Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Michael Jackson: the legacy of child-abuse

So much has been written about Michael Jackson's life and death that there seems little else to say. But as the crowds gather today at L.A.'s Staples Center for his public memorial, I think it bears noting that the bizarreness of his life had a cause, and that primary cause is likely the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his father. A secondary cause is likely the internalized racism that his abusive father apparently absorbed from the culture around him.

It is not my intention to make excuses for Michael Jackson's creepy relationships with other people's children (whether or not they were pedophilic remains an unanswered question) or Joseph Jackson's horrific treatment of his own children. I do however, ask readers to consider how people become the way that they do, and to examine our culture as one of enablement.

In a sane world, Joe Jackson would have been jailed for what he did to his kids. Anyone who has watched Martin Bashir's documentary, Living with Michael Jackson, knows that MJ said his father "practiced us with a belt in his hand" and "he would really cut you up". When Bashir asks MJ if his father ever used anything more than a belt, you see Michael nearly dissolve, unable to speak for a moment. Then he says that his father would throw at the children whatever was handy, or just throw the children themselves against a wall. Michael says he was often used as the example of how to do a dance step correctly, and had to watch while his siblings were abused for not being able to dance as well as he did. Imagine what that does to one's psyche.

But it's the emotional abuse MJ received in adolescence from his father that seems to have pushed him over the edge. Just as he was at that awful stage in his development when he was no longer the adorable "Little Michael" who had won the hearts of America, Joe Jackson, by MJ's account, ridiculed that shape his son's adult face was taking, especially his African nose. "You didn't get that from my side," MJ says his dad told him. Because of that, he hated being seen in public, Michael tells Bashir. "I would have rather worn a mask," he said.

And so Michael Jackson created his own mask. In his work, he never stepped back from his black identity, even as he engaged plastic surgeons and dermatologists to eliminate the traces of his heritage from his face -- to destroy what had been a truly beautiful face.

But the theme of the mask in Michael Jackson's life and work extends beyond the wounds of racism. His own children look white, and he put feathered masks on them when he took them out in public. According to biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, Joe Jackson once donned a fright mask and climbed through Michael's bedroom window while the boy lay sleeping, shouting and terrorizing him. In the film short, Thriller, Jackson himself dons the fright mask, morphing first into a werewolf, and then into a zombie-like creature, terrorizing a young woman he asks to "be my girl." In between the morphs, he's a sweet, adorable Michael Jackson. The obvious suggestion is that within Jackson himself, a demon lurks. The lyrics, to my ear, recall the terror of an abused child:

You hear the door slam and realize there's nowhere left to run
You feel the cold hand and wonder if you'll ever see the sun
You close your eyes and hope that this is just imagination, girl!
But all the while you hear the creature creeping up behind
You're out of time
In Beat It (a song I always took to be about MJ's father), Jackson suggests that the way to deal with abuse is simply to get out of the way:
You have to show them that you're really not scared
You're playin' with your life, this ain't no truth or dare
They'll kick you, then they beat you,
Then they'll tell you it's fair
So Beat It...
And so Michael Jackson has at last beaten it. He's released from his torment. He suffered a great deal to give us the genius of his work. He probably made others suffer, too. But his story is one about our society, not about his weirdness. May we all look within.

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