Content Warning: This piece discusses child sexual abuse.
In the new HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, two men — Wade Robson and James Safechuck — describe, in detail, their accusations of child sexual abuse against Michael Jackson. Robson says that Jackson began abusing him when he was 7; Safechuck says that Jackson began abusing him when he was 10. Both men say that the abuse stopped when they were in their early teens and beginning to go through puberty. (Jackson’s estate has denied all accusations.) Robson and Safechuck say the negative effects of the abuse continued into adulthood, as they do for many survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
In the documentary, both men describe struggling with their mental health in adulthood, experiencing depression, anxiety, insomnia, self-isolation, self-hatred, shame, and difficulties in their romantic relationships. Safechuck also describes periods of substance abuse. “Secrets will eat you up,” Safechuck explains in the documentary. “It sucks life out of you, just deteriorates you from the inside, like a part of you is dead. It kind of took everything I had to function during the day, to let other people see me as a functioning person. It took a lot of effort to keep it together. And then I would go home and be a wreck.”
According to RAINN, one in nine girls and one in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience child sexual abuse or assault. Common long-term effects include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and drug abuse. In a statement to Refinery29, a representative for RAINN said, “Every 11 minutes, a child is sexually assaulted in the United States. Survivors of child sexual abuse may experience the effects many years after the abuse occurs, including feeling guilt or shame for not being able to stop the abuse. It's important for survivors to know that the abuse was not their fault and there is no timeline for healing."
Kristen Houser, Chief Public Affairs Officer of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, stresses that every survivor’s experience will be different. Along with the effects that Robson and Safechuck describe in the documentary and the effects named by RAINN, she says that other possible long-term effects of child sexual abuse include mood disorders, eating disorders, suicidal ideations, and problems with anger. She also points out that childhood sexual abuse can disrupt a child’s education, which affects their long-term career and financial prospects. In Leaving Neverland, Safechuck says that Michael Jackson encouraged his family to let him drop classes so he could focus on his goal of becoming a director; Jackson gave Safechuck funding so he could create short films, including one at Neverland Ranch. “He very much is making you depend on him, like, ‘Don’t go get an education, I’ll take care of it,’” Safechuck says. “And then when he went away, it kind of derailed, and I was pretty lost.”
Mic Hunter, a clinical psychologist and the author of Abused Boys: The Neglected Victims Of Sexual Abuse, explains that some child sexual abuse survivors will have difficulty saying “no” to sexual encounters as adults. “Sometimes what childhood victims learn is, Well, it doesn’t do any good to say no, because things just happen anyway. So even when they get older and they have more choices because they’re adults, they don't have the psychological sense that they can say no,” he says. Houser adds that some predators may target those who have already survived sexual abuse. “We know that for many people, sexual abuse is not a one-time occurrence,” she says. “It’s about the fact that the offenders are looking for vulnerabilities to exploit.”
In Leaving Neverland, Robson and Safechuck say that having their own children exacerbated their mental health difficulties. For Robson, becoming a father coincided with getting his first film as a director — and the stress led to a breakdown. “I stopped being able to sleep at all,” Robson says. “Lying in bed for eight, nine hours, staring at the walls. Stressed and anxiety and fears beyond belief. It gets to the point where I’m barely operating. I removed myself from the film, I removed myself from any work, I disappeared from the world. Agents, managers don’t call me. I was barely talking to my family.”
Experts say that having a child of their own can be an "eye-opener" for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and Safechuck explains why in the documentary. “I think the abuse symptoms intensify when you have kids,” he says. “It ramps up even more when you see how innocent kids are. I think having kids kind of shoves that in your face. He’s getting closer to the age I was when I was abused. So that is difficult to deal with and see, watch him kind of become you at that age.”
For Robson, having his own child was the impetus that led him to begin speaking about his abuse for the first time. Safechuck had hinted at the abuse to his mother when he asked her not to defend Jackson during his 2004-2005 trial, but he didn’t tell anyone the details until he saw Robson give an interview about his experiences on TV. “You have these symptoms, and then you find out that somebody else has them, and they went through something that you went through,” Safechuck says. “I really just wanted to talk to Wade, because you feel so alone.” After seeing Robson come forward, Safechuck showed his wife the interview and told her about the abuse for the first time.
It often takes child sexual abuse survivors many years to begin to come to terms with the abuse; as Safechuck explains, “They say time heals all wounds, but I don’t think time heals this one. It just gets worse. You can’t talk to anybody about it. You don’t get advice or perspective. You’re stuck keeping a secret so you don’t ever figure it out. You’re just stuck.” Dr. Hunter says, “Usually it just doesn’t go away. People keep hoping it will. I see guys in their 60s and they say, ‘I hoped this would go away, and it came up when my son turned eight, and now my grandson is eight, and I can’t sleep at night and I’m having those feelings and intrusive thoughts again, and I’m sick of it and I want to finally deal with this.’”
The experts I spoke to stressed that healing is possible. “When you feel like someone believes you and has got your back and wants to help make you whole, that too can be a life-changing experience,” Houser says. Healing looks different for everyone, she says, but there are some commonalities. “People need to feel supported and believed,” she explains. “Having those terrible experiences validated; having people help you realize you weren’t to blame for it, you did not cause it, you do not have a character flaw about you that causes people to treat you that way. People often need assistance seeing themselves through the eyes of somebody who’s kind to them, and giving them encouragement to recognize their strength and their resilience.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).