Graham: 'Leaving Neverland,' finding the truth

What's real? The truth is finally swimming to the surface in our ocean of lies

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Michael Jackson and Wade Robson in "Leaving Neverland."

Somebody's lying. 

This week, we watched in horror as two men described the alleged abuse they suffered as children at the hands of Michael Jackson in the riveting, deeply disturbing HBO documentary "Leaving Neverland." 

We also watched R. Kelly defend himself from decades of allegations of sexual abuse by loudly, staunchly rebuking questions asked by Gayle King during an interview on "CBS This Morning." 

Who's lying, and who's telling the truth? How do we tell? Very few of us are trained in the art of detecting lies. We rely on our own intuition to decide who we believe, and whose nose is growing. 

And in recent times, we've had to put that intuition to use seemingly more than ever.

Jussie Smollet, the "Empire" star who reportedly faked a hate crime against himself in an effort to up his salary on the Fox soap opera, says he's innocent. Is he lying? Given the evidence against him, it's awfully difficult to believe him.  

It's not just with entertainers. Our President lies like LeBron James sinks jumpers, telling whoppers on such a regular basis that the Washington Post has clocked him at more than 9,000 untruths since he took office in January 2017. We're so used to Trump's falsehoods by now that it hardly registers.

We live in an unprecedented era of lies. Now, the fate of two of the biggest singers of all-time hangs on whether you believe them or the people accusing them of heinous acts.

In "Leaving Neverland," two men who grew up with Jackson — Wade Robson and James Safechuck — share the harrowing details of the years of abuse they say they endured from the King of Pop. Rumors of sexual abuse dogged Jackson for decades. But the details shared by Robson and Safechuck represent a tipping point for MJ, one of the most popular entertainers of all-time, whose music was born anew with his death in 2009. 

Are they lying? Watching "Leaving Neverland," it's hard not to believe their stories. They calmly, rationally recount details of their years of encounters with Jackson and how they slowly turned from playful to sexual. 

But those stories run contradictory to their own earlier stories and testimonies, where they swore — in Robson's case, under oath — that Jackson never had any inappropriate contact with them. Does that discount their claims and the basis of the entire documentary? In the eyes of many MJ fans, it does, as do the civil lawsuits Robson and Safechuck brought against the MJ estate in 2013 and 2014, which were later thrown out by a judge. (Those lawsuits are mostly ignored in the movie.) 

Key to understanding their flip-flopping, however, is the psychological damage suffered by victims of sexual abuse. It's not as easy as he said, he later said, and that is one of the key points "Leaving Neverland" helps illuminate. 

Since Jackson is no longer alive, he can't answer the claims for himself. But he denied all allegations of sexual abuse when he was alive. So who do you believe? And why?  

R. Kelly's case is similar to Jackson's, in that he's been surrounded by rumors of sexual misconduct for years — going back to his 1994 marriage to a then-15-years-old Aaliyah — that are all piling up around him right now, in light of the #MeToo movement. 

Do you believe R. Kelly? The theatrics invoked in his defense of himself in a televised interview this week set off alarms — Kells doth protest too much, methinks — and seemed overblown, a calculated manipulation of the truth, meant to play on public sympathies and the support of his fans.

R. Kelly, Jackson and Smollet all live in the world of celebrity, where reality is what you say it is. Trump comes from the same world. Oh sure, "The Apprentice" was the biggest TV show on the airwaves? Forget what the numbers say, if he says it, it must be true! 

But the fictionalized worlds of celebrity are finally beginning to crumble, for some sooner than others. Even in a world of lies, eventually, the truth comes out.