Michael, what have you done?
That’s what I keep asking him in my head. Because in my head, Michael and I have been friends my whole life. In my inner life’s landscape, he is as natural and enduring as Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh or any person I’ve known so long I can’t remember ever meeting them. No one ever told me who Michael Jackson was. He was just always there.
You have to understand, Michael was the first music I ever heard. My mom listened to one tape, and one tape only, while she was pregnant with me, and that was Thriller.
The first sounds I ever heard in this world were my mother’s heartbeat, my parents’ voices, and Michael singing about monsters. How he was going to protect us from them. Ignore his glowing eyes and the chill in his voice as he says “I’m not like other guys.”
Was he daring us to truly see him the entire time?
Wade Robson says that Michael began his grooming process long before he or James Safechuck ever met him, because Michael groomed the entire world.
What chance did one little boy have against him? Or two little boys, or three or four or perhaps more—no, definitely more?
What chance did any of us have?
You have to understand, I was a child when Michael was everything. Everyone in the world loved him—the biggest stars right now have barely an ember of his star power.
Even E.T. and Kermit were stoked to meet him. Fred Astaire was in awe of his dancing. Princesses and presidents bowed down to him. When everyone from luminaries to little kids treats you like a god, what hope do you have of staying human?
One day, we were dancing to the Black or White video in the living room at my friend’s house. My friend abruptly stopped dancing, ran to his mother in the kitchen and said, “Mom! If Dad dies, will you marry Michael Jackson?”
His mom laughed and said, “Sure, why not?” And my friend bopped happily back to his place in front of the altar to our hero and we danced to his song.
We were six.
Only now do I realize that he made that video—as a man in his 30s—with cameos from multiple children, including the most popular child star since Shirley Temple, the cartoon characters from every kid’s favorite TV show, and a child-friendly message of “It doesn’t matter what color your skin is! We can all dance together and turn into panthers!” rather than attempt a bolder, more artistically complex statement befitting someone of his talent and experience. Janelle Monae is the same age now and she’s been writing songs that run circles around Michael for years.
Did he ever truly care about his art? Or was it all calculated to appeal to children? To get him access to children?
One day, I was riding along in my babysitter’s car, listening to the Dangerous album. She knew everything about music. So she knew everything about Michael. She had Bad and Thriller ready for action, right in the front seat. I remember so clearly holding the Bad CD in one little hand, and Thriller in the other, and realizing for the first time, “He looks different.” But I never thought he looked like a different person. Even though his hair, his nose, his skin had completely changed, I could see the same soul across both faces.
At least, I thought I did. Now I think I imagined a spark in his eyes that was never truly there. But I was a child then, and Michael was just Michael. I’d known him for all seven years of my life, as long as I’d known anybody. Sure, I didn’t really know him, but that didn’t matter. I forgot about it a second later. It wasn’t worth thinking too hard about. Never even asked my babysitter to explain it, and I asked her to explain everything.
There was a song on Dangerous about a little girl who is murdered by an abusive guardian. Michael’s voice was so vivid and tender, even as he sang about the blood in the little girl’s hair. That song haunted me. I asked my babysitter to play it again and again.
I knew that children could be hurt by adults. When I was little, we were taught to be afraid of strangers and not walk anywhere by ourselves and never answer the door unless an adult was home. It was horrific and impossible to understand but always a lurking possibility that adults could hurt you. And I was glad that Michael was telling people about this.
Michael really cared about children, I thought. After all, he was friends with so many.
Wade was 5 when he won a dance contest in Australia, and first prize for being the best mini-Michael was to meet Michael himself. James was cast in a commercial at 9 where he wore Michael’s jackets and imitated his moves, and then after a camera crew came to his house to film an “audition tape” in his bedroom (for reasons never made clear to his mother, but she didn’t seem to mind), he was invited to join the Bad tour, and dance with Michael on stage every night.
Watching this little boy bound on stage, in front of thousands of screaming fans, and dance with all the confidence and joy in the world, as his shattered adult self wistfully narrates how much fun it was, made me cry for both of them.
Michael took all these luminous children and turned them into broken adults.
Was it some way of molding them into mini-Michaels forever?
They were so small.
When you’re a child, you don’t understand how small you truly are.
When Michael died, I cried for him. I’ve loved his music since before I knew what music was. I’ve spent hours watching his videos, documentaries, concerts. I’ve obsessed over his spins, his steps, the way he winks in Smooth Criminal, the way he snaps his fingers in the The Way You Make Me Feel. He’d gotten me through bad days at school, stress and sadness, a secret friend in my ear always eager to cheer me up. When my sister had to have cardiac surgery as a teenager, I spent twelve hours in the waiting room reading an 832-page biography on Michael. The only thing big enough to distract me from absolute crushing fear was him.
Stella and I got Mexican food and watched his funeral live on CNN. We cried for his children. They’ll never get to truly know him, we said.
Now I have to hope that he died before either of his sons reached his target age range.
After he died, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. What he could have accomplished if it weren’t for all the drama dragging him down in the last half of his life.
What he would’ve looked like if he’d been able to stand his own face.
What he could have done if he’d just gotten a good therapist and cut ties with his family and the hangers-on who kept turning on him for a payout.
Oh, yes, I believed that lie too. I mean, it had been fed to me since I was eight. Of course there are people out there who will lie that the worst crime has been committed against their child and willfully drag that child through the legal system and the 24/7 media spotlight and a lifetime of “Hey, weren’t you that kid . . .” just for a shot at a few bucks.
That makes total sense.
Why did it ever make sense?
After he died, I spent hours watching old videos and interviews and long story short, I took 255 screenshots and saved them to a file on my computer. I never looked at them again, so I don’t know why I needed to save them.
It started out as just wanting to find a good picture of him smiling—really smiling, not just posing or performing, but holding a genuine, human smile. Turned out, that was hard to find.
How sad, I thought. For all of his money and fame and accomplishments, he knew such little real happiness in his life. He always had to be “on.” He was so lonely, with no one who ever loved him for himself, but that was his sacrifice to make us all happy.
That’s what he told us.
Those boys loved him. Those boys still love him. James says that he feels guilty, still, for letting Michael down. When he speaks, he grips onto the arms of his chair, as if willing himself to disappear.
Everyone let James down, but no, he blames himself. It wasn’t his fault. It’s never any child’s fault, but he’s spent his entire life blaming himself. That’s what Michael trained him to do. That’s what this abuse does to you. It corrupts the very fabric of your soul.
Wade says that for him to understand that he was abused meant questioning everything that had ever happened to him from the age of 5, from his love of dance to the break-up of his family to his livelihood as an adult. It takes decades to understand and even longer to accept that your whole childhood was a lie.
“Michael was good. That was all that existed in my mind,” he says.
Michael willfully destroyed Wade’s childhood and his family. James will spend the rest of his life putting himself back together. A lot of survivors never make it there, but I truly hope he does. And they still loved him.
So many people still love him. But they don’t matter. What matters is that Wade and James are telling the truth. And we’re listening. We’ve lost our friend, for real this time—because not even death could truly take him, not when his music plays somewhere every minute—and what’s hardest to understand is that he was never our friend in the first place. We were all groomed. I was groomed before I was born.
We have to accept, at long last, that what we felt for him was genuine, but he never was.
Before I deleted my file of Michael’s pictures, I went through them all, one by one, but I never found that human smile. Just hundreds of shifting masks and hollow eyes with all the glow extinguished.