My name is Michael Joseph Arceneaux, and I was born in 1984, the peak of Michael Joseph Jackson’s popularity. In spite of my mom’s insistence that I was named after Saint Michael and Saint Joseph, my older sister eventually told me that it was indeed the King of Pop who inspired my name, not the King of all Kings.
Memories of Michael Jackson aren't hard to conjure: I still remember religiously watching "Moonwalker" over and over again, or huddling up close to the television to watch the premieres of music videos for singles like “Remember The Time” and “Scream.” I know I used to repeatedly yell “shamon” for no other reason than it sounded good. Even if I haven’t listened to Michael Jackson’s music every single day of my life, when I think of times of joy in my childhood — times less frequent for me than for others — so many are tied to him because I often turned to pop culture for solace and, back then, no one was more dominant in the culture than Michael Jackson.
Still, the notion that something might be off about Michael Jackson was never exactly foreign to me. Just as I remember rushing to the television in order to watch Michael Jackson's videos, I can also recall sitting on my family’s couch in 1993 when he first denied charges that he sexually abused a young boy in a video statement delivered from Neverland Valley, and again in 1995 when he offered a similar denial in an interview with Diane Sawyer allegations that he sexually abused a different young boy. (ABC won the rights to the interview as part of a package to premiere his video for "Scream.") Around the same time, my elementary school principal made the local news over allegations that he, too, had sexually abused a young boy.
Likewise, I remember being in my dorm room as I sat there puzzled by Jackson’s interview with Martin Bashir in which he talked about sleeping in the same bed as young boys. By then, I knew of adult men who preyed upon some of my classmates in both middle and high school, and had formed a contemptuous opinion of them. But when it came to Michael Jackson, I selfishlessly clung to a vision of him that suited my desire to keep him enjoyable, aspirational, and most of all, innocent — even as he telling me who he was.
I was in attendance for Michael Jackson’s memorial service for work, but I mostly felt relief for both of us. I was saddened by his sudden death, and thought about all the pain he had endured as a child, and even though I never quite understood him, I still sympathized with him. And yes, I thought those allegations about him would die with him — leaving me to again cling to a vision of Michael Jackson that suited my self-interests.
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Then came "Leaving Neverland," a film I have dreaded watching since its announcement.
Listening to Wade Robson and James Safechuck describe their sexual abuse in graphic detail made me physically recoil. Listening to those voicemails Jackson left them and reading those faxes that he sent was disturbing, and the intent behind them obvious to anyone. More than anything, though, it was difficult to watch Robson and Safechuck clearly struggling with their conflicting feelings about Jackson in real time; they are both repulsed by him and appear to have some lingering reverence, a testament to Jackson grooming them to serve his perversions.
I found "Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland" even more effective at tearing away the vision of Jackson I'd wanted to have. As a survivor of sexual abuse herself, Oprah Winfrey possessed the language to describe what Robson and Safechuck are going through, in addition to featuring both medical professors and other survivors who could dive deeper into their earlier denials and inability to come forward. She also directly addressed criticism from their doubters — although many will stubbornly choose to believe what they want.
Part of the issue for its critics is that, though the film is right to place an emphasis on Jackson’s accusers, it is, as Corey Feldman noted, “one-sided” in that regard. To that end — with respect to shaping the perspective of Jackson’s die-hard fans — the one-sidedness may allow wiggle room for those still fishing for reasons to doubt the likelihood that Michael Jackson abused young boys.
And, perhaps more to the point, Oprah was right in her declaration that “this moment transcends Michael Jackson.” It is indeed about “societal corruption” and the reality that children are repeatedly being hurt; child abuse is institutional, not just individual.
Still, I understand the fans desperate to deny what seems so undeniable; I used to do the same. He means so much to people, especially Black people, no matter how complicated his relationship to his Blackness was.
Still, enough already.
"Leaving Neverland" has forced me to confront the conclusion that has long been dormant in the back of my mind; it should do the same to everyone. It's long past time to let go of the cognitive dissonance, to stop making excuses and to see Michael Jackson for who he was in totality.
It may hurt to finally accept that Michael Jackson brought millions joy while abusing others, but that pain of accepting someone we loved did something terrible does not compare to what Michael Jackson did to Wade Robson, James Safechuck and others at that ranch he constructed to prey on little boys. We are all living in a moment in history in which we are compelled by morality and reality to believe victims and call out abusers.
“Heal The World” was a nice emo bop, but believing victims is actually how you meet the mission.
Michael Arceneaux is the author of the book "I Can't Date Jesus" (July 2018, Atria Books).