Leaving Neverland: The most disturbing moments in Michael Jackson documentary part one

Roisin O'Connor

The first part of Leaving Neverland, the controversial docuseries that addresses allegations of child sexual abuse against Michael Jackson, has aired in the US.

Director Dan Reed’s film follows two of Jackson’s accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who describe in graphic detail the acts they claim the late pop star committed against them.

Robson met Jackson after winning a dance competition when he was five years old, and says the sexual abuse began when he was seven. Safechuck starred in a Pepsi commercial with Jackson when he was eight, and alleges that the abuse began after months of close friendship.

By the time he died at the age of 50 in 2009, Jackson had been linked to allegations of child sexual abuse for over 15 years. Leaving Neverland is the most extensive, in-depth look at those accusations, with testimony from Robson, Safechuck and their families.

Jackson’s family and his estate have publicly denounced the documentary, and branded Safechuck and Robson as “opportunists” and “admitted liars”. In a lawsuit against HBO, the Jackson estate called the documentary a “one-sided marathon of unvetted propaganda to shamelessly exploit an innocent man no longer here to defend himself”.

Yet many have reacted with disgust to what they witness in the documentary. Critics have noted that after watching Leaving Neverland, it becomes impossible to walk away without thinking that Jackson was “a sad, strange, damaged man but also a predatory criminal”, as Ed Cumming said in his review for The Independent.

Here are five of the most disturbing things to emerge from Leaving Neverland.

Neverland had several places where Jackson would take his victims

Safechuck describes in great detail the various rooms and places at Jackson’s Neverland ranch where they would be alone together, from attic rooms to a cinema, to a games room and the teepees at Jackson’s “fort” in the grounds. The hallway leading to his bedroom had a series of doors with bells attached that would ring to announce that someone was approaching.

Michael Jackson groomed the alleged victim’s families, as well as the children

Joy Robson and Stephanie Safechuck both admit that for a long time Jackson felt like a son to them. Jackson visited both the families’ homes, had dinner with them, invited them on tour and hosted them at his own homes, including the Neverland ranch.

It quickly becomes clear that both families were so overwhelmed by Jackson’s fame that they were convinced they could trust him to be alone with their children for days at a time. Robson’s sister recalls going to stores with Jackson and being told to get “anything you want”.

Michael Jackson at Safechuck’s home (Channel 4)
Michael Jackson at Safechuck’s home (Channel 4)

Jackson “married” Safechuck

Safechuck says that Jackson used his childhood interests against him. In one of the most powerful moments of the documentary, Safechuck recalls his love of jewellery, and how Jackson would exploit this, including one occasion where he bought Safechuck a wedding ring. They would go to jewellery stores and pretend they were buying things for a woman, and that Safechuck was there because his hands were a more similar size to a woman’s. Safechuck is visibly upset as he shows the camera the ring and other things he says Jackson gave him as “rewards” for sexual acts.

“We were like this married couple, and I say ‘married’ because we had this mock wedding ceremony,” Safechuck says. “We did it in his bedroom, we filled out some vows and it was like ‘we’re bonded forever’.”

“[The ring] has a row of diamonds with a gold band... the wedding ring," he continues. "It’s hard to go back to that moment. It’s hard for me to not blame myself.”

Jackson and his team kept Robson and Safechuck’s parents away from their children

“Our room started to get further and further away from Michael’s room, and when I asked about it, we weren’t even on the same floor now, in Paris, and I asked about it and they said ‘we couldn’t get you a suite close to Michael, no suites available, this is where we could get you the nicest room’,” Safechuck’s mother Stephanie explains in the documentary. “And that made sense to me, but then in Germany we were really far away from Michael’s room, and we couldn’t get near them.”

Robson’s family went on a camping trip to the Grand Canyon while he stayed at Neverland with Jackson, and his mother recalls how there were no direct telephone lines at the time, so she was unable to contact her son.

Jackson made Safechuck and Robson practise “drills” if someone walked in on them

“He would run drills with me where we’d be in the hotel room and he’d pretend someone was coming in and you’d have to get dressed as fast as possible without making any noise,” Safechuck said. ”It was very much a secret, and he would tell me that if anybody found out, his life would be over and my life would be over.”

Michael Jackson with the Robson family (Channel 4)
Michael Jackson with the Robson family (Channel 4)

Jackson created an “us and them” dynamic with Safechuck, Robson and their families

Stephanie Safechuck believed her son was too busy “having fun” to notice that she and her husband were no longer sleeping in the same bedroom, and were “fighting all the time”. However, Safechuck then reveals that he and Jackson would regularly “eavesdrop” on their phone calls, and Jackson would use the arguments to create an “us and them” dynamic between him and Safechuck, and Safechuck’s parents.

“We would eavesdrop on my parents when they were fighting and he would tell me ‘how mean your mum is’ and ‘how evil women are’ but at the time you just hear your mum yelling at your dad, and Michael feeds into that... your love for him is growing, and your relationships with other people are becoming less. You start to think that your parents are bad, and Michael is good.”

He would tell Robson, “you and I were brought together by God”, Robson says, describing how the abuse escalated from fondling, kissing and taking showers together to more involved acts. “He would say, ‘This is how we show our love’,” Robson says.

Leaving Neverland airs in the UK as two parts, on Wednesday 6 and Thursday 7 March at 9pm on Channel 4