not to mention the response that Robson and Safechuck would receive.
“So when all the fans and the estate, and all the anger — you guys gonna get it, you know that, right? Y’all gonna get it, I’m gonna get it, we’re all gonna get it,” she said, smiling, as the audience applauded. “We’re gonna get it. So are you prepared for that?”
While Winfrey appeared not to mind potential backlash, both men shook their heads. “I mean, it’s been happening for a while. I just received another death threat last night, you know. There’s been many of those over the years,” Robson said. “It’s hard to normalize to that, but there’s some level of familiarity with that.”
Winfrey asked whether they have forgiven Jackson, their families and even themselves. Safechuck confessed that he still feels guilt, even now, as if he somehow let Jackson down. “That shadow is still there. It’s still there. It just creeps out,” he said.
They’re both working on forgiving their families. Safechuck said he struggles with forgiving himself. After thinking about it, Robson said he has forgiven himself, which set out another round of applause from the audience.
In the end, Winfrey brought the conversation full circle to the broader topic of child sexual abuse. “The story is bigger than, as I said in the beginning, it’s bigger than any one person. And don’t let any person in your world make it just about what Michael Jackson did or did not do,” she said. “It’s about this thing, this insidious pattern that’s happening in our culture that we refuse to look at.”