One of the most disturbing moments of my life happened with a counsellor. They asked me a very simple question, and it made me understand something about why I am like I am. It was such a simple question. It didn’t trigger repressed memories, or point to anything I didn’t know already. Even the answer was simple. The answer was “no” and it should have been “yes”. The question made sense of a part of me. A large part. And the evidence was sitting right there.
Watching Leaving Neverland made me think of this moment. When the two survivors of Jackson’s abuse say things like “I hated myself and I didn’t know why” it seems almost comical. “How can you not have known why?” I can imagine a million people saying. I understand it though. What happened to me was nothing like what happened to those two boys, but it was traumatic and I was young.
I was also not surprised when the survivors said that everything came to a head for them when they became fathers. Becoming a parent is a huge moment in anyone’s life, but if there is some wrinkle there, some aspect of growing up where things were different from whatever “normal” is – then you can expect that “abnormality” to surface. We naturally, in a new experience, look to role models and when your role model is absent, or malignant that can set your world in disarray.
So it wasn’t the first half of the documentary that made me believe the two men who live with Jackson’s abuse, it was the second half. The half about the consequences. The half about the terribly complicated layers of love, guilt and shame. The half about becoming a father, and falling apart, and the taking it out on everyone around you, and the not being able to see, or admit, or truly know the cause that is so obvious once it is said out loud.
It was the second half that made me go to the shelf in the basement where my CDs gather dust now, and take my two Jackson albums down and put them in the rubbish.
I have been listening to The Reckoning. It’s about the Catholic church in Australia, and the federal investigation into abuse. The most recent two episodes were about Cardinal Pell. At the same time, I have been watching Surviving R Kelly. It’s always the same. Pain of this kind takes a long time to surface, and then no one believes the victims when they come forward.
A few days ago I was talking with some friends who said they didn’t want to see the new documentary about Jackson. I was surprised. At that time it felt to me like it would be required viewing: required if I was going to listen to Jackson again. I didn’t feel like I could listen to his music again without seeing some evidence and counter-evidence and then making an informed decision.
I have made my decision now. As you know.
But it was a complicated decision to make.
I can remember the famous trial Jackson went through in the 90s and my view was – at the time – that he was pretty weird, and had a boundaries problem, but was probably being stung for money. That view though was based on nothing. It was ignorant and, as it turns out, wrong.
Although I wasn’t a big Jackson fan I did love Billie Jean, Thriller and Beat It. The glove. The moon walk. If you were a kid in the 80s he was era defining. How do I disentangle myself from that? One of my favourite parts of the movie Boy is the remixed kapa haka version of Thriller at the end.
In the same way that he ingratiated himself into the lives of the children he abused, he ingratiated his way into popular culture. He is layered into the 1980s and touches so many moments in that decade. In a weird way – although the proportions of hurt are not the same – it feels like we all too are caught in the terrible emotional cross hair of loving someone who was awful. And, let’s be honest, awful right in front of everyone. As a witness and a lightweight-fan I feel culpable somehow.
When it comes to culpability I think I now fully understand the phrase: “always believe the victim”. It’s a profoundly sensible starting point. Yet we seem never to be able to do it if the accused is in any way someone we owe allegiance to. In the case of celebrity it is our allegiance to the good memories and positive feelings they have given us. But: “always believe the victim”. The times when this faith in the victim proves unfounded are so rare it is a much safer starting point than “always believe the accused”. It is of course an over turning of the sacred dogma of “innocent until proven guilty”, but I now can’t help thinking that any case of sexual assault or abuse is so profoundly at the core of the victim’s identity that should someone come forward with a detailed, sober account of what happened to them they are very, very likely to be telling truth. Almost no one would wish to expose themselves this way to public scrutiny without a compelling personal need that transcends money and goes more towards healing.
As for Jackson himself? I am of the school of thought that looks for causes. People who harm have been harmed. How was he harmed? Where do we look to in his story and in his family?
I don’t know, but I know the answer is always in us somewhere. Not even hidden but waiting for someone to ask that question that puts a spotlight inside you, to the thing rotting in your head, that draws a “no” from you when the right answer would be “yes”. That makes you feel nothing where you should feel love instead.
Why was that place inside Jackson, and who is answerable for that?