Michael Jackson, Delayed Allegations and Witch Hunts
A shorter version of this article is cross-posted at the Huffington Post.
When Michael Jackson died unexpectedly in June of 2009, then-26-year-old choreographer Wade Robson – who has recently made headlines for accusing the pop star of molestation – wrote about his longtime friend and mentor:
Michael Jackson changed the world and, more personally, my life forever. He is the reason I dance, the reason I make music, and one of the main reasons I believe in the pure goodness of humankind. He has been a close friend of mine for 20 years. His music, his movement, his personal words of inspiration and encouragement and his unconditional love will live inside of me forever. I will miss him immeasurably, but I know that he is now at peace and enchanting the heavens with a melody and a moonwalk.
Such a gushing statement came as no surprise to those who knew Robson’s backstory. During Jackson’s Bad World Tour in 1987, five-year-old Robson won a local dance competition in Australia. The reward was attending a backstage meet-and-greet with the King of Pop and the opportunity to join his idol on stage at the end of the concert.
Two years passed before Robson saw Jackson again. This time he was performing at Disneyland when his mother, Joy, decided to reach out to Jackson’s secretary to see if they could meet again. Jackson allowed the Robson family to visit him at the recording studio at Record One where he was working on his Dangerous album. He also invited them to stay at his Neverland Ranch. This hospitality was not unusual for Jackson. Around this same time, Jackson also spent countless hours at his Ranch with AIDS victim, Ryan White, who had been shunned, taunted and bullied at his school in Kokomo, Indiana. “Those trips to California kept me going,” Ryan White said. Similar positive experiences have been shared by hundreds of others.
Not long after their visit to Neverland, the Robson family decided to move to California to allow Wade and his sister, Chantal, more opportunities in the entertainment industry. Over the subsequent years, a friendship blossomed between the Robsons and Jackson. Wade Robson was ambitious and talented, and Jackson took on the role of mentor, teaching him the nuances of his craft and signing him to his MJJ Productions label. Jackson also gave him small parts in his music videos, including “Black or White.”
Robson went on to have a successful career in the industry, choreographing for the likes of Britney Spears and ‘N Sync, and later having his work showcased on shows like So You Think You Can Dance. In 2005, he married Hawaii native Amanda Rodriguez.
That same year, Robson, who had every reason to avoid the circus that was the 2005 Michael Jackson child molestation trial, decided to testify under oath about his experiences with the singer. First questioned by Jackson’s attorney Thomas Mesereau and then under rigorous cross-examination, Robson matter-of-factly gave his account of his time with the artist. Robson repeatedly and adamantly denied being molested or of any other inappropriate sexual activity.
After Jackson was acquitted of all charges a few months later, Wade Robson’s mother Joy spoke of their family’s relief about the verdict. “We were crying and screaming and crying and screaming…We all believed ultimately the truth would come out…I’ve always said to Michael, ‘I wished the world could know the Michael we do.’”
Wade Robson invited Jackson to his wedding later that year, but Jackson decided not to attend because he did not want to turn the joyous occasion into a media circus.
Jackson and Robson, however, remained good friends. Whenever asked, Robson continued to praise Jackson as his biggest inspiration.
They last met in Las Vegas in 2008. Jackson was living there with his three children and Robson was working on a show in the city. “Me, my wife and him and his three kids had a barbecue,” recalled Robson. “It was the most normal thing in the world.”
It had been over twenty years since they first met, and Robson was still, by his own admission, completely unaffected by any past abuse or trauma. His life and career were thriving. He also seemed to have no concerns about Jackson’s own young children.
According to initial reports, Robson’s attorney, Henry Gradstein, claimed the reason his client lied under oath and continued to praise the pop star following his death was because the alleged abuse was a “repressed memory.” Repressed memories — instances in which an individual believes they have blocked or forgotten a traumatic event before “recovering” it years or decades later — has become a highly controversial subject in the field of psychology. According to the American Psychological Association, “experienced clinical psychologists state that the phenomenon of a recovered memory is rare (e.g., one experienced practitioner reported having a recovered memory arise only once in 20 years of practice).” The overwhelming consensus by experts is that such “memories” are not reliable without corroborating evidence. Dr. Richard McNally, Professor and Director of Clinical Training in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, describes the phenomenon of belatedly recovered memories as “the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry.”
In his interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show, however, Robson claimed that that his memories of abuse were not repressed; he was simply unable to process them emotionally or psychologically. Robson claims that he was fully aware Jackson was a child abuser at the time of his 2005 trial, but decided to lie under oath because he didn’t yet realize what happened to him was wrong. Robson was 22 at the time. But perhaps, one might assume, in the months or years to come he regretted his decision and went to authorities — at least to prevent further “victims.” Nope. Instead, he was barbecuing with MJ and family in 2008, and praising him without any pressure or prompt in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.
It goes without saying that accusations of abuse must always be taken seriously. When an individual has told one story very credibly and convincingly as an adult, however, and then suddenly changes it with no corroborating evidence (letters, photos, phone conversations, witnesses, etc.) to file a creditor’s claim, it deserves a healthy dose of skepticism. Believing such claims on faith can be dangerous, destroying lives and reputations with absolutely no proof beyond the accusation.
According to Wade Robson’s attorney, Henry Gradstein, it was sometime in 2012 when the choreographer had a mental breakdown, and “collapsed under the stress” of his recovered memory. Robson’s career had also taken a downturn with the choreographer mysteriously dropping out of many projects. Soon after, Robson decided to file a creditor’s claim against Jackson’s estate. Robson also filed a civil lawsuit in L.A. County Superior Court, in which he is reportedly targeting companies associated with Jackson. Whatever one makes of his allegations, then, they are not simply to heal. Robson clearly wants a payout.
In a statement, Howard Weitzman, an attorney representing Jackson’s estate, called Robson’s accusations “outrageous and pathetic…This is a young man who has testified at least twice under oath over the past 20 years and said in numerous interviews that Michael Jackson never did anything inappropriate to him or with him. Now, nearly 4 years after Michael has passed this sad and less than credible claim has been made. We are confident that the court will see this for what it is.“
Jackson’s attorney, Thomas Mesereau, feels Robson’s claims are shamelessly motivated by money, given the timing (a high-stakes trial between Jackson’s mother and concert promoter AEG Live, is currently being litigated) and the enormous amount of wealth the Jackson estate has generated since the singer’s death.
Regardless of one’s views of Jackson, Robson’s case raises serious questions about the nature and validity of decade-delayed allegations, especially when attached to money.
Dr. Elizabeth F. Loftus, a renowned cognitive psychologist and human memory expert from the University of Washington, notes that these memories can often be triggered by therapist suggestion. “Some contemporary therapists have been known to tell patients, merely on the basis of a suggestive history or symptom profile, that they definitely had a traumatic experience…Once the ‘diagnosis’ is made, the therapist urges the patient to pursue the recalcitrant memories.”
Wade Robson, then, could very well believe he was abused even if it never happened.
In any case, objectivity and fairness should compel at least some burden of proof. Robson’s own family members have repeatedly defended Jackson over a period of twenty years. Were all of them completely oblivious to what happened until just months ago?
Numerous other individuals who were close to Jackson as children continue to defend him with no apparent incentive for doing so. Since the latest allegations, several people who visited Jackson’s Neverland Ranch as children, have once again spoken out in support of the artist, including Alfonso Ribeiro, Frank Cascio, Brett Barnes, and Jackson’s nephews, Taryll, T.J. and Taj Jackson.
In defense of his uncle, Taj Jackson wrote movingly on Twitter:
I will not sit back and let someone flat out lie about my uncle. PERIOD. I am writing these words knowing that the minute I press send, my life will never be the same afterwards…I was sexually abuse[d]. By an uncle on my mom’s side of the family when I was a kid. My uncle [Michael Jackson] was a support system for me and my mom. He wrote a letter to her that many have seen already, u just didn’t know what it was about. That is how I KNOW Wade is lying. Because I AM a survivor. My hands are still trembling. Don’t forget I was living at Neverland when Wade testified during my uncle’s case. I sat there and ate dinner with him and his family. I will not let them smear my Uncle’s legacy. I don’t want to go on TV. I don’t want publicity, I just want the truth. I hate that Wade made me do this, this way. But since my uncle Michael is no longer here to defend himself. I will.
The letter Taj Jackson referred to was written by Jackson some time in the 1980s. It reads:
Dee Dee Please read this article about child molestation and please read it to Taj, T.J., and Taryll, it brings out how even your own relatives can be molesters of children, or even uncles or aunts molesting nephews or nieces, please read. Love MJ.
Later faced with the public perception that he himself was a child molester, Jackson wrote these lyrics to an unreleased song, called “An Innocent Man”:
If I sail to Acapulco
Or Cancun, Mexico
There the law is waiting
And God knows that I’m innocent
If they won’t take me in Cairo
Then Lord where will I go?
I’ll die a man without a country
And only God knew I was innocent now.
As an eccentric, wealthy man who opened his home to thousands of people, including disadvantaged and ill children, Jackson was an undeniably easy target. But is it conceivable that of the hundreds of children who spent time with him, only a handful were abused? Is it possible that after two unannounced, scouring searches of his homes, in 1993 and again in 2003, resulting in no child pornography or other corroborating evidence, that the artist was nonetheless masterfully hiding criminal behavior?
Or have we, as a society, conflated Jackson’s difference and eccentricity with criminality? In 2005, infotainment pundit Nancy Grace infamously deduced Jackson’s guilt from his strange appearance and childlike sensibility. It was inconceivable to her that a grown man would want to spend so much time with children without wanting to have sex with them.
No doubt, after hearing these latest accusations, some will likewise conclude that “where there is smoke there is fire.”
Jackson, of course, is no longer here to defend himself. The unacknowledged tragedy the fair-minded person must at least consider is this: the life and career of one of the most talented and creative artists of the past century was derailed and ultimately destroyed by allegations, innuendo, sensationalism and speculation, but no concrete evidence and no witnesses or accusers who didn’t want money.
The term “witch hunt” is often used to describe the moral panic and hysteria caused by individuals who threaten our sense of normalcy, order and social assumptions. They must be disciplined or punished to allow people to feel safe, regardless of actual guilt or innocence. So, for example, in the Salem witch trials, women were profiled, accused and sentenced to death for a range of perceived “suspicious” behaviors or traits. Or, historically, African American men have been unfairly targeted and lynched because of myths and culturally-ingrained hysteria about their “predatory” intentions with white women (see D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation).
Over his lifetime (and now in death), Michael Jackson faced more frivolous lawsuits than any individual in American history. During the Thriller era, dozens of women claimed he was the father of their children. As recently as 2010, a woman named Billie Jean filed a $600 million paternity lawsuit against Jackson’s estate.
In 2010, part of Jackson’s FBI file was released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) at the request of media, including British journalist Charles Thomson. “A lengthy report,” writes Thomson, “shows that when Jackson’s Neverland Ranch was raided in 2003, the FBI went over every computer seized from the property with a fine tooth comb looking for any incriminating files or internet activity. Jackson’s file contained individual summaries of the FBI’s findings for each of the 16 computers. Scrawled in capital letters across each of those 16 reports – ‘NOTHING’.”
Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi, an incisive cultural critic with no investment whatsoever in Jackson’s legacy, described the 2005 court case against Jackson like this:
Ostensibly a story about bringing a child molester to justice, the Michael Jackson trial would instead be a kind of homecoming parade of insipid American types: grifters, suckers and no-talent schemers, mired in either outright unemployment…or the bogus non-careers of the information age, looking to cash in any way they can. The MC of the proceedings was District Attorney Tom Sneddon, whose metaphorical role in this American reality show was to represent the mean gray heart of the Nixonian Silent Majority – the bitter mediocrity itching to stick it to anyone who’d ever taken a vacation to Paris. The first month or so of the trial featured perhaps the most compromised collection of prosecution witnesses ever assembled in an American criminal case – almost to a man a group of convicted liars, paid gossip hawkers or worse…
In the next six weeks, virtually every piece of his case imploded in open court, and the chief drama of the trial quickly turned into a race to see if the DA could manage to put all of his witnesses on the stand without getting any of them removed from the courthouse in manacles. Sneddon’s hard-on for Jackson was a faith-based vengeance grab every bit as blind and desperate as George Bush’s “case” against Saddam Hussein…
Jackson, of course, was acquitted of all charges in 2005 after two grueling years of investigations, testimony and proceedings. Four years later, in 2009, after years of living as a cultural pariah, a vagabond drifting from country to country, he died at the age of fifty in Los Angeles. The silver lining, one assumed, was that at least his many troubles would end and the focus could return to his rich artistic legacy. But as long as big money is involved, it seems, the relentless stream of grifters will continue.
And in the court of public opinion, the Michael Jackson witch trial goes on.