Children cannot comprehend their vulnerability. They may appear to have agency. They may have aspirations and instincts which might sometimes disturb or surprise us. And they can be incredibly ingenious in their efforts to realise those aspirations – no one ever wants to hear that their child is a bully or a cheat.
And when, as adults, we look back, there is always the risk that we judge our child-selves through adult eyes – choices made seemingly independently, deepest desires and shameful secrets feel very much our own; the memory of a faux-pas still able to make us cringe. But a child’s sense of self is guided. It derives very directly from what their carers have permitted, indulged, modelled.
When Billy Connolly first spoke about being sexual abused by his father, he did something brave and incredible in its honesty. He explained that the most confusing thing about being the victim of sexual abuse was that, physically, it could be pleasant. He said that this is what stops victims from talking about their abuse.
You can only imagine how deep you’d have to delve to be able to admit something like that. Perhaps your abuser was someone you loved and knew how to make you feel special. Perhaps your abuser was the most exciting person in the world and you idolised them, and so did every member of your family, including your parents.
James Safechuck, one of the men on Dan Reed’s ’Leaving Neverland’, describes how he can never quite reconcile his love for Michael Jackson with the things Jackson did to him, which were ‘not healthy’; the idea that this person was at once wonderful, as well as bad.
When an adult chooses to elicit such a cocktail of emotions/sensations in a child, they burden their victim forever. You can only hope that the victim later realises that it was wrong – that they might feel strong enough to start picking through the emotional fallout. But the memory of their own agency, supposed complicity, the fact of having taken any comfort or pleasure from their abuse, is hard to process. It will haunt them. And it will morph into a sense shame and responsibility.
But in fact, the answer to Safechuck’s quandary is simple. Good or kind acts cease to be good or kind acts if that person wronged you so gravely. A child may discover sexuality for themselves, stumble across it. But the only role an adult should play here is to give that child some understanding of personal privacy, and a basic concept of consent. For an adult to introduce a child to sex, or breach the child’s personal private space, that is a deliberate manipulation. That is an experience imposed on a child, induced for the gratification of the adult. The child may think that their experience of their sexuality here is their own, but it is not. This ‘cocktail’ was something that no child should ever be made to taste.
Victims of child sexual abuse have to recognise the pain and suffering they feel as adults, and follow the trail backwards, so that they can begin to reinterpret the past. That’s a process with no time-limit. Of course, once they are able to see the abuse for what it was, they face a further challenge: how to live with the memories; how to overcome anger; how to move on from the injustice.
So regardless of whether or not you want to believe the allegations against Michael Jackson, at least acknowledge that stories like James Safechuck and Wade Robson’s do exist. And acknowledge how many victims of child sex abuse will be left with conflicting feelings about their abuser; how they will struggle to recognise, to feel, their childhood vulnerability. And acknowledge the bravery it would require to speak a truth so gruesome.