It was a pleasant sunny winter Saturday. It had almost been six months since my friends and I had advanced from the co-ed primary campus in a school system in Mianwali to the boys-only college campus for middle school. It was the last period and Sir Asim* was introducing us to the new boring practice of writing explanations for Urdu poetry. I looked up at the huge clock hanging over the chalkboard because I was impatiently waiting for the class to be over and the weekend to begin.
I could see from the corner of my eye that my friend was trying to grab my attention, but I kept looking towards Sir Asim, completely ignoring my friend. Nobody wanted to mess with Sir Asim and I knew better. My older brother, in 10th grade at the same school, had told me that Sir Asim had two eyes in the back of his head. We had seen it ourselves when one of my classmates got caught doing something Sir Asim deemed inappropriate while he was writing on the chalkboard. Sir Asim called him to the front of the class, made him bend down, grabbed both of his ears, twisted them like he was revving up a motorbike and finished with a signature loud smack on his back.
That was warning enough for me to not risk getting in trouble during class.
The school bell rang loud, and we quickly shuffled to get our things to leave school. We lived in a safe and gated colony in the middle of nowhere and everyone knew everyone. Usually, at the end of a school day, we would get on our bicycles and do whatever we wanted on the premises of the colony we lived in. We picked wild berries in the undeveloped outskirts of the colony, had bicycle races on the solitary runway in the colony and played cricket or other games in the many sports facilities inside the colony.
I was packing my school bag when my friend came up to tell me we could go to the new computer lab in the school for an hour before we headed home. The new computer teacher Sir Bilal* had allowed us to come to the lab after school to play “Dangerous Dave” on the old 486s. Computer education was a new thing in those days and apart from two introductory classes when the new department started, there wasn’t much reason for sixth graders to be interacting with Sir Bilal or go to the computer lab. But my friends and I had struck up a friendship of sorts with Sir Bilal and our friendship allowed us the opportunity to go to the computer lab and play video games every once in a while.
Sir Bilal was a young man in his mid-to-late twenties. He had pale skin and sported a thin mustache. We saw him working at his desk when we showed up at the computer lab. He greeted us and told us we could turn the computers on and play our games while he finished up work. We rushed to our favorite systems and started playing our beloved video game. A little while later Sir Bilal got up from his desk and came towards us. He stopped by my table and squeezed my shoulders as if he was giving me a shoulder massage. We weren’t much bothered by that, Sir Bilal was a friendly guy. He then moved on to my friend sitting next to me and leaned down on him from behind. He rubbed his cheek against my friend’s face as he talked to my friend but I could see from my friend’s face he wasn’t comfortable with that.
But Sir Bilal was oblivious to my friend’s discomfort. As as soon as he finished talking to my friend, he turned and kissed him on the cheek as he came back towards me and my other friend sitting with me.
He stood next to me and spoke to that friend once again. He leaned against me to reach out to my friend’s keyboard. I could feel Sir Bilal’s groin pressed against my right arm. He moved as he talked to my friend, rubbing himself against my arm. I slid my chair a little to the left and with that, Sir Bilal stopped grinding himself against my arm and went back to his desk. We kept playing for another ten minutes but none of us could concentrate. Our minds were racing because of what had just happened.
I eventually gave my friends the look; we turned off the computers and got our bags. As we walked towards the door, Sir Bilal was already waiting for us at the door. I said goodbye to him, trying to avoid eye contact. He hugged me and then he kissed me on my lips. The shock of the kiss petrified me. I felt confused and violated. I wanted to run out of the computer lab as fast as I could but my legs felt cemented to the ground.
He stopped kissing me and moved on to do the same to my other friends as I walked out of the computer lab. Sir Bilal closed the door of the computer lab behind us and we silently walked to the bike parking to get our bicycles. We said nothing to each other and pedaled away to our houses. Despite nothing being said, I could sense there was a silent agreement between us. We would never go back to the computer lab or talk about what happened ever again.
A year later my father was transferred and we moved away from Mianwali. I eventually forgot about Sir Bilal and what happened in the computer lab that day as I adjusted to my new school and new friends. I grew up, and I moved on.
That was until I recently saw Leaving Neverland, a documentary film about Michael Jackson’s multiple allegations of sexual abuse of children.
A documentary about Michael Jackson’s legacy of abuse brought me back to my own personal ‘Neverland’
The documentary film, directed and produced by Dan Reed, features choreographer Wade Robson and child actor James Safechuck as they chronicle their relationship with Michael Jackson from their early childhood until Michael Jackson’s death and the sexual abuse they said they were subjected to. The title refers to Michael Jackson’s California home and private amusement park named “Neverland Ranch”, where he is said to have abused a majority of his victims.
The film has stirred a lot of reaction from people from all over the world. Anger, shock and mixed emotions have already prompted creators of The Simpsons to pull a Michael Jackson episode and many radio stations in Australia, New Zealand and Canada have completely banned MJ’s music on the airwaves with more petitions of muting MJ’s music pending.
The film examines Michael Jackson’s history of pedophilia and his modus operandi for child abuse through his life. The film claims that Michael Jackson befriended children, abused them sexually and conditioned their families to normalise the inappropriate nature of his relationships with their children. Wade Robson was a 5-year-old dance prodigy from Australia and James Safechuck was an 11 aspiring child actor when Michael befriended them and started sexually abusing them. Both Wade Robson and James Safechuck paint a chilling portrait of Michael Jackson the pedophile child-abuser, as they share different accounts of sexual and psychological abuse they suffered because of him.
HBO released the docu-series as two-two hour-long episodes on the 3rd and 4th of March 2019. I ended up watching it over the course of two nights and it brought back vivid memories of my limited yet traumatic personal experiences with sexual abuse by a seemingly friendly adult.
The film pushed me into deep introspection and analysis for the next few days and that eventually pushed me to write something about my experience. As a documentary filmmaker myself, I consider the exploration of trauma one of the primary functions of the genre and Dan Reed doesn’t shy away from putting forth the grim and graphic details of MJ’s heinous crimes. The film uses a variety of archival footage along with interviews with Wade, James and the members of their families to articulate the appalling narrative of abuse by the now disgraced “King of Pop”.
The stories told by Wade and James in the film are not only insights into how MJ groomed his victims but also illustrate how the power of MJ’s celebrity groomed the entire world into ignoring his peculiar and questionable obsession with children. The stature of Michael Jackson’s celebrity and the conniving exploitation of the people he abused also saved him from being held accountable for his crimes in front of the law. MJ used the same children he sexually abused to defend him in the courts after they grew older that sent shivers down my spine.
The film also examines the aftermath of MJ’s abuse in the Robson and Safechuck families.The docu-series truly shines as a documentary film that earnestly captures the après-coups of sexual abuse as the two victims and their families lay bare deep scars of the trauma they had suffered because of MJ’s criminal abuse and manipulation tactics.
In my own experience, it was important for me to understand that Sir Bilal befriended us, somewhat manipulated us and groomed us without us even realising it because of his otherwise unassuming personality.
A seemingly meek and approachable man who commanded limited authority and enjoyed popularity reeled us in to his “Neverland”. I felt shame that day but did not know for what reason. I had successfully suppressed the details of the incident by the next day. Speaking about it didn’t look like an option. My other friends seemed to have to done the same but despite that, our outlook had completely changed. We were more cautious, sceptical and wary. We stopped hanging out in the lawns in front of the computer lab as we used to. The fact that I moved away from the town was a blessing in disguise. I rarely ever thought about Sir Bilal after that.
I finally had to confront why I stayed silent even though it wasn’t my fault
At a chance reunion with some of these friends in Mianwali about five years ago, we ended up going down memory lane. We reminisced jovially about the strict Sir Asim and the goofy Sir Nasir, we talked about Mrs Hamid who adored us all and Ma’am Naeema who got stuck in a chair once.
But the mood changed when the conversation went to Sir Bilal. I sensed my other friend’s enthusiasm disappear. We made eye-contact and avoided each other’s gaze almost as immediately. We both still remembered, reluctantly and we were both still unwilling to talk about it. That inexplicable sense of shame was back.
This persistent sense of shame (which we felt even though we had done nothing wrong) and our subsequent silence was something I made sense of when I heard James and Wade talk about their experiences.
Internalising your feelings is a defence mechanism because you as a victim feel so stupid, so naive for walking into the trap. You would rather not admit to the lapse of your judgment and if no one else knows about it… if you don’t talk about it, it’s as if nothing has happened to you, because you can suppress your own thoughts and memories but not anyone else’s. It becomes an embarrassing detail that you would rather not have in your life story.
After the release of Leaving Neverland, many people have shown their support for the victims and lauded their bravery. But many people have also come out to support Michael Jackson. MJ’s estate has discredited the accounts of the victims, saying they have no evidence to support their claims. The global popularity and recognition of Michael Jackson’s work has also opened a new discussion about the value of artistic work produced by abusers like Michael Jackson. I have heard people say they refuse to watch the film because they love Michael Jackson’s music too much and I have also heard people demand for banning his work completely.
I am afraid I don’t agree with either.
For those who are advocating for completely banning and muting MJ’s music, I would ask them to consider this. The evidence presented in this docuseries through the accounts of MJ’s victims provides a bleak context to MJ’s work and that context renders his music’s appeal useless anyway. I admired films produced by the Weinstein company and enjoyed comedy by Louis C. K but in the light of what we know now, it’s hard to watch any film produced by the Weinstein company or an episode of “Louie” without ignoring the associated context with these artistic properties now.
On the other hand, thinking about the financial gains to MJ’s estate alone, this ban seems justified. But Michael Jackson’s story isn’t just about a sick individual. It is also about the price of unchecked celebrity and fandom. His pop icon stature wouldn’t have been possible without the support of his fans. Banning his music is outright evading our personal responsibility as consumers, for having all this peculiar behaviour go unchecked for so long.
The fact that he was a sick individual would still not change the fact that he was a good musician too. His music means a lot, to a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons. We were responsible to scrutinise and call him out when it mattered but we didn’t. We will never be able to escape his music, just as his music would not be able to escape his sick legacy.
Completely muting Michael Jackson’s music also risks turning it into some prized collector’s item, a forbidden fruit of sorts and consequently giving it more value. The victims’ truth will change the way people listen to and receive Michael Jackson’s music now. It will always serve as a reminder for us all to be wary of the unchecked power of celebrity and to always protect our children. The present context will redefine the value of MJ’s work better than muting it.
And to those who refuse to hear out the victims or refute their claims all together, I ask them to consider my story.
Refusing to listen to abuse victims promotes a culture of abuse. Refusing to believe victims empower their abusers.
When Sir Bilal acted on his sick desire, I was incapable of reacting. At that age, I did not possess the words or the language to express what I had gone through. Neither did I have the guts to grapple with what I thought was my ‘stupidity’ that had allowed Sir Bilal to manipulate me in such a way. And this is a reaction that many abuse victims, no matter their age, grapple with. Speaking up against your abuser is not as easy as one may think.
We lack the culture and the avenues where victims can come forward and speak freely and openly about their pain. We lack the sense of empathy towards sex abuse victims and instead fixate on evidence, guilt and innocence when a victim comes forward and that discourages other victims from coming forward.
This cycle benefits no one but the perpetrators of sexual abuse. If I am asked to prove my encounter, I might be able to present no proof other than the account of what I experienced. I might not be able to convince any other witnesses to come out.
In most cases victims might have no witnesses or evidence to present to prove that their abuse actually happened. As a society, this is not our burden. Innocence and guilt is meant to be decided at the altars of justice, upon careful scrutiny of all available information and jurisprudence.
Our responsibility as a society is to only empower victims. Give them the confidence and the environment to speak up. It is imperative we do this, to protect ourselves and those around us.
I may have left my Neverland but dismissing the testimonies of abuse victims and especially child abuse victims will prevent many others from escaping theirs.