Leaving neverland: on questioning sexual trauma survivor experiences

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A warning about the content of this article: even if I don’t describe any events of sexual abuse, I talk about the discussions that took place when the Leaving Neverland Michael Jackson documentary was out. If you think you might find the content triggering, it’s totally okay to come back to it when you are in a better place, or choose not to read it at all.

I read somewhere that for sexual abuse survivors not having their stories believed can be more traumatic than the abuse itself. I don’t know what science or statistics say but it’s certainly something that rings true to me.

I understand that the problem of not believing such stories lies on the fact that people don’t have a good (or any) understanding on how sexual abuse works. To be fair, I don’t know how it works either and even the consequences, or symptoms if you want to call it that – I experience them in an ambivalent way. It personally took me nearly 20 years to name abuse for what it is and another 4-5 to get out of my emotional denial. Only now I’m starting to get a good understanding of what is really going on and that, for example, sexual abuse has a lot more to do with power than it has to do with sex.

It’s also good to mention that it’s hard to separate my experience as a survivor from that of being queer, or generally any traumatic experiences I had growing up. The feelings of inadequacy, my people-pleasing tendencies and my social-related phobias are a result of all of these. I believe that’s actually been reason enough for people to question my traumatic past. I often had it minimised by other queer people saying “that’s how I feel too”. I sometimes use the same reasoning to minimise it myself.

Having all this in mind it’s been hard for me (and I imagine a lot of other survivors) to put my story out there, or to find what’s the best way to put my story out there. I used to think that describing the events of the abuse in detail is the best way to go about it. I don’t think that anymore. Perhaps I’m not ready to share all the details, but I also can’t see in what way that would help me or others – apart from satisfying the curiosity of people about what happened. I’ve done this in the past, I revisited and shared the events, and even in a safe space like the therapy room I got retraumatised.

I haven’t seen the Leaving Neverland documentary but I read that that’s what the Michael Jackson former victims of abuse did. I don’t know what their motive was behind this. I assume they thought that was the only way for people to believe them. As we saw from what happened once the documentary was out, that was hardly the case.

The documentary brought up a lot of conversation and opinions which I personally found triggering and extremely difficult to handle, to the point that I had to distant myself from any online thread that had his name in it. People seemed so attached to their idol that they wouldn’t even consider the possibility that he did what he did. Others, and that’s what I personally found painful, said that art is separate from the artist and that we shouldn’t throw all his music in the bin just because of what he did. They were protesting against radio stations banning his songs, claiming that art is sacred and it should be free. Even if I see their point and I’m against any sort of artistic censorship, I personally saw it as an act of respect for my experiences and feelings as a survivor.

I also had a Michael Jackson phase growing up and it’s still difficult now to associate his songs with such a dark story, which is also my story. Under this new light of the events, knowing that a man sings about his lost childhood while stealing other people’s childhoods himself, makes impossible to listen to the song the same way ever again – which is not necessarily bad, it just is what it is.

For me all the conversations the documentary brought up missed the point on something very important: they didn’t allow space for the grief of survivors’ experiences to sink in, to be witnessed, understood and digested deeply. At least that’s what happened to me. People’s doubts reinforced my doubts about my own story. I closed down, became angry and bitter. The loneliness I felt from not being seen on such a big – even global – scale was and still is sometimes too vast to handle.

Thankfully I’ve had other opportunities since to experience that grief. I’ve had people who sat by me, held the space and gave me permission to feel whatever I needed to feel. I’ve had people who told me how proud they are for me being brave to face these feelings. And I’ve had nature – trees, lakes, plants – that allowed me to be the messy, sensitive, emotional person I am without any judgement.

I’m in fact now sitting in the woods. I knew this morning that it was time for me to finish part of this writing and make it public. On my way here I listened to Liberian Girl. It made me feel warm inside. It also made me feel deeply sad. This is what life is about, I thought. It’s neither one, nor the other – it’s both.