This Friday marks one year since the passing of Michael Jackson. His
legacy remains highly controversial. On one side there are ardent fans who consider
him the central inspiration of their lives. On the other there are strident critics
who believe he was hopelessly weird with an unhealthy interest in children. In
the middle are those who simply love his music and miss his talent.
The truth about Michael as I knew and understood him was something else
entirely. Michael Jackson forever remained the broken boy who yearned for a
normal childhood but was thrust reluctantly into a spotlight that slowly became
addictive. Immersed in a celebrity culture rife with human corruption, he
yearned to be innocent. Starved of affection, he spent his life looking for love
but ultimately settled for attention. Surrounded by sycophants who indulged his
every unhealthy whim, he longed to find an authentic and spiritual environment.
And trapped in a cocoon of incarcerating fame, he craved to consecrate his
celebrity to a cause larger than himself.
The tragedy of his life was his failure to achieve these noble aims.
Michael knew that G-d had given him a special gift and with it the power to
‘heal the world, make it a better place.’ He understood the responsibility of
celebrity and was devastated as his was slowly transformed into notoriety. He
hated to be hated and was crushed by the chasm between what he saw as his
sincere intentions to do good verses the uncharitable public perception of him
as a shallow materialist.
Once in the midst of the thirty hours of recordings we did together
for publication in a book that would allow Michael to speak directly to the
public, he revealed how defamatory his celebrity had become. “You get tired and
it just wears you down. You can’t go somewhere where they don’t manipulate what
you do and say, that bothers me so much, and you are nothing like the person
that they write about, nothing. To get called Whacko, that’s not nice. People
think something is wrong with you because they make it up. I am nothing like
that. I am the opposite of that.”
Polite to a fault, he was a soft and gentle soul who prided himself
on being different to other celebrities. Whereas they partied in nightclubs,
Michael loved being around ordinary families. Where they put, as Michael said,
needles in their arms, he was a vegetarian who wouldn’t be caught dead with a
street drug. And where they, as Michael maintained, engaged in tawdry relationships,
Michael preferred the company of innocent kids.
What he could not see was that overindulging in medication prescribed
by a doctor was just as destructive as a street drug and was motivated by the
same celebrity emptiness. He was also oblivious to his own excess when it came
to kids. It was one thing to show kindness and friendship to children. It was
another thing entirely to invite them into your bed.
I do not for a moment believe Michael was a pedophile. Those who judge
him as such forget that the only time he was charged he was utterly acquitted,
and it is time for the public to exonerate him as well. But he gave himself
license to cross lines of basic propriety that brought him into disrepute and
soiled his message as to the purity and innocence that adults could learn from
children. For a man who spent his life trying to educate the public as to the
wonders of childhood, this was a monumental failure, and he knew it. The
suspicion cast on him by a public whose love he had spent a lifetime
cultivating marked the principal sorrow of his life. It would have tragic
consequences when he turned increasingly to painkillers to numb the ache.
A year after his death what most haunts me is the knowledge that
Michael’s life could so easily have been saved. What Michael needed was not
painkillers but counseling, not the numbing of an inner woundedness through
drugs but the awakening of an inner conscience through spiritual guidance. He
needed a wise voice in his ear guiding him to a mastery of his demons before
they consumed him. Any number of people could have rescued Michael from
impeding oblivion. Most of all, he craved the love and validation of his
father. What emerges most strikingly in our recorded conversations –
conversations that Michael knew would be read by a wide audience, perhaps
including his parents – was the hurt he felt toward his father on the one hand,
and the extreme affection he harbored for him on the other. Michael had many
fans, but he played primarily to an audience of one.
But while his life is sadly irretrievable, the lessons to be culled
from his life are not. Few were as eloquent in articulating the profound lessons
parents could learn from being around their children. Fewer still were more
attuned to the lifelong scarring of children who were victims of neglect. I can
still hear Michael’s daily admonishments to me to look my children in the eye
and tell them I loved them and to never allow a night to go by without reading
them a bedtime story.
When first I learned of his death my immediate reaction, I am ashamed
to say, was anger. You silly man, I thought. How could you? You knew your children,
whom you adored, depended on you. You were the most devoted father. How could
you orphan them? You Michael, to whom G-d bequeathed such unequaled talent,
just threw it away?
Twelve months later the anger is gone, replaced by a deep sadness. He
was an imperfect candle. But his striving to go beyond the caricature he had become
and redeem his life by visiting orphanages and hospitals was illuminating. The
lyrics of his songs spoke to the human yearning to mend the broken pieces of
the human soul and become whole. Whether it was encouraging himself and his fans
to be the man looking in the mirror, or healing the world, he wished for his
music to inspire people to choose goodness.
A year after his untimely passing it is time to finally mourn
Michael as a man. To remember him not as an entertainer, or to miss him as an international
icon – an object without feelings or pain – but as a struggling soul who tried
to transform the pain of his broken childhood into an inspirational message of parents
cherishing their children. It is time to evaluate Michael his life not in the
context of an idol who had much money and fame but as a man who searched for a
real home that was not a stage.