Monday, 11 March 2019
The documentary Leaving Neverland has shown a light on the darkness of what happened behind the closed gates of Michael Jackson’s heavenly world.
It sparked debates and sometimes aggressive insults from the fans of the star. It also opened conversations on the unsettling topic of sexual abuse.
The Neverland Process
Michael Jackson’s Neverland story is an extreme one due to the level of his stardom which strongly survives his death, but it is also consistent with the millions of other stories of childhood sexual abuse, all of them with a Neverland process: why? Because the Neverland process is what sex offenders use to abuse.
The Neverland process is sex offenders creating a world of distorted beliefs for their victims and the adults around them with specific steps:
1- Blending in society looking kind, caring, benevolent and trusting. When we think of sex offenders or child molesters, we are invested in having an image of an undesirable, monstrous and disgusting man we can spot a mile away. This image is partly so that we foster a sense of knowing how to protect our children. However, the reality is much different. Most sex offenders blend very well in our society, especially in places where children are accessible. They look good, they look fun and they look very friendly.
2- Friends of parents. Most sexual abuse happen in the child’s home by someone whom the child knows well and even loves. It is often one of the parents or both, or a grandparent, uncle, cousin, childminder, and so on. Occasionally, it is someone outside of the family who makes lots of efforts to befriend the parents. They pretend to be kind, loving and caring so that the parents have no suspicion of the hidden agenda. They eventually persuade the parents that they are the safest person to leave their children with so that they can have a much deserved break from parenting. This is called grooming the family.
3- Love. The sex offender makes the child feel very special, the chosen one, they make the child feel very loved and safe. They desensitise the child with lots of hugs and seemingly innocent bodily contact to normalise close physical proximity. And very gradually move towards inappropriate sexual touch, which they manipulate the child into believing it is a special kind of love. This is called grooming the child.
4- Distancing the parents. By fostering the sense of a special kind of love with the child, the sex offender also creates a wedge between the child and the parents: the child starts to believe that the offender loves him more than his own parents and therefore wants to spend more time with the offender than the parents. Most often, the parents perceive it as the child creating a bond with others, which is usually seen as healthy socialising development. If it is one of the parents abusing the child, that parent will make the child believe that the other parent is the unkind one and the child should have a special secret relationship with the ‘better’ parent.
5- Psychological abuse. The sex offender manipulate the child into staying silent, lying to the parents and keeping the secret of the abuse to protect themselves from reporting and also to ensure they can continue the abuse multiple times. They often say something like: ‘nobody understands our special bond, if you tell you will hurt everybody and you will be taken away from your family. You’re safe here, this is our secret’.
As you can see, all of these steps above were eloquently described by both James and Wade in the Leaving Neverland documentary. The Neverland process happens in most childhood sexual abuse, including with the ones involving a celebrity.
The intoxicating Stardom
What makes the childhood sexual abuse by Michael Jackson stand out is his fame, obviously. His stardom status such that the grooming is made very easy as it started even before Michael Jackson met his victims. Wade was already a big fan of his, he was primed to respond to him so well. When I saw Wade dancing on Michael Jackson’s stage, I saw a child who wasn’t just being made to feel special, like the usual sexual abuse process, but a child who was intoxicated by Jackson’s stardom, a feeling that nobody else in the world could ever offer him. Nobody can compete with that kind of attention. Wade himself said that Michael Jackson was his God.
It was a little different with James. As a child he wasn’t a fan of Michael Jackson, he was unlucky enough to be cast in his Pepsi advert. Soon after meeting him on set, he found him in his home, put posters of him on his walls, which is essentially like manufacturing a new fan. James being young and vulnerable got trapped into the Jackson dream web.
Both set of parents got trapped in the same web too. There is no precedence for a mega star to turn up in your humble home and wanting to be friends with you. James’ mother was flattered that her family was the chosen family of his friendship, and because of his child-like persona soon considered him as one of her children. This would have not happened if an ordinary fully-grown man turned up at your front door wanting to be your son’s best friend. Wade’s parents wanted their son to live his dream and be a friend of his favourite idol, making very bad judgements of the situations. As it was explained in the documentary, the normal judgment process went out of the window because he was a huge star.
Michael Jackson’s callously used his stardom and his child-like persona to bypass parents’ guards. ‘How could such a sweet child-like man harm another child?’ people would say to reassure themselves. Jackson was both a child and Santa Clause, as James described: he would take him to toy shops and allow him to fill his trolley with whatever he wanted: it was magic!
Michael Jackson’s father robbed him of his childhood and he had traumatic early years. But let’s make no mistake: Michael Jackson was not a child trapped in a man’s body. He was a fully grown man who was a sex offender. Only adults with a fully functioning brain are capable of such psychological abuse and manipulation that was described by both James and Wade. A combination of his fame and child-like persona was his way in into children’s lives and their parents for accelerated grooming.
Trauma, the brain and psychological abuse: why survivors don’t report
As we see in the documentary, and as I see in my consulting room every day, the impact of childhood sexual abuse is far reaching. One of the hallmarks of trauma is that parts of the brain becomes impaired during the abuse. The Broca’s area responsible for speech production and language processing goes offline which means that it is sometimes hard for survivors of sexual abuse to verbalise what happened to them. It may be after a long psychological treatment that some words to the abuse can return.
The prefrontal cortex is also impaired so it is difficult for the brain to formulate a coherent story of the abuse, often missing many elements to it, with some fragmented memories or complete loss of memories. These brain impairments that are normal faced with trauma are some of the reasons why some people don’t report straight away. They fear that if they are being asked questions, they won’t have all the answers and therefore won’t be believed.
Another reason why people don’t report abuse is the silencing effect of the psychological abuse that goes with sexual abuse. Both James and Wade didn’t’ suffer memory loss but they both said that it was easier not to talk about it because they couldn’t make sense of it all. If you can’t make sense of it yourself, how can you start a conversation about it with someone else?
It is common for survivors of abuse not to have a coherent narrative. Even if survivors remember everything they doubt their own reality. As Wade says: Michael Jackson was a God to him. How can he make sense that his God, the one who opened the gates to Heaven for him and his family be also the one sexually abusing him? How can he make sense of such a God telling him that it is how love is expressed?
How can survivors make sense that the unwanted touch felt loving and pleasurable too?
How can they make sense that the man they love and allegedly loves them back also threatens them if you tell anybody?
As Oprah Winfrey points out, when Michael Jackson says to a child: ‘the best part of the holiday was to be with you, I mean it’, how can you not feel so loved?
With psychological abuse, the narrative of what happened becomes distorted. As both Wade and James said, they didn’t realise that what was happening to them was abuse. They just couldn’t identify the word ‘abuse’ with their story.
This is why many adult survivors of sexual abuse never speak out, and never report. And the longer they wait, the more they fear not being believed: ‘Why did you wait so long to tell? Why did you keep hanging out with the abuser? Are you sure you remember right? Why did you change your story?’ The longer survivors wait, the less likely there will be evidence, and the more likely they fear not being believed.
But not talking is isolated. Isolation is where sex offenders want survivors to be so that they can be protected from being reported and continue to abuse.
The trauma of being sexually abused doesn’t go away and, unfortunately, time doesn’t heal it. In fact, time can make the trauma fester and it leads to people hating themselves more and more towards self-harm to the extent of suicide. Both Wade and James described their self-hatred eloquently. They could connect well with hating themselves but not connect with feeling empathy towards themselves. They could only connect to it when they saw their own children’s vulnerability.
Forgive and forget?
It is not possible to forget. Survivors will never forget what happened to them. James said in the Oprah Winfrey interview: ‘forgiveness is not a line you cross, it’s a road you travel’. It is usual for survivors of sexual abuse to be very angry at the adults who allowed the abuse to happen. In the case with James and Wade’s parents, perhaps they made gross bad judgements being blinded by the star. In some cases, the parents intentionally turn a blind eye to prioritise and preserve other family relationships and not ‘rock the boat’. In that case, the parents also become abusers.
If survivors are willing, they can go on the long journey of forgiveness, and some can forgive. But they will never forget, and the relationship with those adults will never be the same. However, forgiveness is not necessary for healing. Forgiveness is perceived as the ultimate good thing to do, sometimes, it is seen as the superior thing to do. Survivors of sexual abuse do not need to forgive their abusers or those who have wilfully enabled the abuse. True healing can happen without it. I think it is an important message because survivors are often reluctant to start therapy fearing that the therapist might ask them to forgive when they don’t want to.
It is not the child’s fault, ever.
When there is sexual abuse, it is always the abuser’s fault. The adult is always the one holding the responsibility to protect a child, never the other way around. It is not the child’s fault if he felt sexual pleasure. It is a normal physical reaction. It has nothing to do with him liking or wanting it or not. It is not a child’s fault for loving his abuser. It is what the abuser manufactures so that they can continue abusing. It is not a child’s fault if he wanted to stay with his abuser: abusers makes a child love them so that they can ensure access to him, and continue to manipulate him into staying silent. It is not a child’s fault if he wanted to protect his abuser. It is the normal reaction of survivors who have been psychologically abused into doing so. It is not a child’s fault if he has been sexually abused. He was not the seducer, he was a child, only the adult is responsible for it.
The vitriol of Michael Jackson’s fans
This blog will probably be criticised by Michael Jackson’s fans. As Oprah Winfrey says in the interview with James and Wade: ‘We are all going to get it!’. Most people don’t understand what it is like to be a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and they much less understand the psychology of sex offenders. Therefore, it is easy for the public to make up their own stories, ideas and judgements about their star. For the fans, changing Michael Jackson’s image would be a painful process of re-thinking what they had felt in their own childhood about their idol. Some fans can be aggressive, as Wade explained receiving death threats from them. That is unacceptable. But when we think of Michael Jackson’s fans’ vitriol, let’s remind ourselves that they are not talking about the survivors of sexual abuse, they’re talking about themselves and their inability to regulate their anxious emotions of change. It doesn’t make the aggression acceptable to survivors of sexual abuse, though.
I would suggest not to allow those aggressive people deter survivors from speaking out: they can choose a safe person to tell first: usually it would be someone who can understand them, like a specialised therapist. Or it can be a good friend whom they trust to be believed and supported. It is good to start with one safe person, and then decide what they want to do next. In the UK, there is no expiry date for reporting a sex offender to the police.
Hope and healing: effective trauma treatment
If you have been sexually abused as a child, there is good treatment available and there is great hope for healing. Find a therapist who is trauma informed and specialised in sexual abuse. Some of the effective psycho-traumatology treatments available are:
Somatic trauma psychotherapy
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing)
There is a life beyond the Hell of Neverland. There is a vibrant, exciting, thriving and safe life for you to enjoy. Be courageous and start the steps of healing.