On “Leaving Neverland”

I finished watching Leaving Neverland. Part two is extraordinary and moving. The men are present and touching, grappling with the complexity of their childhoods and the legacy of those experiences in their adult lives. Wade’s mother asks, “How could you not have told me?” It was the question my sister asked me about the sexual abuse I experienced at the hands of a man trusted and revered by my family. I was 14. My cousin, to whom it also happened, was 11 when it began for her. It happened to me twice in the course of a day and night. That’s all, and yet it marked my life, because the person who is doing it to you has no idea how they are changing you from that time forward. You are never going to be the person you were before those experiences, but this is only something I can tell you looking back over many decades. My sense of myself and of the world was spliced in that day. It never occurred to me to tell anyone at the time it happened, just as it did not occur to Wade and Jimmy to tell anyone, despite the fact that other boys came forward. It is part of the enchantment of the experience that you live with it inside you in ways that are not translatable. The film conveys this beautifully in the attention it pays to these men, remembering their lives with far less interest in blame than in seeing who they were and who the man was who ushered them to sex before they had words for these states of being. I was older and could attach language to it. Also, I was not seduced and did not love the man, as Jimmy and Wade loved Michael. I knew all sorts of things I could not speak about. The film is important in tracing the natural history of sexual abuse inside the people it happened to, inside the families that allowed it to occur, inside the culture that accepted the limitless power of certain individuals and still accepts their power.

I posted this on Facebook, then added these comments about switching focus to the bad man away from those who were manipulated: So often in stories about sexual abuse, the focus is on the abuser, so people can aim their righteous attention without having to take in the more nuanced and layered story of the person who came under the influence of power. What does it feel like being a child with the potential to upend the reality of everyone you know? That condition alone has enormous weight in your psyche, especially if it is unable to be shared. When I wrote about “The Incest Diary,” I found the same wish to shift focus to the bad man from the female narrator who was taking pains to present the moment-to-moment variability of her consciousness. Some people found that too difficult to look at, so they shut it down. To me, what these men are doing on camera in their vigilant accounts is riveting because it feels so right and because what happened to them and who they were in those moments also contains a component that will remain mysterious and unanalyzable.

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