Sharing a Fence with Michael Jackson

Photo by Pedro Marroquin on Unsplash

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, or coming up with inventive ways to avoid the pain and discomfort of viewing “Leaving Neverland,” you’ve probably watched or at least heard about HBO’s controversial documentary. The British filmmaker, Dan Reed, explores the allegations of sexual abuse against Michael Jackson. In the two-part/four-hour series, two men, Wade Robson and James “Jimmy” Safechuck, allege Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children. The effects on the alleged victims’ families are also examined.

It’s not easy watching, especially if you are a huge fan of the King of Pop’s music like I am…. I mean was (sigh). I’m just grateful my younger brother, and by extension, our family, aren’t part of the story when we so easily could have been.

Jackson with Robson/ Jackson with Safechuck

On Oprah’s HBO TV special “After Neverland,” she sits next to Robson, Safechuck and Reed reminding her studio audience, made up of sexual abuse victims, and everyone watching at home how sexual predators are usually someone you know, like a coach, an uncle or a neighbor. Oprah has been trying to get the message across for decades how sexual abuse is not always as it seems and is often at the hands of somebody you respect and admire.

Michael Jackson was our neighbor, someone we respected and someone we more than admired.

Adam Kallen’s commercial headshot, 1983

Just like Wade and Jimmy were when they were little kids, my younger brother, Adam was an especially cute, happy and outgoing boy who loved being the center of attention. Just like Wade and Jimmy, Adam was going on commercial auditions, could dance, moonwalk and even do flips in the air from a standing position. Just like Wade and Jimmy, all the little girls had crushes on Adam and the moms wanted to pinch his cheeks.

Adam was ten years old in 1983 when he met his biggest idol through the shared fence separating our house from the Jackson’s Hayvenhurst compound.

The Jackson’s two-acre estate in Encino butted up against four houses on our street, Rubio Avenue. In the picture of the Hayvenhurst compound above, our pool is in the bottom left corner.

It was the 80’s and Michael’s fans gifted him exotic animals, including dogs. Michael turned the Hayvenhurst compound’s backyard into a mini-zoo with animals kept in chain-linked cages at the border of our property line underneath a row of trees. You could see his llama, peacocks, deer, and ram from my backyard. Michael Jackson’s snake, Muscles, his chimpanzee, Bubbles, and his parrots were known to his fans, but not seen from my yard. The Jackson’s many dogs would often bark at all times of the day and night and occasionally were thrown into their own cages.

Years later Michael would acquire a baby giraffe we could see from our pool deck. The poor thing would duck and hide in its open-aired fence made out of green tennis court vinyl mesh. Toward the late 80s, my dad and stepmom were not thrilled when on breezy days the animal smells wafted in our direction and the infestation of flies swarmed from the animal feces not being cleaned up. After a complaint was filed about the incessant dog barking and the infestation of flies coming from the animal cages on the Hayvenhurst property, animal services was required to come out. I can’t say for sure, but this likely prompted Michael Jackson to eventually move his animals two hours north up to Neverland Ranch.

Besides a few oleander bushes hiding the concrete gutter easement between our properties, you could see straight into the animal cages. I’d look at the animals with young curiosity, heeding my mom’s warning to not eat the oleander flowers because they were poisonous and to not get too close to the llama for fear it might spit at me.

I never did meet Michael, even though when he was young he hopped over the fence to retrieve his noisy peacock that flew into our yard. This was before the original Spanish style house the Jackson’s bought in 1971 was knocked down and built to become the mock-Tudor estate with a dance floor, recording studio and guard towers that stands today. I was also never home when Michael Jackson knocked on neighbors’ doors in “disguise” to spread the Jehovah’s Witness gospel.

Up until I watched “Leaving Neverland,” the story I would tell about how Adam met Michael Jackson seemed pretty funny to me. The year was 1983 and Thriller was a sensation. Adam was ten, which would have meant our parents divorced and Adam was visiting our dad, who kept the Rubio house. Adam says the memory is vivid, seared in his mind. He was in the backyard looking at the llama and peacocks when he saw someone looking back at him and realized it was Michael Jackson. Adam said it felt dream-like because the most popular person in the world, the werewolf from Thriller and the mega-superstar who sang and danced on MTV in our living room stood a few feet away. It was just the two of them…and the animals of course.

Now picture Michael, with his high voice introducing himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Michael. What’s your name?”

Adam says, “Hi. I’m Adam.”

“Do you like animals?” Michael asks.

“Yes,” Adam says.

“Animals are just like us. We’re animals. We’re human animals,” Michael says.

Adam nodded in agreement, thinking he was the coolest person in the world because now Michael knew his name. Adam said their brief discussion felt deeper like it transcended meeting someone new for the first time. It was as if Adam knew Michael well already, like a friend, or as Adam puts it, “A really weird peer.” Adam remembers thinking Michael spoke to him like he was his age, not like an adult.

What also may have lent to the familial feeling Adam experienced, besides the constant Michael Jackson videos and the “Thriller” album on repeat, was Adam was playing Encino Little League with Tito Jackson’s son, Taj. (Taj is currently defending his uncle, saying “Leaving Neverland” is one-sided.) Adam thought everyone all over the world knew about the Jackson’s, but not everyone lived behind them nor were friends with and played baseball with Michael’s nephew.

When Michael Jackson left his house or arrived anywhere in the world there was always a manic frenzy, a media circus. Kids we knew, and strangers we didn’t, huge Michael Jackson fans tried and sometimes succeeded in breaking into our backyard to have a backstage pass to get a glimpse of their idol. The masked man would have to leave his Hayvenhurst gate in a blacked-out limo where his fans lined up and down Hayvenhurst at all hours of the day and night. This had to have led to Michael’s isolation and loneliness, where he felt trapped behind his solid iron gates. Michael Jackson could have so easily found a friend in my very friendly brother, as Adam put it, “Had there been a gate, I could have very well been shown the dance floor.”

Michael Jackson would begin his long-running relationships with Wade, aged 7 and Jimmy, aged 9, and their families a few years after he met Adam. After watching the documentary I am convinced Michael Jackson’s family members or friends defending him were either unaware of what was happening behind closed doors or are choosing to look away for personal and/or monetary reasons. Just because no one ever saw the abuse doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Adam could’ve easily been one of those young and innocent boys who fell into the trap of Michael Jackson’s charm. Adam easily could’ve gotten stuck in his biggest idol’s sticky web and put under his strong spell. Everyone, and I mean even people in the farthest reaches on planet earth, knew about and loved Michael Jackson. After all, Michael Jackson was the young and innocent little boy from Jackson Five who grew into the mega-talented King of Pop, an American Dream if there ever was one.

Between Michael’s cult of celebrity shining so bright and because Adam came from a divorced family, where our parents were busy with their new significant others, Adam could’ve fallen prey to the grooming tactics the documentary so skillfully, and stomach-churningly (is that a word?) played out.

Wade at five years old was in love with the superstar, his superhero he wanted to imitate. When I think about my youngest daughter, who at five years old was beyond head over heels for her idol, Adele, my heart breaks for the boys’ loss of innocence. My five-year-old dressed like Adele for Halloween, sang like her incessantly and still worships her to this day. Statistically, sexual predators tend to be men, but what if my youngest had met her idol at a young age and they developed a relationship? It’s a double standard with women, but if Adele asked if my daughter could spend the night, I would have likely thought it odd but may have been groomed to say yes as time passed. It’s a reminder to stay vigilant in our children’s lives, even when we think nothing bad is happening.

Like Oprah reminds us, one in six young boys is sexually molested in the U.S. Classic signs of grooming starts with the perpetrator convincing the child and their family they are safe and have the child’s best interest in mind. Then the perpetrator begins to teach the child how special s/he is. And then there is the gradual introduction to touch, likely beginning with roughhousing and moving on to touching a leg and then onto putting a hand over their genitals, and so on.

Most boys, and later men, deny the sexual abuse because they are afraid of being caught and because they feel guilty because at the time it may have felt good. Those defending Michael say there is no physical evidence, but there’s no dispute Michael spent night after night with different young boys.

Michael Jackson’s die-hard fans claim “Finding Neverland” is very one-sided, but why did Michael Jackson need to sleep in bedrooms with little boys and have multiple hideaways, halls, and locks to hide out at Neverland?

Robson and Safechuck on Oprah’s “After Neverland” special

Only after Robson and Safechuck had young sons of their own did they understand how they were groomed to fall prey to Michael’s sexual predatory behaviors. And let’s not forget Robson and Safechuck did not receive compensation for the film, knowing they would receive additional death threats from Jackson fans. One of the most difficult aspects of their abuse was the trauma that comes from having to hide a secret from the world for so long. The scars of the emotional abuse will always be there, but now the grown men can find healing and support with the understanding we are only sick as our secrets.

Adam Kallen, owner of Jane Motorcycles: New York City’s custom motorcycle, apparel …

As evidenced by my social media feeds, discussions all over the internet and any time I speak to a friend or family member, most people, me included, have to come to a reckoning that Michael Jackson was a genius musician and performer while recognizing he committed a horrendous crime. Even hardened criminals in prison feel disgusted over pedophilia, often beating convicted perpetrators so they know what it’s like to be in a living hell. Abusing children, regardless if one claims it’s out of love, is unforgivable.

“Leaving Neverland” may forever scar Michael Jackson’s legacy. Only time will tell if the iconic King of Pop’s fandom can survive such an incredible and gut-wrenching scandal. One thing is for sure, I will never giggle again as I tell the story about Michael Jackson meeting my brother.

Wishing you happiness, peace and good mental health.

Host of “Dear Family,” the Podcast, Writer, Educator, and Mental Health Advocate

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