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'Leaving Neverland': How Much Blame Should Be Put On Parents Of Alleged Victims?


In the new HBO documentary "Leaving Neverland," two men - James Safechuck and Wade Robson - discuss in graphic detail the alleged sexual abuse they say late pop star Michael Jackson inflicted upon them for years. Jackson has always denied the allegations, and the Jackson estate is suing HBO for airing the documentary. But the film has left many viewers wrestling with Michael Jackson's legacy, as well as how he drew children and their families into his orbit. Here was director Dan Reed speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


DAN REED: You know, I think people completely lost their ability to think critically, and that goes for James and Wade's mothers, too. They were dazzled. They were star-struck.

CORNISH: Robson and Safechuck's mothers address their responsibility directly in the film.


JOY ROBSON: And I said, well, I have to take some of the blame for this. I am your mother, and I didn't...

STEPHANIE SAFECHUCK: I didn't protect my son. That will always, always haunt me.

CORNISH: Writer EJ Dickson also took on this question in a piece for Rolling Stone. She joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

E J DICKSON: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: Now, you write that it's easy to view these parents as, quote, "stupid at best and at worst, a cynical opportunist pimping out their sons in exchange for access to wealth and fame." Can you talk about how you see the judgment being brought down on them as people react to the documentary?

DICKSON: I saw it a lot on social media. I've seen reactions ranging from these parents should be in jail to how stupid could these parents be? Rosie O'Donnell tweeted something about, you know, the lack of judgment that these parents exercised in letting their children be so close to Michael Jackson. And, you know, even as a parent myself, I have to admit - I watched the film with my husband - we spent a great deal of time, you know, screaming at the TV like, how could you do this? How could you make this decision? It's definitely a frustrating experience to watch them sort of recount in painstaking detail their decision-making process that ultimately led to their sons' alleged abuse.

CORNISH: How are these families alleging that Michael Jackson drew himself closer to their children?

DICKSON: Basically, the families are alleging that Michael Jackson insinuated himself into the families' lives by offering gifts, by offering to fly their children and the families first class around the world to follow him on tour. In the Safechucks' case, he offered to buy them a house. And that eventually evolved into requests for the children to have sleepovers and visit Neverland and sleep overnight with him. And at first, I believe, both parents say that they were actually resistant. And it wasn't until the boys pled and pled that they finally relented. So I think the idea that the parents just threw their children in the water, you know, like bait for a shark - I think that's false. I think that there was more resistance than a lot of people are giving them credit for.

CORNISH: And yet, you write parenthood itself does not make you smarter or more emotionally sophisticated. It does not automatically equip you with the skills and mental acuity necessary to insulate yourself and your family from danger. What kind of questions do you think the documentary raises that parents need to think about?

DICKSON: I think the most important question that the documentary raises is, what kind of criteria are we applying when we invite people into our children's lives? Why do we let certain people into our children's lives? And do we really know the people that we're letting into our children's lives? I think in Michael Jackson's case, the fact that he was extraordinarily wealthy and famous made it much easier for him than it would for another person to sort of insinuate himself into a family's life. But, I mean, I think that question could apply to any parent and to any family.

CORNISH: What's your response to people who might read your piece and say that you're letting these folks off the hook in a way that they're not even doing for themselves?

DICKSON: I think that that response is lacking in empathy. And I think Wade Robson and James Safechuck are very clear about the fact that they have not fully forgiven their mothers, but they ultimately, you know, have empathy toward them. And I think that viewers should extend the same empathy to them as well because, honestly, you don't know how you will react in a situation like that until you're in it. And I think this impulse to sort of separate ourselves from the atrocities that befall other parents to just quickly say, well, this could never happen to me or that could never happen to me, I think that is doing them a disservice because it could. I mean, it could.

CORNISH: EJ Dickson is a staff writer at Rolling Stone. Thank you for speaking with us.

DICKSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEANE'S "ATLANTIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.