WASHINGTON — I find it increasingly hard to listen to Michael Jackson’s music anymore after the HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland.” No, it's actually impossible.
I know this: I'll never again pay for a download of “PYT” or “Remember The Time” or sway to “I Wanna Rock With You" again.
The radio stations and their corporate parents now throwing away future potential profits by refusing to play Michael Jackson’s music, or use his likenesses for entertainment purposes, should today be saluted for their conviction instead of pilloried for getting on their moral high horses.
People like Simpsons’ creator James Brooks. In explaining his decision to remove a classic Simpsons’ episode from circulation with Michael’s voice in it, Brooks said, simply, “It feels clearly the only choice to make.”
Like Oprah and others supporting Michael's alleged victims now, Brooks saw “Leaving Neverland" too. It's a hard but necessary two-part series to watch, painstakingly detailing the child sexual abuse suffered by Wayne Robson and James Safechuck at the hands of Michael beginning at just 7 years old.
After the credits, nothing his family, his misguided, callous nanny of 17 years, a lawsuit-threatening family attorney nor even Michael's legions of see-no-evil fans says or does can change one's mind.
There are some things you genuinely can't un-see, and adult men graphically describing the wrong their idol did to them is one of those things.
Just as nothing Bill Cosby can say will allow others to bust a gut laughing at his comedy albums or watch Cliff Huxtable tiptoe into the family room to cuddle Trudy without guilt anymore; just as there is nothing R. Kelly’s power ballads can touch inside someone's heart to minimize the fact that four young women -- of the dozens who say they suffered mental, emotional and sexual abuse at his hands -- will soon help put him where most of us now believes he belongs: prison.
Same goes for Kevin Spacey's movies after his own alleged pedophilia turned his career and life into a genuine House of Cards. Whenever Mel Gibson in Braveheart now exclaims, “Scotland is free!” you have to wonder, years after his anti-Semitic rant during a D.U.I. arrest, if he blamed that war on the Jews, too.
Because once you know, you know.
And you can’t separate the singer from the song anymore, you can't parse the movie you love from the actor or director you now know things about that make you loathe them.
It all conflates, especially when the crimes concern children.
Bottom line: you can’t enjoy the music the same way, because to do so feels like an outright betrayal of the people the famous person scarred for life.
And I now believe Michael Jackson did scar some children for life. Like “Surviving R. Kelly,” the graphic, disturbing nature of “Leaving Neverland” – from digital penetration to oral copulation and worse -- leaves you with the feeling that children were harmed, young boys that grew up to become adult survivors of child sexual abuse -- adult survivors of Michael Jackson.
And even now, after so much smoke to believe there was fire over the years, that's hard for me to even type. Because like so many emotionally touched by Michael over decades, I’d compartmentalized everything negative about him, so almost nothing could interfere with what he meant to me.
“I Want You Back” and “ABC” were the first two singles I remember playing in my parents' living room, when people had record players and you couldn't just say, "Alexa," and demand your favorite song.
In my dingy little South San Jose home, Michael Jackson was that little boy who made another little boy smile at a time when he didn’t have much to smile about.
When Michael grew older, I grew older with him. When he ended up on 20/20 with Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs in 1981, pirouetting in sequins to “Can’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” – long before 20/20 became The Spouse Murder of the Week – I about lost my mind. Off the Wall wasn’t an album; it was the anthem of my adolescence. Thriller wasn’t merely an MTV World Release video; it was part of the 1980s zeitgeist.
Even when the multiple facial surgeries and his need or desire to be truly light-skinned – for medical reasons or otherwise -- turned Michael into something that bore no resemblance to that child with the big collar crooning, “Buh-boo-boo-boo-buh-boo, Buh-boo-boo-boo-buh-boo… Oh, baby give me one more chance…”, there was still his unmistakable boyish exuberance, the soft voice with the same dulcet tones as that boy on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
When Joe Jackson’s abusiveness toward his children was revealed, how the family patriarch robbed almost all his kids of their innocence – the physical beatings, the mental torture of practicing ungodly hours in that Gary, Indiana, basement, deciding for them their life and careers -- it also became acceptable for Michael to still live in a child’s world because, well, it was clear he never had one.
Michael loved children so much, we came to believe, his mission was to save the ones who needed saving. And from 1994 on, as each new criminal case was filed, ended up in court or was settled quietly, me and the rest of the Michael-loving world – and it really was the world – rationalized it away like his lawyers and family:
These must be kids coached by their parents to lie about inappropriately being touched by Michael, because Michael meant millions to them. And even if there were multi-million, confidentiality settlements signed by those families, that was just Michael throwing money at a problem and making it go away; it had nothing to do with his guilt.
Unsure of what really happened, some of us had the temerity to blame the parents of those children.
The thinking went like this for me: no matter how surreal it would be to have my child invited to Michael Jackson’s home, no grown adult will ever be allowed to sleep in a separate room with my child who isn’t a) one of his two parents or b) an extremely vetted and trusted family member. (Because I found out young that not all family members are to be trusted.)
So, yes, I do blame some of those parents for putting their child in that situation. I don’t blame them for what Michael Jackson is alleged to have done to them. And I find it downright wrong that surviving family members still support him in the wake of so much evidence that he stole little boys’ souls, surely more than just the two in the documentary.
Shame on Grace Rwaramba, too, who cared for Jackson’s three children for 17 years, and came out after the documentary to debunk claims that he abused the two men as children.
“I don’t claim to know what happened between Michael and his accusers,” Rwaramba said. “I wasn’t there.” And yet, the American media treated this as getting the other side of the story instead of what it was: victim-shaming.
I don’t want to hear all the good Michael did for so many others today, how he touched many more lives than he wrongly touched other children -- just as I wouldn’t want to hear all the kindly deeds done by any beloved clergy member who long ago molested an altar boy.
If God, Allah or any higher power indeed does have a moral scoreboard, I imagine it works like this: one act of pure evil kills a lifetime of good works.
Look, most of us are flawed and complicated. We have all done things we are not proud of and wish we could change.
For instance, I can accept there are at least a half-dozen people in this world who cringe when they see my byline or my face on television or hear my voice on radio. I know this because I wronged some people. I lied to them. I pretended I was in a monogamous relationship with them when I wasn’t.
For much of my adult life up until about 15 years ago, when I got emotionally sober with the help of a strong support group, I had this hole inside me. Since childhood, for reasons I won’t explain now, I felt I needed to fill up that hole with validation from women. Any kind of validation. This sick need to fill that hole with unhealthy things led me to sabotage relationships I was in because eventually, in my distorted-reality world, they were going to leave me. And, the warped logic went, if I left them first it wouldn’t hurt as bad.
This sounds like a confessional, but it’s not. (I’ve written those before.) This is an acknowledgment that while I prefer to be liked and my work to be consumed in a way that makes people think, laugh or feel, the truth is I’ve done some things to hurt people that loved me so profoundly they cannot separate the story from the storyteller. And there are no amends I can make to change that fact. I have to live with that and make sure I never hurt anyone else close to me like that again.
Further, when your wrongs rise to the level of criminal child sexual abuse, when it’s clear as day what happened and who you harmed and the pain so many stiff suffer because of what you did, you lose the right to be a part of a family anymore – the human family.
You lose the right to be what Michael Jackson once was to me: the innocent child with the babykins smile and the picked-out ‘fro, singing through that little television, taking me away from my own messed-up childhood
You lose that right because you grew up to take away the innocence from other little boys. And for that, there is no path to redemption.
Before you wrestle with your own moral dilemma over Michael and his music and what he meant to you, let me just say it’s sad in hindsight how many people repeated the old, “Michael is in a better place now” refrain after his death at the age of 50 in 2009. Here’s hoping they weren’t referring to some transcendent Biblical paradise. Because I can bet you everything I have and everything I will make going forward until I die:
No grown man who was sexually abused as a child is going to believe in a heaven if that’s where he will see his abuser again.