science of us

Unpacking the Stoicism of Michael Jackson’s Victims

Photo: Dan Reed/HBO

About 45 minutes into Leaving Neverland, HBO’s two-part documentary detailing Michael Jackson’s alleged child abuse, James Safechuck, now 40, describes one such incident: “I remember one time I was sleeping, and I woke up, and Michael said he had performed oral sex on me while I was sleeping. I was like, ‘oh, okay.’” His brow is furrowed, but his delivery is straightforward, his expression only mildly perplexed. It’s one of many such moments in the movie, during which Safechuck and Wade Robson (another victim) describe many years of graphically detailed abuse with relative composure.

Reviews of the documentary have made similar note of the way in which the survivors tell their stories, calling their delivery “clinical … shocking for its matter-of-fact” nature, displaying “disarming eloquence and self-possession.” The vast majority of critics have come down on the side of Jackson’s alleged victims, and their descriptions aren’t meant to dismiss, but clearly, something about the way these men retell their stories sticks with us, which may or may not impact our perception of their credibility.

In 2017, 12 years after the 2005 trial in which Michael Jackson was ultimately acquitted of child molestation charges, four of the trial’s jurors spoke to the press about their decision-making process, for a true-crime series called The Jury Speaks. Of then-15-year-old Gavin Arvizo’s testimony against Jackson, juror Paulina Coccoz said “He didn’t seem as distraught as you would think somebody who’d been molested would be.” But what Coccoz found insufficiently “distraught” is just one of many possible reactions to trauma, says Jennifer J. Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and expert on the psychology of sexual violence.

“There’s not any one response pattern. [Safechuck and Robson] certainly fall into the normal range that we see, but it’s not like there’s just one way,” she says. “There is no template or script.” Our ideas about the ways crime victims act are culturally informed, but what we see on, say, Law and Order: SVU isn’t necessarily indicative of the way people behave in real life — particularly for male victims, who face their own set of cultural and legal biases regarding reactions both psychological and physical (i.e. that experiencing an erection is equivalent to consent). Additionally, male victims are even less likely to disclose sexual assault than female victims, meaning there are simply fewer data points from which to draw any sort of conclusion about how men disclose.

Furthermore, adopting a matter-of-fact, clinical delivery may serve a protective purpose for survivors, says Dr. Daniel Schechter, the director of Stress, Trauma & Resilience at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center. “It’s a form of numbing, dissociating the emotion from the content of the narrative, which allows [survivors] to talk about [trauma] but not feel the pain associated with it,” says Schechter. “A number of patients who I’ve seen who have been sexually abused will tell me that it’s sort of like having a drawer that’s closed, that, unless they’re asked about it, they don’t want to open that drawer, and if they open that drawer, they’d prefer to pretend there’s someone else telling the story.” This form of dissociation may be why some abuse survivors seem to adopt the tone of narrator, or reporter, describing a story about someone else — it’s not that the pain isn’t there, but it may have been compartmentalized in an act of self-preservation.

A survivor’s distance from their trauma may impact how they recount a story, too. “By the time these [Leaving Neverland] interviews were done, they’ve been living with this for a long time,” says Freyd. “They’ve been processing this for a while.” While not speaking to this case in particular, Schechter add that a victim’s self-possession can be a good sign if it means the survivor has done extensive processing. “The other possibility is that they might have gone through a lot of therapy, and they might have integrated what happened to them in a way they hadn’t been able to when they were younger,” he says.

What makes male victims less likely to report their abuse may also explain the way in which they do so, says Schechter, explaining that male victims of sexual abuse feel enormous pressure not to retreat into a “victim” identity, which is perceived as injuring to one’s masculinity. Our cultural norms dictate that men (and even boys) are sexual aggressors, not conquests, and therefore many male victims will recast their experiences (at least initially) as consensual, adds Freyd. Though not explicitly mentioned in this documentary, ingrained homophobia often plays a role in male survivors’ hesitancy to speak out. “We find in research that usually the perpetrators are men, and when you’re a male victim, one of the huge issues is the male victim is afraid of being perceived as gay,” says Freyd. If they do disclose their experiences, male survivors may therefore feel even more pressure to do so unemotionally. “Men aren’t supposed to display vulnerability and fall apart,” says Freyd. “It’s a bigger cost for men to do that socially because it goes against our norms for masculinity.”

Still, experts say these patterns only get us so far in predicting a survivor’s response to trauma. While both Safechuck and Robson remain largely composed while describing their own abuse, for instance, both become emotional when they consider the impact on their families. “Some people when you pull open that drawer and they remember their sexual abuse, they fall apart and they’re tearful or enraged,” says Schechter. “Other people, they have to keep that story either dampened emotionally or told as if it’s someone else.” Where we fail as witnesses to these disclosures is in our cultural ignorance regarding victim psychology, says Freyd. “I get hired by attorneys to go and explain to juries why victims are often passive when they’re assaulted, or why victims don’t remember, or don’t tell,” she says. “I often feel that they wouldn’t need to hire me if there was more knowledge and literacy out there about victim behavior and perpetrator behavior.”

Unpacking the Stoicism of Michael Jackson’s Victims