From the late ’60s to the late ’80s a popular PSA aired often asking an ominous question: “It’s 10 pm. Do you know where your children are?” For many years between 1988 to 2003 some parents answered, “Neverland Ranch.” In small and large groups — sometimes flying solo — children of all ages visited pop-icon Michael Jackson at his private theme park and home. Everyone knew about Neverland Ranch. Some children were able to visit because they were part of a Make-A-Wish outing or because their underprivileged school was invited. Many of MJ’s special Neverland buddies were in the right place in the right time … or, depending upon your vantage point of the last 25 years of abuse allegations, perhaps the wrong place at the wrong time.
The King of Pop was like the most popular kid at school except he wasn’t a kid. In his early 30s MJ made a habit of becoming best-friends with children (particularly young boys) and spending exorbitant amounts of time with them at Neverland Ranch and other places. He reportedly enjoyed watching movies, playing video games and settling to sleep after some cookies and milk. Some of the kids who got Michael’s attention were celebrities like Macauley Culkin. MJ saw Culkin in Home Alone and reached out to him. The two were best friends for years.
Other Neverland Ranch guests were inducted into the family for different reasons — some because they had been ill and MJ had become close with them. Jackson had a longstanding relationship with David “Dave Dave” Rothenberg a little boy who was infamously left to die in a motel his father had set on fire. Dave Dave reportedly kept in contact with MJ for years and spoke highly of his compassion and friendship.
As his career grew and grew MJ included kids in his music as well as his personal life. He performed at the Super Bowl in 1993 singing his hit song, Heal The World, along with a 35,000 person flashcard show and rows upon rows of ethnically diverse children singing and holding hands.
Sure, he was a little eccentric but mostly MJ was beloved and held on the highest throne of stardom. He was truly the King of Pop, and when someone is a King they are inevitably held to different standards than the rest of the world. And in the story of Michael Jackson that different status was problematic in a way that should be a major moral lesson to the world.
The rules MJ played by were different, and the time was different. Were the early ’90s so different that it was normal for parents to say, “Sure, 10-13 year old child, you may have a slumber party with your 35-year-old friend”? Probably not, but the world was not as quick to think about that issue as it is today.
Last year pop star Drake, 31, was called out for being friends with young actress Millie Bobby Brown, 14. Though the full extent of their friendship is allegedly text messages the world was quick to jump in with some strongly worded opinions.
So where were those opinions when Macauley Culkin was having slumber parties at Michael Jackson’s house? Who knows but is that inherently evil? Well, no. Now in his 30s, Culkin still vouches for Michael Jackson and has only ever spoken highly of him testifying that he does not believe the pop star was a sexual predator and asserting that he never behaved inappropriately with him.
Whether Jackson’s belief that it’s appropriate for an adult to share their bed with a child is eccentric or normal that belief did not make him a child abuser. Unfortunately it’s difficult to come to a solid conclusion with all of the conflicting information out there regarding the accusations against him.
On one hand there are endless character witnesses and an acquittal. There are reasons to believe the man just wanted to be a kid, which he stated constantly. There are the testimonies from MJ’s young friends Wade Robson and James Safechuck stating Jackson was a great (and non-abusive) buddy.
On the other hand there are those two same boys — now men — who, after Jackson’s death, woke up one morning and decided to speak up as survivors.
It’s an unfortunate situation however you slice it. If they are telling the truth now that means they played a large part in keeping Jackson out of prison with what would ultimately have been false testimony. On that same hand, there may be even more damning evidence — things like relationships with young kids, an absurd obsession with childhood and a big old creepy resort.
Unless it’s not creepy at all. Maybe, just to entertain another point of view, it’s more sad than creepy.
The world may never get the full story, but myriad documentaries have been made. Most recently, Leaving Neverland premiered at Sundance. The four hour documentary has been called one-sided but has boasted that it will make viewers believers of Jackson’s potential guilt. Wherever your opinion falls, don’t get too comfortable.