Thursday 23 May 2019

'I want to speak the truth as loud as I spoke the lie' - James Safechuck on Michael Jackson and Leaving Neverland

When James Safechuck met Michael Jackson he was 10. He claims the King of Pop began grooming him in a campaign that culminated in hundreds of acts of sexual abuse and their mock 'marriage'. Now James and fellow accuser Wade Robson speak out

On tour: Michael Jackson and James Safechuck, then aged 10, in 1988 on Jackson's private plane
On tour: Michael Jackson and James Safechuck, then aged 10, in 1988 on Jackson's private plane
From left: Wade Robson, director Dan Reed and James Safechuck

For the vast majority of Wade Robson's life - from the ages of seven to 30 - he was, he says, forced to speak a lie. Now, he says, "I want to speak the truth as loud as I spoke the lie."

That truth, he claims, is that Michael Jackson, one of the most idolised entertainers of all time, sexually abused him from the age of seven to 14. The lie, he alleges - that Jackson had never sexually assaulted him - was one he previously spoke under oath: he testified in Jackson's defence when the singer faced charges of child molestation, first by Jordan Chandler in 1993 (which was eventually settled out of court for a reported $20m), then in 2005 by Gavin Arvizo (at which Jackson was found not guilty).

But Robson is now speaking what he says is the truth very loudly indeed, in the highly controversial documentary Leaving Neverland, which screens next week on Channel 4. The four-hour film focuses on Robson, now 36, and 41-year-old James Safechuck, who alleges that Jackson also sexually abused him from the age of 10.

It is unflinching - as are both its subjects - in its graphic descriptions of the sexual acts that they claim took place over years, at multiple locations, including Jackson's apartment, 'the Hideout' in Los Angeles, but primarily at his sprawling Neverland Ranch.

From left: Wade Robson, director Dan Reed and James Safechuck
From left: Wade Robson, director Dan Reed and James Safechuck

In one particularly horrifying passage, Safechuck takes a mental tour of the ranch - through the movie theatre, the 'castle', the model train station, the tepees, the swimming pool. "We would have sex there," he says, calmly, of each location on his virtual list. "It would happen every day. It sounds sick, but it was like when you are first dating someone - you do a lot of it."

Safechuck also presents a collection of jewellery he alleges Jackson bought him as rewards for performing sexual acts upon him, including a tiny gold ring he says was used in a fake wedding ceremony, during which he and Jackson made 'vows' to one another.

It is the morning following the film's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, at which Robson and Safechuck, appearing emotional and somewhat shell-shocked, were given a standing ovation by an audience reeling from their candid allegations.

In a hotel suite, Robson, a renowned choreographer who has worked with Britney Spears and N*Sync, admits to crying during much of the screening, and for several hours afterwards. "So much of the last six years [since he first went public with his story, speaking on the US television show Today, and filing a lawsuit against the Jackson estate] has been about trying to be heard," he says. "Not about trying to force people to believe anything one way or the other - just to be heard."

Many of their allegations are deeply discomforting to hear. "The sexual acts are shocking to many people, but I lived through them, they are just part of my life," reflects Safechuck, who now works in tech. "It's everything around them - the power, the manipulation, that I find the most horrifying."

The film has inevitably stoked outrage among Jackson's ardent fanbase and been criticised in strident terms by the late singer's family (Jackson died in 2009), who have called it a "public lynching" and released a statement declaring: "We are proud of what Michael Jackson stands for… Michael Jackson was and always will be 100pc innocent of these false allegations."

Indeed, such is their anger that the singer's nephew Taj Jackson is crowdfunding a documentary of his own in defence of his uncle, writing on his funding site, "Once again, we have to defend Michael Jackson's name… I know the unanimous acquittals and the FBI's 10-year investigation (resulting in my Uncle's complete exoneration) should have been enough."

Last week, the estate launched a $100m lawsuit against cable network HBO, arguing that the film violates a 1992 contract which included an agreement to not disparage the singer at any future point in time. The contract allowed the cable network to air Michael Jackson in Concert in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour, but according to the suit, the film implies Jackson molested children on the very tour that the concert footage came from.

"It's entirely what we expected," says the documentary's director, Dan Reed. "The go-to strategy is to try to denigrate children who've been sexually abused by Michael Jackson, to shame them into silence, to accuse them of greed, and not to even entertain the possibility that they might be telling the truth."

Reed, who won a Bafta for his 2009 documentary Terror in Mumbai, did not approach the film with any agenda, he says. When the initial idea for the documentary was mooted, over a lunch with the deputy head of news and current affairs at Channel 4: "I had no idea who James and Wade were, whether they were telling the truth or not, and I had no preconceptions about whether Michael Jackson was or wasn't a paedophile."

He flew to the US to meet the lawyers for Robson and Safechuck, then, eventually, sat down with both men - interviewing Safechuck in LA, where he lives with his wife and children, over two days, and Robson in Hawaii, where he now lives with his wife and son, over three days.

"The dignified and calm way in which they described startlingly explicit abuse was not consistent with people who were making up a story," says Reed. Also, crucially, he says: "The moment of real understanding came when I realised that both boys had fallen in love with Michael. Not just been dazzled by his charisma and talent and wealth, but actually had a deep love for him, and that was what underpinned their sexual relationship."

Wade Robson grew up in Queensland, Australia, a talented dancer and devoted Jackson fan. At just five years old, dressed as a tiny version of his idol, he came first in a dance competition at the local shopping mall, winning tickets to see the performer in concert in Brisbane, where he first met his hero.

Safechuck, meanwhile, was raised in LA, where he did some occasional acting, and at eight was cast in a Pepsi commercial with Jackson. Both men allege the singer then began a sustained and sophisticated campaign of grooming, not only of themselves, but of their entire families. "It was one giant seduction," says Safechuck.

The film features testimonies from both men's mothers and Robson's siblings. Joy Robson, Wade's mother, attests to becoming so close to Jackson - who would telephone the family in Australia for hours at a time, and bombarded Wade, whom he called 'Little One', with hundreds of faxes over a two-year period - that she thought of him as another son.

When Wade was eight, he, Joy and his older sister departed for California, leaving his father and brother behind (his father would go on to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and commit suicide), and moving into an apartment rented for them by Jackson.

That year, Robson appeared in three of Michael Jackson's videos, including 'Black or White'. The Safechuck family, meanwhile, regularly hosted Jackson for dinner at their suburban LA home.

The film, though sympathetic to the apparent grooming, does not absolve either family of failing to question what was going on, both mothers permitting their sons to regularly share a bed with Jackson, often while they themselves slept in the next room. Safechuck's mother, Stephanie, admits as much in the documentary. "I f***ed up, I failed to protect him," she says.

The alleged abuse tailed off as they reached their teens, when they were, they say, "replaced" by younger boys. "The way in which Jackson dropped both of them in favour of new companions, I found horrifying," says Reed. But Jackson did, they say, maintain ties, buying them lavish gifts - presenting Safechuck with a car on his 16th birthday, for example - and offering help with their nascent careers, Robson's in choreography, Safechuck's, for a while, in film-making and music. In person, as in the documentary, Robson and Safechuck are extremely credible. Both are thoughtful, open and considered, impressively candid and not given to pat answers. At one point in our conversation, I use the word "forced" in relation to the sexual acts that they allege took place between them and Jackson.

Safechuck gently corrects me. "I wouldn't call it forcing," he says. "It was a loving relationship. That's the hard part for people to wrap their heads around, and why there's so much shame involved. There was real physical pleasure, but wrapped up in a deeply unhealthy and inappropriate relationship."

Their credibility has, however, been challenged by those who oppose the film's allegations, since both have previously testified on Jackson's behalf. "Michael told me, from the beginning, that if anyone was to ever find out, both our lives would be over, that we'd go to jail for the rest of our lives," says Robson.

At the singer's request, he says, he also took the stand in Jackson's defence in 2005. "By that point, my whole life had been based upon the good parts of the story with Michael - the friendship, how he helped me in my career. I had the feeling that everything was going to fall apart and that was terrifying."

Safechuck, meanwhile, was 27, and had grown apart from Jackson when he got the call, he says, requesting him to testify at the 2005 trial. When he said no, Jackson grew angry, he claims, and threatened to expose him for perjury in the 1993 case.

Court appearances aside, long after the sexual abuse they allege had ended, it continued to deeply affect their emotional and sexual lives. They both suffered bouts of severe depression and had multiple breakdowns.

"I was very confused early on, wondering, am I gay?" says Robson. "I felt a lot of sexual attraction to women, but I always had that question. Then, later, I was trying to prove my heterosexuality to myself. I was very promiscuous, trying to make sure that I was 'normal'."

"I think a part of me died," says Safechuck, without self-pity. "You are dead inside, you go numb, you don't learn how to process events, good or bad. The self-hatred was intense, but you don't know why you hate yourself. I know now that instead of hating Michael, I hated myself."

In his twenties, while playing in a band, he used drugs - cocaine, marijuana, opioid painkillers - which temporarily anaesthetised him from the feelings of shame and self-loathing.

When he moved into tech and got a 'day job', he cleaned up his lifestyle accordingly. "When the drugs went away, though, then the pain started. I was hit with everything that had been masked, and I was struggling. You don't know why you're in so much pain; you don't connect the abuse to the pain that you're in at the moment."

"I just thought I was crazy," says Robson of his twenties. "I thought I was falling apart, that I was weak. I thought I wasn't good enough. And at the same time, I was trying to be invincible, trying to be impressive, always."

For both men, becoming fathers themselves was the catalyst for finally unpacking the Pandora's box of abuse they say they endured. With an almost spooky synchronicity, both of their wives gave birth to boys within the same month in late 2010. "Michael made you feel like you did it, that it was all your idea," says Safechuck. "Then you look at your own kid, and for the first time you really realise, what? That just makes no sense." Both then suffered breakdowns as they attempted to process an alleged history that they had spent decades denying even to themselves.

Though they had met on a couple of occasions as children, before the documentary's premiere last month, Robson and Safechuck had only met once as adults. They filed claims for molestation against the Jackson estate in 2013 and 2014 respectively, which were both dismissed by a judge for being outside the statute of limitations, and over a legal technicality asserting that the estate's holding company, MJJ Productions, cannot be held responsible for the actions of the late singer, decisions the men's legal teams are appealing.

Today, it is abundantly clear how much it means to spend time in each other's company now. "For myself and I think for most survivors of child sexual abuse, it can be so isolating," says Robson. Now, spending time with Safechuck, he says, "feels analogous to hopefully what this film can feel like for other survivors of abuse - for them to feel understood, validated and empowered to speak their truth.

"We can't change what happened to us, and we can't do anything about stopping Michael now. But hopefully it will help other survivors feel less isolated."

Reed does not deny that releasing a film as unequivocally damning as this would have been legally challenging were Jackson still alive. "That doesn't mean we wouldn't have done it, because I think Wade and James and their families are completely credible," he says. But it's also likely that its message and mission, which Robson describes, may have been received with a greater degree of scepticism.

The recent uncovering of cases of historical abuse by the likes of Jimmy Savile and Bill Cosby, and the impact of the #MeToo movement in amplifying the voices of victims, has punctured the notion of idols and their legacies as infallible or invincible. "I do feel we live in different times," agrees Reed.

"The default response to people who say, 'I was sexually abused by a powerful person', is no longer, 'Oh, you're just a gold-digging opportunist.' It is, 'Let's hear what you have to say, let's take you seriously.'"

"Five years ago, maybe even two, there might have been a different reaction," nods Robson. "There's been a shift in consciousness. There are conversations that have already started, but hopefully this film can help continue, about abuses of power and our culture's worship of celebrity."

A few days before the film premiered, Reed screened it for each member of the Robson and Safechuck families individually; Joy Robson, Wade's mother, asked him to fast-forward through her son's graphic account of the specifics of the alleged abuse. As she states on screen, she does not want to know the details.

Stephanie Safechuck, meanwhile, found other aspects distressing. "I think my mom was looking for forgiveness in the film, but I didn't quite give it to her, and that was hurtful for her," reflects her son. "But it would be disingenuous to just say, 'You are forgiven.' That's not how forgiveness goes.

"Forgiveness isn't a line you cross," he adds. "It's a road you take, and I'm on that road.'

'Leaving Neverland' airs this Wednesday and Thursday on Channel 4 © Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019

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