Stop Doubting Sexual Abuse Survivors. Listen to My Story.

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Leaving Neverland, ©HBO

I was sexually assaulted when I was a tween.

When the Kavanaugh hearings happened, I found myself traumatized again, struggling with how to express my frustration and dismay. In the aftermath of Leaving Neverland, with so many casting doubts on the accusers, I felt an obligation to speak up, share my story and help others work to better understand victims of childhood sexual abuse.

When I was 14, I went online trying to understand my emerging homosexuality. There, I met a 19 year old guy and we arranged to meet in person. When I got cold feet and said I didn’t want to go through with it, he threatened me with disclosure. I felt powerless and afraid, as he preyed on my fear of being found out and desire for love.

Our encounter only lasted a few minutes, but it has affected my entire life. After years of therapy, and even now at 45, I regularly struggle to make sense of what it means and how it’s impacted me.

When you are listening to stories of youthful sexual abuse survivors, consider some of these biases I see over and over again, and ask yourself — is this the right way to approach understanding?

Don’t Over-emphasize the “Truth”

Whenever a famous person is accused of sexual abuse, the first thing people do is try to dissect the story to figure out if it happened or if it didn’t. This is misapplied energy, unless you are a judge/jury hearing a sexual assault case. Instead of trying to parse everything both sides say for veracity, simply listen to the stories. Engage your empathy muscle and start from a place of hearing the story as true to the victim. There can be a lot of ambiguity in people’s stories, and they evolve over time, so hard facts can be very difficult to come by.

And the accused also deserves your empathy, but it’s important to not confuse your love and admiration for the celebrity with empathy for their situation. For example, Michael Jackson had a shitty, weird childhood. This does not explain or justify why he allegedly abused those kids.

He Didn’t Assault Everyone.

One of the most common defenses of Michael Jackson has been the sworn statements by many children (Macaulay Culkin, for example) that he did not abuse them. People point to these stories as proof that none of the kids were abused.

But this is patently absurd. Whatever thrills Jackson may have had from abusing kids doesn’t automatically mean that he wanted to assault all of them. Serial killers generally don’t kill everyone they meet.

Maybe MJ didn’t think Culkin was attractive enough? Perhaps Culkin’s closeness with his dad and movie industry chops made it too dangerous? Maybe he deliberately left some kids out so he’d have an alibi? Maybe the victims don’t see themselves as having been harmed in any way (or have repressed the memories)? Leaving Neverland discusses some of these aspects with excellent candor.

We don’t know for sure, but one right definitely doesn’t invalidate the wrongs. I have no idea whether or not my assailant attacked anyone else. Perhaps he has led a mostly normal sex life with age-appropriate, consent-based interactions for 30+ years. That still wouldn’t change my experience of him, and while it would make it easier to forgive him, it doesn’t erase the past.

The Victims Took a Long Time to Come Forward.

Many believe that taking a long time to come forward suggests lying or “planted” memories. This is not in line with the reality of trauma. Most people who survive a major trauma (like a life-threatening car accident) say that they don’t remember the specific details of the event. This is our brain working to protect us from reliving trauma regularly. After many years have passed, and the pain recedes, people are often able to access those memories more readily.

Sometimes, the lag between event and disclosure is mired in self-preservation and dissembling. For example, when discussing my first time, I used to describe it as a “not so great experience” and then deflect. This was a way of avoiding having to think about the event and share my embarrassing story with others. The assault happened regardless of what words I used to describe it. It was only in therapy, when discussing the experience offhandedly one session, that my therapist pointed out that what happened was rape.

From “not so great” to rape seems like a pretty dramatic escalation, unless you lived it. Then, you come to understand that the language and pacing are more about your state of mind and confidence than the events themselves.

The Victims Want Money/Attention.

Many defenders of Michael Jackson point to the demands for compensation as evidence that the victims are motivated by something other than truth. But let me ask you this question: if Michael Jackson robbed you of your innocence and abused you over many months or years, wouldn’t you demand compensation?

I mean, this is America. We sued McDonald’s over hot coffee, so what is surprising in any way that a victim of a crime would want compensation? And what if the assailant is wealthy? Doesn’t that make you want to punish them even more, to make the damages more closely hew to their ability to pay? Why should their wealth immunize them from claims of bad behavior and the risks/costs of harming human lives?

And as it relates to attention — most victims risk a great deal to come forward with their stories. They generally do not take this decision lightly, as I have also done. Telling your parents, loved ones and dear friends is fraught and anxiety-provoking. So to come out and discuss this in public, risking everything, is incredibly brave. If anything, the disclosure and lawsuits are more proof that the events did happen.

Accepting a Settlement is Proof of Malintent

Folks often point to victims’ settlements as proof they were just in it for the money.

Lawsuits are expensive. In my professional life, I’ve seen many conflicts that involved lawyers and the threat of lawsuits which were settled for “pennies on the dollar” because it simply made more economic and emotional sense.

If you believe however that the victims feel good about a settlement like those wrought from Michael Jackson, you are sorely mistaken. If and when you settle a suit, you typically agree to a public statement, but your hurt and anguish last forever. Years later, I still think about one of the minor suits I settled out of court and regret my decision.

A choice to settle a lawsuit does not mean it had no merit. It literally tells you nothing, other than getting justice in the American legal system is costly and hard.

The Parents are to Blame.

Anyone who believes that the parents bear a significant portion of the blame has never met a motivated young person (and their ability to lie). In the run up to my assault, I spent hours figuring out how to concoct a situation that would enable me to leave my parents’ home and go to this hotel room on my own. I had learned a lot from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and tried to think through every possible angle. Fundamentally, I was a good kid and my parents trusted me. They could not have known, and I never would have let them.

In contrast, Leaving Neverland suggests that Michael Jackson spent some serious time “grooming” the boys in question. He made a concerted, long-term effort to gain their and their family’s trust, so that he could get what he wanted from them. To whit, his fame and wealth would have been irresistible, especially in light of the kids’ desire for success in entertainment. The parents readily admit this failing and lack of insight.

While I don’t think it absolves parents of all guilt for the assault, we should remember: it was (allegedly) Michael Jackson that did the raping, not the parents. Had they known, they likely would have put a stop to it.

Was there some willful ignorance, reinforced by the kids lying about the situation? Yes. Is this justification for sexual assault? No.

The Kids Wanted it / Asked for it

This is possibly the most complicated of all the issues raised by sexual assault of children. I have no doubt that the boys involved “wanted” the intimacy they had with Michael. Even at that age, you yearn for connection and support, and especially in homes with an absent or abusive dad, there’s plenty of context for seeking and trying to ingratiate yourself with a father figure. This creates a situation where you might be likely to do whatever it takes to get and keep this man’s affection.

My dad is a good guy, but I had this terrible secret (being gay) that haunted me and I saw as shameful. Because I couldn’t tell anyone, I was in search of intimacy and connection, which my assailant used to his advantage.

Of course, no 7 year old can give consent for sex. And when you’re that age, there isn’t even a concept of sex apart from whatever silly words you know from the playground. It is just play/connection, and that is easily exploited by a master manipulator.

One of the best things about Leaving Neverland was its exploration of the underlying desires — both emotional and professional — that created space for this abuse. We can’t erase that kids have emotional/intimacy needs, but that too does not detract from the seriousness of the crime.

He Couldn’t Have — He was Child-Like

Many have pointed to Michael Jackson’s “childlike” demeanor as proof that it was all just an innocent misunderstanding.

But whatever you believe about Michael Jackson, this notion of pure innocence doesn’t readily add up. Here was a man who was the absolute king of pop, a mogul who broke every record in the book to get to the top of a very competitive industry. To whit, he had grown up in the business from a very young age. And though he was oddly sheltered (and perhaps abused) by his dad, he nonetheless would have had access to and knowledge of anything and everything he wanted. He or his handlers would have had the capacity to effect any of the alleged crimes.

That he chose to invest his time and money in crafting a world built around childlike innocence could just as easily have been a carefully coordinated effort to lure kids into his world, rather than just an expression of his innocence.

Once you are knee-deep in the psychology of manipulation, it becomes shockingly hard to figure out what is true and what isn’t. For example, I lied to my assailant about my age online, but when we met, in an effort to stop things from happening — I told him the truth. This did not dissuade him. So, it could either be a case that he didn’t know and didn’t really care, or that he did know/assume I was young, and had intended to go through with it regardless.

I will never know.

I have forgiven my assailant. We have had no contact, save for an apology call he made the day after expressing his regret and remorse about what happened. Of course, I have periodically tried to look him up, but I honestly don’t know what I would say or do if I did.

One of the toughest things about watching Leaving Neverland was seeing the unresolved hurt and anguish in the eyes of the victims. Through a combination of bad timing, poor choices and manipulation, they have lost an opportunity to seek answers, get justice, and work through issues of grave importance.

I know how hard it must have been to come forward and bear one’s soul this publicly. This is the gravity and importance of this situation. Perhaps there is some retribution and frustration baked into it, but hopefully — after reading this — you might understand why just a little bit better.

Written by

Author and Public Speaker on Gamification, The 4th Industrial Revolution, the Future of Work and Failure. More about me: https://gabezichermann.com

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