Oprah Winfrey is arguably the most famous survivor of childhood sexual abuse in the world.
And, as she said Wednesday in Manhattan where she recorded a special with two men whose allegations against Michael Jackson are detailed in the HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland,” the subject was a part of her daily talk show long before #MeToo ignited.
“In 25 years of the Oprah show, I did 217 episodes about sexual abuse,” she said, noting that “Leaving Neverland,” directed by Dan Reed, successfully conveyed the message that she had “tried and tried” to get across — “that sexual abuse was not just sexual abuse, it was also sexual seduction.”
In “Leaving Neverland,” which premiered at Sundance in January and will air on HBO beginning Sunday night, Wade Robson and James Safechuck recount allegations of sustained sexual abuse that they say began when they were 7 and 10 years old, respectively, and had devastating repercussions for both men and their families. The documentary is not merely an indictment of Jackson but also a damning look at the corrosive effects of fame as well as the blindness and complicity of many in the face of a pattern of widespread abuse and meticulous grooming.
“For me, this moment transcends Michael Jackson. It is much bigger than any one person. It is a moment in time that allows us so see this societal corruption; it’s like a scourge on humanity,” Winfrey said Wednesday. “It’s happening right now; it’s happening in families. We know it’s happening in churches and in schools and sports teams everywhere. If it gets you, our audience, to see how it happens, then, some good will come of it.” (She was not available for further comment.)
The hourlong special, dubbed “After Neverland,” will air on HBO and OWN on Monday following Part 2 of “Leaving Neverland” and was taped in front of several hundred advocates and survivors of sexual abuse at the Times Center in midtown Manhattan.
Before Robson and Safechuck sat with Winfrey, the audience at the Times Center had watched the documentary together. Many viewers responded with vocal emotion throughout its four-hour running time — breaking into applause, tears, gasps and a chorus of “mm-hmms” at numerous points. After, they greeted Robson and Safechuck with a standing ovation. (Perhaps the most enthusiastic whoops came when Safechuck’s mother revealed that she danced when Jackson died in 2009.)
Onstage, Safechuck and Robson, who were joined by director Reed, were more contemplative and subdued but equally forthcoming, speaking with sometimes painful honesty about the alleged ways Jackson exploited their love and admiration for him. In their telling, he manipulated them so effectively that they defended him against charges of molestation in 1993 and 2005, and continued to fear speaking out against the pop star even after his death.
Neither was willing to say they’d forgiven their mothers for allowing them to spend so much unsupervised time with Jackson, including overnight stays in hotel rooms and private residences. Robson said that his mother had watched the documentary but fast-forwarded through the graphic details of Jackson’s alleged abuse.
Both spoke at length about how having children helped motivate them to come forward and how therapy is helping them heal. Though, by his own admission, Safechuck is less far along than Robson. He seemed more fragile and rawly emotional, visibly tearing up when Winfrey asked about how he and Jackson allegedly exchanged wedding vows.
“It’s gonna be a lifelong journey for me,” he said. “This moment will end, and I still have a lot of work to do. I’m helping myself so I can be better for my kids and my family, and that’s the goal.”
And they’ve both found it hard to overcome feelings of loyalty to Jackson, however irrational they may be. “I felt guilt this weekend, like I let him down,” said Safechuck. “It’s still there. It just creeps out.”
A theme throughout the conversation was the way that Jackson had allegedly groomed both boys through ingratiation, flattery, lavish gifts and attention, using his extraordinary fame and stratospheric wealth to cultivate unwavering, irrational loyalty.
“The grooming had started long before we ever met him because he was such a massive figure and he presented himself as such an angel,” Robson said. “My whole family was already surrendered before we ever met him.”
As Winfrey noted, in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Jackson “was a god… There is no one we can compare him to. Stars don’t shine that brightly anymore.” (Ironically, as she spoke, onlookers in the glass-walled atrium behind the stage pointed at Winfrey and snapped photos of her with their phones.)
Winfrey asked Robson, Safechuck and Reed about the fierce condemnation the documentary has received from the Jackson estate, and read a statement saying the film’s creators were “not interested in the truth” and didn’t allow anyone from the Jackson estate to present its side.
“This is not a film about Michael Jackson; it’s about what happened to Wade and James,” Reed said.
“No one in the family disputes that he spent night after night with little boys,” he continued, dismissing the criticism that he hadn’t included Jackson allies or other dissenting points of view in the documentary. “What is at issue here is what happened when the bedroom door closed and the lights went off… What is the journalistic value of interviewing someone who says, ‘Well, Michael was a really nice guy,’ especially if that person has a gigantic vested interest, a financial interest, in smearing these two young men?”
Nevertheless, the Jackson estate has called the film “the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and, now, in death.” “Leaving Neverland,” the estate said, is “yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson.”
Winfrey did not discuss her own impressions of Jackson, whom she interviewed live from the Neverland Ranch in a much ballyhooed special in 1993 that generated an audience of 62 million and included pointed questions about Jackson’s changing appearance and his sexuality. (Winfrey famously asked the pop star whether he was a virgin.) After Jackson’s death in 2009, Winfrey said she believed Jackson had been honest with her in the interview.
Her opinion appears to have shifted since then, and she anticipated the criticism she’d probably face for giving a platform to Jackson’s accusers.
“I’m gonna get it. We’re all going to get it. ‘You’re trying to take a black man down.’ ” (Though Robson and Safechuck are both white, the subject of race did not otherwise come up in the conversation.)
Though he said he’d received death threats from Jackson supporters, Robson added that he’d been overwhelmed and pleasantly surprised by the largely positive response to the documentary so far. "That’s not what I expected. I expected to be bashed and mowed over.”
‘Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland’
When: 10 p.m. Monday