Q: My grandfather was a pillar of the community and beloved by his family. He was also sexually abusive. He died when I was a child. I remember only one incident happening to me—during a cuddle session, he encouraged me to put my mouth on his penis, and then told me to let it be our little secret. I heard rumors as an adult that he molested other kids in the neighborhood. He also had a sexual relationship with my mother. She says nothing happened as a child. But as an adult, he started telling her he loved her in a romantic way. He told her he wanted to take nude Polaroids of her, and she let him. And she loved him—she and her sisters all pretty much idolized him. My one aunt knew (she said nothing happened to her), and I asked her how she reconciled that. She said she compartmentalized it—she thought he was a wonderful father and didn’t really think about the other stuff. I did lots of therapy in the late 1980s and early ’90s. I read books, I journaled, I talked to my mom and tried to understand what she experienced. And I moved on as much as anyone could. So now it’s 2019 and I’m almost 50. My mom just moved into a nursing home, and while cleaning out her drawers, I found the Polaroids my grandfather took of her. I know it was him because he is in some of them, taken into a mirror as she goes down on him. They were taken over a period of years. She had led me to believe he never really did anything sexual with her besides taking photos. But he did. And here’s the thing, Dan: In the photos, she looks happy. I know she was probably acting, because that’s what he wanted from her. But it just makes me question my assumptions. Was it terrible abuse or forbidden love? Both? What am I looking at? What would I prefer—that she enjoyed it or that she didn’t? She kept the photos. Were they fond memories? I know she loved him. She kind of fell apart when he died. Was he a fucking manipulator who had a gift for making his victims feel loved and special as he exploited them for his own selfish needs? I don’t know if I’m going to bring this up with my mom. She’s old and sick, and I dragged her through these types of conversations in my 20s. So I’m writing you. This is so far out of most people’s experience, and I want someone who has heard more sexual secrets than probably anyone else in the world to tell me what he thinks.
— Whirlwind Of Emotions
A: I think you should sit down and watch all four hours of Leaving Neverland, the new HBO documentary by British filmmaker Dan Reed. It focuses on the experiences of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two now-adult men who were sexually abused by pop star Michael Jackson when they were boys. Allegedly. It’s an important film to watch, WOE, but it’s not an easy one to watch, as it includes graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse both men claim to have suffered as boys.
The second most disturbing part of the film after the graphic descriptions of child rape—or the third most disturbing part after the credulity/culpability of Robson’s and Safechuck’s parents—may be what the men have to say about Jackson. Both describe their abuser in romantic terms. They both say they loved Jackson. And they both remain deeply conflicted about their feelings for Jackson then and their feelings for him now. It was their affection for Jackson—their desire to protect him and to safeguard what Jackson convinced them was a secret and a bond they shared—that led both men to lie to law-enforcement officials when Jackson was accused of sexually abusing different boys.
You should also listen to Reed’s interview on The Gist, Mike Pesca’s terrific daily podcast. Reading your letter the morning after I watched Leaving Neverland reminded me of something Reed said to Pesca: “What the film is about is the reckoning. It’s two families coming to terms with what happened to their sons. And a big part of understanding that, you know—so why the silence? Why did the sons keep silent for so long? Why did they keep the secret? And the key really is to be able to explain why Wade gave false witness and perjured himself on the witness stand. And the reason for that, of course, has to do with how survivors of sexual abuse experience that. And how they keep a secret and how they sometimes form deep attachments with the abuser and how that attachment persists into adult life.”
Your mother, like Robson and Safechuck, lied to protect her abuser, a man who abused her and abused you and probably many others. She may have held on to those photos for the same reason Robson and Safechuck say they defended Jackson: She loved her father, and she was so damaged by what he did to her—she had been so expertly groomed by her abuser—that she felt “loved” and “special” in the same way that Jackson’s alleged abuse once made Robson and Safechuck feel loved and special. So as horrifying as it is to contemplate, WOE, your mother may have held on to those photos because they do represent what are, for her, “fond memories.” And while it would be a comfort to think she held on to those photos as proof for family members who doubted her story if she ever decided to tell the truth, her past defenses of her father work against that explanation.
Leaving Neverland demonstrates that sexual abuse plants a ticking time bomb inside a person—shit, sorry, no passive language. Leaving Neverland demonstrates that sexual predators like your grandfather and like Jackson—fucking manipulators with a gift for making their victims feel loved and special—plant ticking time bombs in their victims. Even if a victim doesn’t initially experience their abuse as a violation and as violence, WOE, a reckoning almost inevitably comes. One day, the full horror of what was done to them snaps into focus. These reckonings can shatter lives, relationships, and souls.
It doesn’t sound like your mother ever had her reckoning—that day never came for her—and so she never came to grips with what was done to her and, tragically, what was done to you. And your aunt wasn’t the only member of your family who “didn’t really think about the other stuff.” Just as denial and compartmentalization enabled Jackson and facilitated his crimes (and allowed the world to enjoy Jackson’s music despite what was staring us all in the face), denial and compartmentalization allowed your “pillar of the community” grandfather to rape his daughter, his granddaughter, and scores of other children. Like Robson and Safechuck, WOE, you have a right to be angry with the adults in your family who failed to protect you from a known predator. That some of them were also his victims provides context, but it does not exonerate them.
I’m glad your grandfather died when you were young. It’s tempting to wish he’d never been born, WOE, but then you would never have been born, and I’m glad you’re here. I’m particularly glad you’re there, right now, embedded in your damaged and damaging family. By telling the truth, you’re shattering the silence that allowed an abuser to groom and prey on children across multiple generations of your family. Your grandfather can’t victimize anyone else, WOE, but by speaking up—by refusing to look the other way—you’ve made it harder for other predators to get away with what your grandfather did.
P.S. There’s a moment in the credits for Leaving Neverland that I think you might want to replicate. It involves some things one of Jackson’s alleged victims saved and a fire pit. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.