Leaving Neverland is a new documentary on HBO about two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who share their stories of being abused by Michael Jackson as children. It is an incredibly difficult show to watch due to the graphic details given about the abuse. However, the show brings to light how easily families and victims can be deceived by the process of grooming by sexual abusers.
After Neverland especially revealed many important truths that we all need to be aware of concerning sexual abuse. Here are a few of them that I took away from the show (spoiler alert) :
Abuse rarely looks like abuse.
Oprah pointed out how the word abuse sometimes brings a different definition to our minds. Many times when people hear the word abuse they look for outward signs of injury. However, sexual abuse is often hidden and abuse victims can appear outwardly ok while on the inside they are carrying a heavy, dark secret that is eating away at their soul.
Abusers are capable of doing good things.
Abusive people are often kind and generous people. They do good things. They help others. This is hard for our minds to comprehend especially in a polorized society where we want to make something either good or bad. If we want to recognize abuse we have to be willing to look past our cognitive biases towards people we assume are good. We need to pay attention, give ourselves time to observe the behavior of others before we make assumptions about what kind of person they are. We also need to learn to be in tune to our own internal signals that alert us when something isn’t right.
Abuse to victims can look and feel like love.
This is a tough one for people who haven’t suffered sexual abuse to understand. It is not abnormal for it to take decades for victims of abuse to come forward, because they do not believe they have been abused. Children especially can become easily convinced that the abuse that they are receiving is care from another. A psychologist once pointed out to me that a young child being sexually abused might view it no differently than eating an ice cream cone. Children simply do not have the capacity to understand nor the language to express sexual abuse.
Abuse brings tremendous shame on victims.
Sexual abuse warps one’s identity. Abusers train victims well to believe that they are active and willing participants in the abuse. Michael Jackson gave his victims wedding rings as a symbol of his “love” for them. But he also told them if they told anyone else about what was happening that they would all go to jail. How confusing this must have been. He had convinced these children that what they had was good and special. The long grooming process had caused these children to believe that they wanted what he was giving them. Their stories were a modern day Hansel and Gretel where they were fed candy until they were ready to be feasted upon by the evil witch. Ironically, Michael’s Neverland had a movie theater stocked with popcorn and candy.
Abuse victims normally believe the abuse is their fault.
The grooming process can be very similar to someone pursuing a romantic relationship. A victim is wooed through a gradual, intentional process into a trusting relationship. Victims are often given gifts, favors and made to feel special. Who doesn’t enjoy being treated this way. Sexual abuse usually happens only when the abuser thinks he has gained the trust of his victim and has them in a position where they are so dependent on them that they don’t want to tell. Because abusers use a victim’s desires to lead them astray, they often carry the guilt that they are responsible for the abuse. They feel as if their own desires have deceived them. Oprah shared how understanding the grooming process was the only thing that finally convinced her that she was not to blame for abuse she suffered in childhood.
We can help each other heal by listening.
There are already disagreements about whether or not these men are telling the truth. The Jackson family have denied these accusations and say they are furious about the show. This is all too common as well when it comes to stories of sexual abuse. We get so lost in our opinions that we forget real people are involved. Not only Michael Jackson’s victims, but others around the world who have suffered in similar ways. But if we choose to listen to one another without judgment we can learn how to protect ourselves and others and healing can take place.