I wanted to write and post this before Leaving Neverland premiered at Sundance last Friday. After all, I had a close relationship with Michael Jackson growing up and nothing of what he continues to be accused of has ever happened to me. I decided to wait because I was curious to see if the film would get any wings considering Wade Robson’s volatile and unsuccessful claims against Michael Jackson in the past. Sure, let him tell his story again. Truth and justice will prevail as they have. Soon after it premiered, I quickly Googled “leaving neverland” to discover news articles stating that the four-hour documentary received a standing ovation. In disbelief, I searched the hashtag on Instagram to see Story footage from the theater and there they were — Wade Robson, James Safechuck and the film’s director Dan Reed — on stage in front of an applauding audience at their feet. I’m not sure if the audience was doing so because they were perceived as survivors making a public appearance, or if the film was actually good in their eyes, or both; but all I could think about was that their strategy, unfortunately, worked.
Raising awareness about child abuse and providing a safe community for others to speak their truth is vital, but using Michael Jackson as a vehicle to do so is simply wrong. In order for any story to be valid, there has to be an element of trust and I do not trust the people associated with this film. Let’s be clear: Michael Jackson showed up. He faced public interviews, he answered difficult-to-stomach questions, he agreed to interrogative documentaries, he withstood a 10-year FBI investigation, and he appeared in an eighteen-month criminal trial until he was acquitted having been found not guilty on all fourteen child molestation and abuse-related accounts. The fact that twelve years of criminal investigations and government legal proceedings can be completely overruled by the media due to a manipulation of the same stories once told before by a select few, especially by those who were initially on the defense, is deeply concerning. Maybe even horrifying.
I haven’t seen the documentary, but it “focuses on two men… who allege they were sexually abused by the pop star Michael Jackson as children” (Wikipedia). Everyone is entitled to his/her/their story and I believe that each story should be told in truth to the best of his/her/their ability, but my issue with Leaving Neverland is the heavy reliance on one side, especially when that one side is comprised of only two people. On top of it all, those two people happen to know each other. So what we have is a product comprised of two acquaintances’ stories who were in Michael’s life as boys that has been glorified in a 236-minute documentary. Remember that the film would mark Robson’s second attempt to tell his story. He told the same, truncated version of his story publicly in 2013 and simultaneously filed suit against the Michael Jackson Estate, which the court later dismissed. This was eight years after he testified twice under oath explicitly stating that Michael did nothing wrong during a criminal trial in which the jury delivered a verdict of not guilty. It’s clear that this film’s intention is to position Michael as a child predator, but I find that the entire Leaving Neverland saga is really, in turn, a predation on a man of power and wealth now almost 10 years dead and thereby defenseless.
I was part of Michael’s life from the day I was born in 1987 until 2001. The last time I was literally close to him was backstage at the Staples Center when his casket wheeled past me. I knew him well because my mother, Janet Zeitoun, his sole hairstylist during the time, knew him even better. One could say that they might as well have been siblings. In fact, my mother was one of the few non-family members invited to the private memorial service at the cemetery hours before the public one in Downtown LA. Michael felt so comfortable with my mother because she made him laugh unlike anyone else, let alone the fact that she’s incredible at her craft. Michael even said in writing that she’s the “Michelangelo of hair.”
From the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, my mother has been around the globe with Michael. She’s been by his side doing his hair on sets, in dressing rooms, backstage at his concerts, at his home, on planes, in hotel rooms, in cars, and yes, even at Neverland. When my mom was pregnant with me in ‘86, Michael told her that she’d be having a boy; and on the day of my birth, Michael sent a limo to our home filled with gifts. And from then on, my single, hard-working mother who wanted to spend as much time with me as she could often brought me to work with her. So I grew up on the sets of Michael’s music videos, I played with my toys on the floor of his dressing rooms, and he sometimes came over to our house to get his hair done. As I got a bit older and could walk on my own two feet, I became the boy responsible for making sure Michael got candy in between some of his concert rehearsal sets. Michael would make everyone stop and patiently wait for me to wobble my way on stage to him. I even remember singing “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” to him in his trailer (so embarrassing!) but he gave me his undivided attention and smiled. I went to Neverland, several times of which Michael was there and he gave us the full tour of his home. I remember my favorite golf cart to get around had a Peter Pan emblem on it. I remember his movie theater concession stand being filled with candy that you could go behind the counter and take to watch whatever movie you wanted. I remember riding the big steam engine train that would take you from one end of the ranch to the other. I remember a big pot-bellied pig named Petunia and that I could name a newborn deer and rabbit. I chose Cuddie and Thumper, respectively; original, I know, but Michael loved the names.
Unlike Robson or Safechuck, I wasn’t in the public eye with Michael. The only sort of public thing that happened was him publishing a photo of us in the centerfold of his 1995 tour book. Fourteen years later, the caretaker of his children recognized me backstage at the Staples Center during his memorial service and told me that the photograph was one of Michael’s favorites, and at the time in 2009 was still framed on his grand piano in Neverland.
I remember leaving Neverland a happy kid who couldn’t wait to go back. I remember telling my mom that I wanted to have another birthday party there or that I wanted to hang out with Michael again at the ranch. The bulk of my experience with Michael was during the 90s right when the FBI investigation began on account of child molestation allegations. Knowing that this was happening and that these charges were set against him, I don’t think my protective and well-aware mother would’ve allowed me to continue hanging around Michael or head up to Neverland had she not trusted him.
I firmly believe Michael did no wrong. You don’t have to take my word for it, though; know that his truth was proven in a court of law. The stories being presented in Leaving Neverland are incredibly one-sided. This film is merely the Wade Robson & James Safechuck Story because I, too, remember leaving Neverland, as does my mother, and as do many people in his life who’d be glad to have a say in a film so generically titled; now wrongfully entitled to depict Michael’s life and his misunderstood relationship with children. Any credible director of a documentary seeking truth on the matter would do his/her/their due diligence and present the full story from a carefully chosen and meaningful variety of sources. With four hours of film time to spare, I’m sure there could have been room. This is why I’m deeply disappointed in HBO and Channel 4 UK for picking it up with plans to air it later this spring. The networks snagged a falsity and will be responsible for disseminating a poorly researched film based on the highly skewed opinions of a select few that many of its subscribers will conclude as true.
Leaving Neverland is connecting because Robson and Safechuck’s well-acted stories are similar to those of true survivors watching the film. It’s a smart, yet corrupt way to capitalize on an entire community’s vulnerabilities. It’s also connecting because their stories are bolstered with a compelling medium to tell them as well as an accredited establishment like Sundance to premiere it. It’s riding the wave of an important #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, and it poorly validates a shortsighted equation that many people think they already have the answer to: Michael Jackson plus always being around children must equal child molester. The result? A byproduct of lies smeared with a thin layer of credibility intended to enrage the general media and side with self-proclaimed victims. And because the people behind these forms of media have a following (or not), perhaps they’re employed by some “greater” masthead and their information is muffled with journalists who actually seek the truth, the general population slowly becomes convinced, valuing information by ease of access which has really been served to them by algorithms designed to showcase what individuals only want to see. This is where destruction escalates. This is where the snowball gains its mass. This is why I’m stepping in with my story now.
I urge you to make it your undying responsibility to seek truth and acknowledge all sides in your consumption of how Michael is being depicted in this film. The capitalization of circumstance, divisive use of content and manipulation of media — all combined with rising false senses of entitlement — can quickly nullify a verdict and forever challenge truth to favor the other. This is the loophole with our digital ecosystem that actually determines one’s fate and this is the precise mechanism Leaving Neverland is using, especially when money is at stake. It will ultimately destroy his family, defame his legacy and eradicate his artistry. If you think this little loophole won’t take it that far, well, for starters: it’s already killed Michael Jackson.
Michael signed a letter to me on Neverland letterhead once. It read: “from your protective and older brother, Michael Jackson.” Now I find it my turn to protect him by telling my story because I solemnly swear that this kind-hearted, genius-of-a-man is innocent. I probably would have known otherwise.