And what if it’s the truth?
I’m not sure if I’ll watch “Leaving Neverland.” At this point, I’ve had to accept that one of my favorite musical icons of the 80s was abusing children in the name of love. I’m not afraid to listen to these men describe what he did to them.
I’m afraid of hearing them express their great and lasting love for the man who manipulated, abused, exploited and abandoned them.
One of my dear friends shares an ex with me. This man, who is dead now, was a hero in his community. I had no intention of dating this man when I met him. We were casual friends, and then my mother died. To escape that grief, I threw myself into a bad decision for six weeks. That bad decision was him.
He was an unlikely Romeo with a jolly, avuncular presence. A wonderful conversationalist, a great joker. It ended badly between us, but after the dating ended, we became good friends. He called me his “best friend” for years before he dropped me cold. I never understood why. I was not sufficiently loyal to him, I guess. I mean, that’s what I think happened. I think that’s the reason, because he would never tell me.
He knew my sudden absence would cause some questions, and I was determined not to have a messy, public thing going on that would strain the emotional resources (and patience) of our mutual friends. So, I suggested to him that we downgrade from friendship to “friendly acquaintances.” We would be pleasant to each other in public, and estranged from each other in private. He agreed.
I went on to watch his antics from a remove. And he went on to lie about me to anyone who would listen. People who had never met me were told stories about who I was and why our friendship was over. We were no longer friends because I was crazy, was the gist of it. Crazy and jealous, some jumble of untruth that preserved his public image as a good guy. A real mensch. The best. He was practically a saint by the time he succumbed to cancer. Yes, he had cancer, and yes, he died from it. It was a long, public, awful fight. But even as he was sick, he continued a pattern that had gone on throughout our friendship, and, I had to face it, had included me.
He would choose women who were especially vulnerable for one reason or another; an empty marriage, a fresh divorce, a recent death in her family, or his favorite, the person who hadn’t dated in so long that she’d forgotten what romance felt like. And he would use his friendly, harmless appearance to slip under her fences, and love bomb her. Once she was conquered, he would stay for as long as he wanted to. Then he’d end it, and leave her devastated and blaming herself, because everyone had warned her that he was like that.
I am embarrassed by how long it took me to see this about him. Once I did, I blamed myself for falling for this, and I blamed myself for believing his reasons during our friendship — reasons that always boiled down to, “She’s crazy.”
He carried on with more and more women, more and more publicly as the years went on. He maintained a robust and messy romantic life through bout after bout of cancer treatment.
And then it was over.
As his community grieved, some of us who knew him quietly touched base. We were sad, we were angry, we were grieving. But we were not speaking publicly. One friend said it best; “I didn’t say anything when he died because if I was kind, it wouldn’t be honest, and if I was honest, it wouldn’t be kind.”
There is a version of this person that lives on in his community. It is the kind and jolly man who is remembered. People who see him differently keep their mouths shut. They never speak the truth, that this man was an emotional predator and a narcissist who preyed on vulnerable women and made us think it was our fault when he hurt us. He was pathological. He was also brilliant, hilarious, generous, and so much fun to be around.
When I drive by The Barley Mill Pub on Hawthorne, I remember years of sitting across from him in an upstairs booth, talking about his crazy love life and laughing my head off At all those crazy women of his. I adored him. He confounds me to this day. I still miss him.
In my family, there are some truths that cannot be told by me, because they don’t belong to me. A man operated like an octopus in our family, reaching into different generations, choosing a child, working her free, squeezing her in his death grip of favoritism, blackmail, and predation.
I was bothered by him. I was not completely unscathed–I doubt that any female child in our family went unmolested to some degree–but I was not singled out as the special child he preyed upon and warped. That happened to someone I love. And I have lived my entire life with the damage he did to to her, and the damage she wreaked on everyone else.
I grew up in a family that was been intentionally fractured so that the octopus could go to work. This is the story of my life, but to tell it, I will have to tell stories that belong to other people.
In one of my novels, I have two predators. One of them is a man of god, and one of them is a trucker. And oh, they are bad. I mean, they are evil. Bad men doing bad things. Because they’re BAD. I wish I’d made these characters a little more appealing, a little more confusing. Villains should see themselves as the wronged parties, shouldn’t they? I assume that every writer looks back at her published works and wishes she’d done something just a little better.
But after I published this book, I sent a copy of this book to someone in my extended family. She also writes. She read my book carefully, and called me to talk about it. There is plenty to discuss in this book, but she wanted to discuss how the predators met their terrible ends. “So, there’s no love for the abusers?” she asked me. “No forgiveness? They die, and that’s that?” She had a point. There was no love for my one-dimensional villains. They are lovingly portrayed from their hats to their boots, but I do not love them.
But we loved the octopus predator. I was eleven or twelve when it all came out. The family was calling and crying and threatening and defending, appalled and betrayed, unearthing who had known and who hadn’t, who had able to protect their children and who had driven their children to this man’s door.
Everyone blamed each other, and everyone blamed themselves. Because how could a child not tell. And how could a mother not know. And how could a former victim not understand that this abuse wasn’t restricted to her, that it would happen over and over again for generations.
My household was in a roil. Finally, my mother had to explain to me what had happened. After she did, she said, “I don’t know what to do with my love for him.”
He lived a long life. His wife never left him, even after she knew. And I have stayed silent, because there are people in my family who love him still.
When I was very young, he often sat me on his lap and told me story after story about three animals. They were cats or dogs or rats or horses. There were always three, and one was black, and one was red, and one was brown. And one of the three was always named Pete. And these animals had great adventures in the alleys and pastures and barns and backyards of the octopus’s imagination.
Imagine how delightful that was for a child. How special. All of that is tainted by the fact that I loved the octopus.
It’s an old saying, “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” It is unfair to speak ill of those who are no longer here to defend themselves.
There are people who love the person you’re talking about. He has his defenders, his family. You will hurt them if you tell the truth, and incite their wrath. You will expose people who wish to maintain their privacy and silence on the matter, who do not want the lid pried off their experiences, their pain. You will tell stories that don’t belong to you.
There are others who don’t see what happened to them as abuse. When you tell the truth, you take away their choice in the matter. They’ve lived their entire lives seeing themselves as complicit at best, or part of a grand love affair at worst, and they don’t feel they are victims. You are, in your way, victimizing them.
What you’ll find most often, though, is people who blame themselves for not knowing, for not seeing, for not understanding what was happening to their children, their siblings, or even to themselves. You will find, over and over again, people who feel responsible for what happened, even though they did none of it. They will hate you for making them feel responsible and defensive.
Which brings us back to watching the Michael Jackson documentary, and whether or not I’ll do it. I’m afraid to hear these men talk about how much they loved him. I don’t even want to hear their mothers talk about how they didn’t know.
All these victims, blaming themselves.