In the television show, Once Upon a Time, the Pied Piper is really Peter Pan who is really Rumplestiltskin’s father who is really the crocodile whose ticking belly might be only ticking in Captain Hook’s mind, who may not be the villain he is made out to be.
The story goes that Captain Hook wasn’t Peter Pan’s original villain at all. When asked who the story’s villain was, J.M. Barrie responded, Peter Pan. And Neverland, while different for every child, distorts time and memory, which is an altogether sinister proposition. But the idea of Peter Pan has superseded what was written and the idea of Neverland is intoxicating to every adult who wanted to grow up, and then when they did, realized that that was a terrible mistake.
Here is how I had rationalized the many accusations of sexual assault and pedophilia levied against Michael Jackson: Have you seen his childhood? We all watched The Michael Jackson story on a Sunday afternoon with our aunties. His father beat him. His mother did nothing. He had a pet rat, for goodness sake. He never had a childhood. He said so himself, “It’s been my fate to compensate/For the childhood/I’ve never known,” over an accompaniment of strings and sang in the smallest voice. We say: He was a child in so many ways. He didn’t understand that what he was doing was inappropriate. He didn’t know any better.
Here is how I have dismantled that rationalization: Bad childhoods are ubiquitous. If there were no bad childhoods, there would be no fairy tales. And there are so many fairy tales for every kind of bad childhood. Having a bad childhood does not give permission to create other bad childhoods. Have you seen his childhood? “People say I’m not okay/Cause I love such elementary things/It’s been my fate to compensate/For the childhood/I’ve never known,” he admits over strings too multitudinous to count. He was compensating. We allowed him to compensate.
In her afterword to The Armless Maiden, Terry Windling shares her own story of abuse and concludes, “It is rare indeed that one survives an abusive childhood without help.” The discourse surrounding public figures accused of sexual assault and other crimes centers around how culpable the audience is in the crimes as evidenced by their support of said public figure. Some celebrities are easier to cut off than others; as in all things, popularity determines who is canceled and who is rationalized. Their popularity measured by concert and album sales is the most direct way to condemn them in a system pathologically resistant to indicting perpetrators of sexual violence. But not buying Chris Brown’s latest album does not heal the broken pieces of the women he has assaulted. So what does it help?
Michael Jackson did not survive his childhood, did not survive his adulthood. For all of his success, his life was peppered with small tragedies—mitigating tragedies, according to some. “But he was abused.” The phrase, and the breath it takes to utter it, is a profound disservice to the many survivors of childhood abuse who do not go on to abuse others. “Well why did the parents let their children stay over at Michael Jackson’s house?” An enticing defense, similar to the parents of the girls victimized by R. Kelly. According to the documentary, R. Kelly was also abused, his brothers and family give testament to another set of tragedies. And still, comments like these are prescriptive—mitigating or not. It’s not a cautionary tale as much as it’s an explanation for a tragedy.
Neverland Ranch at the height of its operation, seemed to to represent the very best childhood had to offer. Petting zoos, roller coasters, and endless green. Flowers everywhere, a kaleidoscope of color and from the photographs in the magazine spreads, sunny, warm enough to feel through glossy print. Michael Jackson constructed his own fairy tale kingdom. Now, abandoned, it emanates a sharp sadness, choked up and held back by the locked gates. It was frustrating for some to watch as Michael Jackson was acquitted of crimes when his guilt seemed so obvious.
Peter Pan ruled Neverland as a tyrant. He wasn’t buoyant and benevolent, but Machiavellian, mercurial. Children died in Neverland. Lost Boys periodically disappeared, culled by Peter Pan or absorbed into the Neverland nebulous. I don’t think that it’s an accident that Michael Jackson’s accusers were little boys, and that so many were reluctant to believe them. Men and boys are disbelieved even more than girls. He chose his victims well. The stigma for boys and men who are sexually assaulted, and report it, muffles some of the worst pain.
Michael Jackson is more popular than R. Kelly. That is a fact. The question is, at what level of fame does the villainy not stick? My family were willing to believe that R. Kelly was a predator, less inclined to believe that of Michael Jackson and my family is not singular in this sentiment. Lady Gaga condemned R. Kelly publicly and sought to help Michael Jackson’s children keep the Neverland Ranch in their possession. I don’t mean to condemn this discrepancy, for if so, I indict myself. I still listen to Michael Jackson, though somewhat less openly than with the abandon of my youth.
But Michael is dead now, and some argue the futility of beating up on a corpse. I don’t know if Michael Jackson is innocent or guilty. The state has been unable to meet their burden of proof, though lack of criminal adjudication does not account for the many silences victims have swallowed. Our culture is defined by the silences we allow and the things we refuse to talk about. I have some hope that R. Kelly will be convicted. Not much more than a little, based on precedent. And I do believe that nefarious things happened at the Neverland Ranch as did in its namesake.
More fairy tales come to mind, divergent from the tales Michael Jackson and R. Kelly articulated. Bluebeard, Donkeyskin, The Girl Without Hands. I could write a book analyzing these two men through the lens of their fairy tale doppelgängers. Bluebeard beheaded his wives when they couldn’t stand the silence any longer and unlocked a door in order to survive it. I’ve always found it odd, that the wives didn’t realize that something was off about Bluebeard. His blue beard. Was it really blue, or was it a trick of the light?
Now whether we are able to recognize the dragons for what they are is another matter altogether.