Wellness

What Therapists Are Telling Trauma Survivors After ‘Leaving Neverland’

There’s a lot to unpack and learn from James Safechuck’s and Wade Robson’s sexual abuse allegations against Michael Jackson in the new HBO doc.
(From left) Wade Robson, director Dan Reed and James Safechuck of “Leaving Neverland.” In the documentary, Robson and Safechuck come forward with detailed allegations of sexual abuse by Michael Jackson when they were children. 
(From left) Wade Robson, director Dan Reed and James Safechuck of “Leaving Neverland.” In the documentary, Robson and Safechuck come forward with detailed allegations of sexual abuse by Michael Jackson when they were children. 

K.L Randis, an author and sexual abuse survivor, said she had knots in her stomach while watching much of “Leaving Neverland,” a two-part HBO documentary in which James Safechuck and Wade Robson detail allegations of sexual abuse against Michael Jackson.

There were knots when the two men spoke of how having sons was the catalyst for them to come forward with their claims. Imagining the same thing happening to their boys was not only unbearable but also reminded them of their own innocence as children ― innocence they say was stolen by Jackson in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Randis, the author of Spilled Milk ― a novel inspired by her own sexual abuse ― looks at her daughters, ages 6 and 4, now and thinks the same thing.

“It’s hard to imagine [my father] making the conscious decision to abuse me,” she told HuffPost. “James said he didn’t have sympathy for himself as a child, and I agree. I see myself in my daughters, and it pains me to know I was the same, sweet child who just trusted the world I grew up in as normal.”

Author&nbsp;K.L. Randis as an adult and as a child. She wrote the novel <i>Spilled Milk,</i> which was inspired by her sexual abuse as a child.
Author K.L. Randis as an adult and as a child. She wrote the novel Spilled Milk, which was inspired by her sexual abuse as a child.

Moments like those that Randis experienced through the documentary ― of feeling seen and reliving the fallout of sexual abuse ― have been happening often since the film debuted on HBO on March 3, said Silva Neves, a London-based psychotherapist who specializes in sexual trauma therapy.

“So many of Robson and Safechuck’s experiences are resonating with people — being made to feel special and loved by an abuser, being told that the abuse is a way of showing love and that if they told anyone, there would be terrible consequences for them,” Neves said.

It’s a heavy documentary for anyone, which is why mental health counselors were reportedly on hand for audiences at an early screening of it at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January.

If you’ve experienced sexual trauma, there are a few things you should know before watching the doc. Below, Randis, Neves and other trauma therapists share the topics they’re discussing with their clients in the wake of the film.

It’s OK not to watch if you worry it will be too triggering

Depending on your stage of healing, the documentary may or may not be for you, said Robert Cox, a therapist in Richmond, Missouri, who specializes in sexual trauma. He said he has recommended that a few of his patients avoid seeing it. While one trauma survivor might find it cathartic and akin to group therapy to revisit their experiences through Safechuck’s and Robson’s stories, it might be unsettling for others.

“Often in doing trauma work, reliving the experience can be retraumatizing,” he said. “It can push you into a dissociative state and further traumatize them. So it really becomes a case-by-case thing.”

Talking about sexual trauma helps, even if you haven’t come to grips with every part of your story

Safechuck and Robson, who were 10 and 7, respectively, when the alleged abuse started, were slow to tell their families about it. Later in life, they both dismissed the idea of therapy, and Robson said he covered up the sexual nature of his relationship with Jackson when he finally did go.

Watching the documentary ― and a follow-up interview with Oprah Winfrey on HBO and OWN ― you get the sense that Robson has made more progress with unpacking what he went through. Safechuck admits he has a long way to go. Their willingness to talk it through is a vital lesson for trauma survivors, Neves said.

“Some survivors think, `If I can’t make sense of it myself, how can I start a conversation about it with someone else?” he said. “Both James and Wade said that it was easier not to talk about it because they couldn’t make sense of it.”

But it’s common for survivors of abuse not to have a coherent narrative or for them to have some memories missing or parts of their story they doubt. That’s OK, Neves said; a counselor or survivor advocate can still offer support and maybe even supply you with the language to talk about it.

“Survivors of sexual abuse do not need to forgive their abusers or those who have willfully enabled the abuse [in order to heal]. True healing can happen without it.”

- Silva Neves, a London-based psychotherapist who specializes in sexual trauma therapy

It’s OK to feel a sense of guilt for outing your abuser

In the follow-up interview, Safechuck discusses the continued guilt he feels about coming forward with his story and outing Jackson, who outside of the abuse, became a sort of a second father figure in his life.

“I felt guilt this weekend, like I let him down,” Safechuck tells Winfrey. “That shadow, that guilt is still there.”

That moment ― and the fear of having their secret uncovered as boys (Jackson allegedly told them they would go to jail if anyone found out) ― hit Randis particularly hard.

“When James said he panicked over that, I flashed back to my days in court when they would parade my father into the courtroom when I was up on the stand,” Randis said.

“His lawyer would stand right in front of him when he asked me questions, forcing me to look at him or in his direction to intimidate me, and there was an overwhelming feeling of guilt outing him in a room full of strangers,” she said.

Ultimately, Randis realized her guilt was misplaced.

“The majority of guilt I felt was tied up in telling other people ‘our’ secret, but really, it was my abuser’s secret.”

Forgiveness is not necessary for healing

Toward the end of the documentary, Safechuck is asked if he has forgiven his mother for allowing the alleged abuse to happen. He admits he’s not quite there yet ― something he reiterates with poignancy in the Winfrey interview.

“Forgiveness is not a line you cross. It’s a road you take,” he says.

That nuanced take on forgiveness is a great reminder that working through your emotional trauma doesn’t need to include absolving others for their involvement, Neves said.

“Forgiveness is perceived as the ultimate productive thing to do, and sometimes, it’s seen as the superior thing to do,” he said. “The truth is, survivors of sexual abuse do not need to forgive their abusers or those who have willfully enabled the abuse. True healing can happen without it.”

It’s an important takeaway, since some survivors are reluctant to start therapy, fearing their therapist will push a quick-fix road to forgiveness. Not true, Neves said.

“Of course, I believe that there is great value in having someone like a therapist or survivor advocate that can help you process your feelings and validate your experiences. But this is not something that can be prescribed or mandated by others.”

- Stefani Goerlich, a therapist in Detroit

Don’t let others dictate when and how you come forward

The response from Jackson fans to the documentary has, rather predictably, been aggressive. Robson talks about getting a death threat the day before he did the Winfrey interview, and Twitter is full of the singer’s fans trying to discredit the two men.

Seeing accusers taken down in such a public way might cause some survivors to pull back — refrain from talking to the police, for instance, or discontinue their search for mental help resources. It’s frightening enough to come forward with allegations even without that, said Stefani Goerlich, a therapist in Detroit.

“I have sat in on dozens and dozens of police interviews with sexual abuse and assault survivors,” she said. “The strength it takes to endure this kind of invasive experience after already experiencing such an intimate violation is one that I greatly admire.”

But if you do feel capable and willing to report or talk about your assault, don’t let fear of what others might think deter you, Goerlich said.

“Don’t ever let anyone make you feel bad about doing what’s best for you,” she said. “Of course, I believe that there is great value in having someone like a therapist or survivor advocate that can help you process your feelings and validate your experiences. But this is not something that can be prescribed or mandated by others.”

Ultimately, she said, “you set the pace for your healing, and you decide what justice looks like for you.”