Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Toppling Idols

I watched the Oprah interview with the two men who have accused Michael Jackson of having molested them as children. I am giving fair warning to anyone reading this (with sentiments either way) that I understand whatever position you take with respect to these charges, but I implore you to be open-minded. This is a place that I don't wish to be. And I say this after believing that I have generally been consistent with my support for victims of sexual violence...except with respect to Michael Jackson. So please bear with me as I try to process what I saw, how I feel, and why I am all over the place.

I did NOT watch the documentary. Not yet.

Whenever it was announced that there was to be a documentary, I remember wondering who these men were. Initial news reports revealed their identities and offered up certain troubling details of their stories, so then my assumption was that this effort related to the lawsuits they had filed against the estate. And it made me sad because it seemed as if this question about Jackson's interactions with children would never die even as he himself had been dead for nearly ten years. I worried about having to endure yet another trial, only this time posthumously. It made me wonder if there would be enough goodwill left to challenge accusations in an era of reckoning that has so far toppled living icons such as R. Kelly and Bill Cosby. Could a dead man survive #metoo?

This is not my attempt to work through whether I believe these men's stories. I have not watched the film, and I am still mulling when I will do so. This is my attempt to explain why it is necessary for me to accept certain possibilities with respect to someone I love (present tense). Therefore, I won't link back to any past tributes I have written about MJ, nor will I be making any retractions. Right now, I am just musing out loud...

When I wrote this on the Facebook page on Sunday night before the film aired, I had already decided that Leaving Neverland would be too much to absorb at this time, coming weeks after the Surviving R. Kelly docu-series aired in January. I won't go so far as to suggest that I was traumatized by watching that, but by the last two episodes, I was emotionally drained. Then I have been disheartened by the backlash that gained traction on social media using the hashtag #firstthem to suggest that the prosecutions of sexual abusers has been racially motivated. Nevermind that Harvey Weinstein is currently under indictment and is also the subject of a damning documentary, to the #firstthem crowd, the faces of sexual abuse have been Black icons who flew too close to the sun.

I refuse to give any legitimacy to that nonsense, yet I can see how this documentary contributes to the C-O-N-spiracy as we approach that milestone this summer of the tenth year since MJ died. Who knows what manner of elaborate tributes were being planned (including whatever I would settle on as an appropriate remembrance for this space)? How many unreleased remastered gems were awaiting the green light? What unique concepts had yet to be considered for possible reissues of his greatest hits? How much more money could Michael Jackson earn from the grave?

Well, I doubt we'll ever know that now. The response to Leaving Neverland has polarized us along somewhat predictable lines, but it also ensures that efforts to capitalize on MJ's legacy will be deemed too risky to pursue. His music is already being pulled from radio station playlists in Canada, and a statue has been taken down in Manchester, England. I expect that there will be some vandalism, endless debates, and various other forms of public outcry that will make it untenable for his fans and defenders to justify not questioning that allegiance--whether these allegations are true or not.

Hence, my own reckoning: I chose to watch the Oprah interview instead of the film for what I believe were very logical and significant reasons. First, Oprah dedicated 217 episodes of her talk show to addressing sexual abuse. Having been a victim of childhood sexual abuse herself, she often used her show as a platform to confront this very disturbing and destructive issue. Second, she interviewed Michael Jackson during his lifetime; however, it was before the first allegations were made against him. For whatever reason, he never sat down with her again, so when she offered her impressions of that interview years later, I noted how she did not address the allegations in her reflections because she was clearly still a fan. Third, knowing the backlash she would face by giving a platform to the victims (and possibly having to face the wrath of the Jackson family), she did so anyway.

Fourth, I am sensitive to the damage that can be done by what people have been calling 'mere' allegations of abuse, but I am more devastated by the disastrous consequences of not listening to victims. There are entire institutions in our society that have condoned abuse in the name of protecting the powerful (with the Catholic Church as a prime example). As such, millions of victims suffer in silent shame that manifests in a never-ending cycle of perpetuating that abuse on others, or by becoming complicit bystanders and enablers.

Finally, when I look at those the young faces that hearken back thirty years, I am reminded of getting permission to stay up past my bedtime to watch the Thriller video because I was ten years old. A child. Then reality hits me--these accusers were my age when they were part of a grown man's entourage. CHILDREN.

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