A clinical psychologist discusses Leaving Neverland, abuse, and trauma

New York City-based clinical psychologist Dr. Meg Rich, Psy.D., provides context on a difficult subject.

March 14, 2019
A clinical psychologist discusses <i>Leaving Neverland</i>, abuse, and trauma HBO

Earlier this month, HBO released Leaving Neverland, a two-part, four-hour docuseries that follows the lives of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who have accused Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them as children. In sickening detail, both men describe the abuses that Jackson allegedly committed throughout their childhoods, often while their families were under the same roof.

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In “After Neverland,” an hour-long special that immediately followed the premiere of Leaving Neverland, Oprah Winfrey spoke with Robson and Safechuck, focusing on the experiences of survivors and inviting a crowd of audience members who’ve experienced childhood sexual abuse. “For me, this moment transcends Michael Jackson. It is much bigger than any one person,” she said. “This is a moment in time that allows us to see this societal corruption. It’s like a scourge on humanity and it’s happening right now. It’s happening in families.”

In a statement, Michael Jackson’s estate has denied all claims presented in the film, saying “Leaving Neverland isn’t a documentary, it is the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death. The film takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened 20 years ago and treats them as fact.”

To help contextualize the countless conversations online and in media on the pervasiveness of childhood sexual abuse, I spoke with Dr. Meg Rich, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. Dr. Rich specializes in working with adults who have experiences with complex and developmental trauma.

In person and over email, she explained some of the effects of childhood sexual abuse, power dynamics that can exist between victims and abusers, and what it could mean when a graphic and provoking documentary such as Leaving Neverland is available for mass consumption.

Childhood sexual abuse is incredibly complex, and research on it is vast and dense. The discussion below does not seek to generalize or minimize any experience, but to provide some context to a larger cultural conversation.


Can you give a brief explainer of what trauma is and how it can affect us?

In the field of trauma that I am in, we define trauma as any experience of overwhelming powerlessness. You might imagine when you hear that that pretty much anybody has experienced trauma because overwhelming powerlessness is a part of the human experience, and there are many of us who believe that trauma, unfortunately is a part of the human experience.

In psychology, we often talk about trauma in terms of, “Big T” traumas and “Little T” traumas, and I think that does have some use, but for me I think it can lead to some shaming and problematic distinctions. If you experience powerlessness and threat, the effect on your brain is not fundamentally different according to the degree of your experience, necessarily. The manifestations of shame, pain, and threat to physical integrity, of course, can differ greatly. But, in any traumatic experience, your frontal cortex, which helps you to plan, organize, execute, etc is shutting down, and your brain is being hijacked by survival responses. During this process, you can develop symptoms that are universal across different experiences of trauma, from loss of a parent all the way to repeated sexual assault ‚ including dysregulated mood, disrupted memory functioning, difficulty forming and maintaining safe relationships, destructive coping strategies, dissociation, even psychosis.

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The part of your brain that is running things when you are under threat, the brain stem or “reptilian brain,” starts to respond to your lack of safety (sometimes consciously, sometimes not), activating your sympathetic nervous system, which is your defense against threat, and what we often refer to as your “fight or flight” system. Depending on how your system responds in its efforts to protect you from physical and emotional pain, you could freeze up, you could fight back, you could run away, you could enter an altered state of consciousness, blame yourself, idealize the person harming you, and many many other things. It’s hard to say exactly why some people respond in some ways and not others. Humans are incredibly resilient, and will very often find unconscious ways of protecting themselves from even the cruelest and darkest experiences. Humans are driven to attach to survive, even over a drive for food or water. Meaning [that] attachment, even to very dangerous figure, can be used by your brain as a powerfully protective defense against trauma.

Something that struck me in Oprah’s “After Neverland” special was when she explained that many survivors of childhood sexual abuse don’t realize that they were being violated until years later.

One of the things that’s really tricky about these cases is that these kids are receiving mixed messages in their brains. Often during attachment based traumas, people do not perceive at the time the level of threat that you might expect them to experience. You hear the stories now and you think that’s horrific, how were they not completely immobilized or how did they not just run out of there. In one of the articles that I read about the documentary, one of the men accusing Jackson said something like: One the hardest things still is that I know that this happened to me, but I still have affection for him, and reconciling those two feelings is an ongoing thing for me. I think that really captures the complex experience in attachment based trauma. You have perpetrators who not only have significant social and material power, but who also are developing an attachment relationship with these kids. He or she is providing validation, engagement, attunement, they’re remembering things about these kids, they’re treating them like they matter, they’re engaging a relationship with the kid that maybe feels even more significant than the relationship they have with their parents. In part because they feel singled out, they feel special, they feel seen, they feel like they matter — these are all things that every human being craves.

You can see in some of the descriptions of the abuse that they suggest that Jackson picked favorites, said things like: “This is the first time I’ve ever done this with anyone,” “this is how we show each other we love each other.” There is an ongoing experience of shared vulnerability being created. That shared experience of vulnerability also creates a sensation of being attached in some way. These are kids who are sexually immature who don’t know what to do with sensations they’re feeling. All human beings want to feel loved and valued and seen. I think for somebody to indoctrinate kids into sexually violating behavior as a way of expressing reasonably healthy emotions is very, very confusing, and very dangerous. You can see how this might generate a lot of mixed feelings about what is happening. The powerlessness and confusion that come from the sensation that something is both unsafe and meaningful at the same time.

Both Robson and Safechuck have stated that they felt that Michael Jackson was not only grooming them, but their parents as well. How does being the biggest musician in the world and having massive amounts of power play into that?

I think power is a significant part of what these men described happened. Not only in terms of the means Jackson would have had to facilitate and conceal his behaviors, but in a more relational way, his position of power would have allowed him to form relationships with these boys, their parents, and I’m sure friends and staff, that likely did not rely on clear evidence of his stability or safety as a person. It is very common, when we have somebody we admire, we develop our own narrative about who they are as a person, that didn’t come from actually knowing them. We’ve all had fascinations or crushes on celebrities, and we have this whole narrative about who they are as a person, and then they do something and we think wait, what, how could they do that, that’s not who they are, because we have this idea that they are a certain kind of person. I’m sure that those kids had their own narratives initially about who Jackson was before they met him from the media — what he represented to them, what they needed him to be, who other celebrities thought he was, and the parents too — that [Jackson] never had to develop for them. A lot of people with power borrow on this narrative of trust and unearned intimacy. They assume that somebody sees them as ethical, or responsible, or safe, simply because they are successful and well-loved. They don’t have to earn your trust, you give it to them, because you already have a narrative that they’re a good person who is worthy of it.

A lot of people have questioned the intentions of Robson and Safechuck, mainly because they’ve defended Michael Jackson in the past, and are speaking out about the alleged abuse years later. What are some challenges that survivors face in sharing their stories?

There are lots of elements that come into play for survivors in terms of sharing their stories. In many cases, people have not processed their own understanding of what happened and this can make it difficult to know what to say and when to say it. Certainly, there can be a lot of fear for individuals about how their story will be received, who will believe them, judge them, talk them out of it, ridicule them, ignore them, try to violate them again, what effect it will have on their families, what it will actually help for them to share. Sharing can make experiences real in a way that is daunting and premature, for some. Or, bring back material that has already been in the process of healing in treatment. It can also can be very politically driven, people often feel pressure to share their story by other parties or in a desire to help others.

Additionally, there are many misunderstandings out there about how trauma works and heals. Sharing your story at all, let alone publicly, is not guaranteed to bring relief from pain. Many things along the course of development can help to organize childhood trauma experiences, not only cognitive development, more effective coping strategies, and work in treatment, but also, safer sexual experiences, healthier attachments, improved self esteem. One of the men in the documentary also mentions the role of interacting with his own children in helping him to organize and understand his childhood experiences as abuse.

Leaving Neverland contains a lot of provoking material about childhood sexual trauma. A lot of my peers who’ve tried to watch it couldn’t finish it. Is there anything to be said about this documentary being widely accessible?

Discussing and depicting trauma in the media can bring up many large social questions [and] concerns. Who profits from these intense displays of vulnerability and intimate reflection? What does it mean to take in a story from a person who you have not offered any safety or trust to before they tell it? What is the effect on the general viewer when they watch such traumatic material without any scaffolding, any outlet for processing, organizing, and soothing? Media does not often feel like an especially safe or empowering space for sharing these stories to me, without a lot of careful work to build processing and healing into the visual experience. That doesn’t mean those that choose to share in this way are doing something wrong — I believe each person should have the freedom and power to decide for themselves, why and how and in what way they share their story, and to whom. I hope that the men in this documentary were given those choices.

Of course, it’s also important for us as a society to acknowledge and address the rampant and insidious reality of sexual trauma. Documentaries do present an opportunity to support this awareness. Though the choice to produce something and how it’s presented remain complex, what is valuable for a survivor and what is valuable for social consciousness don’t always align, and are not always equally safe. I often encourage patients to first work on getting to a solid and integrated place themselves, before tackling a desire to make change in society.

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My encouragement to anyone watching this documentary is to make space for processing and soothing. No matter how the material touches you, or what it may or may not trigger, it is healthy to feel unmoored by witnessing violation, shame, and pain, and this warrants some effort to process what you have seen. This can be through writing, music, talking, therapy, etc. I absolutely encourage any affected by it to reach out to a professional for support.


If you need immediate help, the services below are available 24/7:
National Sexual Assault Hotline
National Child Abuse Hotline

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A clinical psychologist discusses Leaving Neverland, abuse, and trauma