Seduced, Harmed and Brainwashed: Survivors of Michael Jackson and Followers of Donald Trump
Watching “Leaving Neverland”, the story of two men who were sexually abused by Michael Jackson when they were boys, is something I recommend everyone do. And stick around for the hour with Oprah afterwards. If you don’t walk away with a clear eyed understanding about how an abuser ensnares children and their families, then you may need to find where your heart and good sense went.
As someone who spent many years as a therapist treating survivors like Wade and James, I was moved by the courage it took for them to come forward. I was also impressed with how the filmmaker had them tell their stories. In my book, “Integrating the Shattered Self”, I urge my readers to understand this extreme violation through the eyes of the child. Wade and James spoke so starkly about the grooming process and how their sense of reality and themselves was forever shaped by the entirety of their experiences with MJ.
The men made a profound remark in the midst of the discussion. They said they were seduced and primed long before they even met Michael. His fame and iconic status had already turned him into a mesmerizing idol. Much like MJ’s diehard believers today, they could not comprehend that Michael would do harm in the service of his own sick needs. His public image was so well crafted and reinforced that everyone believed it and quickly rejected any information to the contrary.
For most of us who enjoyed his music, we were skeptical of Michael’s persona and behavior. We knew his behavior wasn’t normal or healthy. We knew he had serious psychological problems. We knew his overly close relationships with young boys was suspect. Still, we enjoyed his music and set aside any worries about the harm we presumed he was doing.
This documentary provides a day of reckoning for all of us. We have all been complicit in maintaining MJ’s innocence. We must now be fully on the side of the survivors and reject the adulation. We must trust our skepticism and believe that if it seems weird, it is weird. We must end our own denial.
When you listen to Wade and James’ compelling descriptions of how their own innocence was twisted and the lasting damage that has created, it provides guidance for us about the seduction of Donald Trump.
Trump has spent decades crafting his public persona as a dealmaker, billionaire, the most (fill in the blank) and the least (fill in the blank). He has elevated this deception to an art form. Even though there was a great deal of information that offered facts that contradicted this image, he was elected. It has been said many times that people knew exactly who Trump was and that is why they voted for him. They wanted a bull in the china shop who spoke crassly and denigrated institutions and people that some part of the population disliked.
This was Trump’s grooming of the base. He had a well established public image that kept his self serving intentions in the shadows. He entrapped people to buy anything he was selling; wine, steaks or his shifting positions on what America ought to be doing. Much like Wade’s description of why he lied for MJ during the trial, Trump’s base simply cannot think or believe that he has repeatedly done treacherous things to people, norms and institutions. Once you are in the aura of the icon, you can’t let in anything that resembles a multi-dimensional truth about the person. The truth that he is not his image, that he has committed unethical and criminal acts, that he has destroyed vulnerable people’s lives and that he uses the power of his status to attack the credibility of anyone who challenges the lie.
When confronted with truths about what Trump has done or said, Republican lawmakers sound just like MJ’s fans. “You misunderstand, you just want to take him down, you are the bad person.” They say and do things to maintain the Trump image and the power that affords them. They don’t think about the harm that is being done to people, norms and institutions that will forever be altered. They have been sucked into the vortex and nothing will break through that will change their support of this deeply troubled man.
For Wade and James, it was the birth of their sons or someone else having the courage to speak the truth that caused them to face down their own painful realities. They described the very challenging therapeutic work of building a healthy sense of themselves. I wonder, what incident will cause the Republicans to have that awakening? Will it be one or several very brave pro-Trump people coming forward with heinous stories? Will it be their own version of a nervous breakdown like MJ’s victims? It doesn’t seem that ignoring every single constitutional norm or legality is enough for them to break the spell. As someone who has witnessed these moments with survivors, it is not for the weak. Facing down the demons, the damage and the excruciating pain is tough work.
The difference here is that Wade and James were children when the harm was done. They did not have the cognitive capabilities that adults do. For Trump diehards, think ahead to the day when you look yourself in the mirror and say, “I knew better. I knew he was a self serving con. And yet I was sucked in. It all seemed so bright and shiny and I wanted to be part of that. Now I realize I shut down my own powers to reason and see what was right before me. I ignored my own capacity to think for myself, my own moral and ethical code and my own common sense. And in so doing, I let down this country and put us in danger.”
As devastating as childhood sexual abuse is, I have more faith and confidence in the survivors ability to face down reality and heal than I do Trump supporters. As much as I see a parallel between the seduction then destruction of children with the seduction then destruction of a portion of our country, these lawmakers have become too invested in the lie. James used the expression “hardwired into my nervous system” to describe the training to not tell the truth. Republicans today have Fox News, Trump and his surrogates hardwiring their thoughts. I fear for our democracy, our country and our citizens (most of all, the true believers) because nothing will shatter and then rewire their systems.
Think what you may about Michael Cohen, but we are witnessing a small version of this personal reckoning. He was groomed, enamored and then became the dutiful thug. In his testimony he gave some hints at how he was sucked in. Because he was abused and then became an abuser, I have no sympathy for him. (FYI, most sexual abuse survivors do NOT become abusers themselves.) But I heard bits and pieces of his acknowledgement that he set aside his own moral compass to be part of this icon’s world. I doubt that Cohen will do the hard work that Wade and James are doing to heal themselves. But I do applaud the baby step and I hope more Trump followers come forward.
Only when enough courageous people come forward to say, “No, this person is not what he wants you to believe he is” and the rest of us develop a habit of believing the less powerful ones, will the spell be broken. #metoo is a breakthrough movement supporting the public truth telling. There needs to be a companion movement that calls upon non-victims to stand with survivors so that we end our complicity in this seduction, harm and brainwashing.