We all have a few of them. Those "where-were-you-when" moments that simultaneously help define generations and span generational differences. Our parents and grandparents may recall where they were when FDR died or when they heard that Kennedy — John or Bobby — was assassinated. Or when they got news of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Or Elvis’ death.
I remember hearing about John Lennon’s murder, though I don’t remember exactly where I was or what I was doing. I remember where I was when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. (At home, watching it on television, saying to myself "That wasn’t supposed to happen," when it broke apart.) I remember where I was when the Berlin Wall started to come down. (Again, watching it on television.) I remember where I was when I heard that Princess Diana had died. (At a party of gay men — my fraternity brothers — when someone came downstairs after watching a news report, and announced it to everyone.)
And, I’ll remember where I was when I heard that Michael Jackson had died.
Ironically, I’d heard about Farah Fawcett’s — another celebrity whose image defined an era — death after a long battle with cancer earlier that same day. In the morning, I read an article saying she wasn’t expected to last the day, and by the time I sat down to lunch, she was gone.
I was on my way home when I heard about Michael Jackson. I’d just gotten off the subway, and was waiting for a bus to take me the rest of the way home. While I waited, I ducked into a small convenient store to buy some gum, and while paying for it I noticed there was a Michael Jackson song playing on the radio ("The Way You Make Me Feel"). The bus arrived. I got on and waited for it to start moving again.
For some reason — I don’t know why — a woman sitting a few rows in front of me thought to tell me the news about Michael Jackson. Shocked, took out my cell phone and looked up the news. It was true.
Michael Jackson, an incomparable figure in music, dance and culture whose ever-changing face graced the covers of albums that sold more than half a billion copies, died Thursday, shortly after going into cardiac arrest at his rented Holmby Hills mansion. He was 50. He spent much of his life as one of the most famous people on the planet, and to many, his untimely death felt both unthinkable and, oddly, inevitable.
Paramedics found Jackson in cardiac arrest when they arrived at his home shortly before 12:30 p.m., three minutes and 17 seconds after receiving a 911 call. His personal physician was already in the house performing CPR. Jackson was not breathing, and it appears he never regained consciousness. Paramedics treated Jackson at the house for 42 minutes, and he was declared dead at 2:26 p.m. at UCLA Medical Center, about two miles from his home above Sunset Boulevard.
Plenty has been said and will be said about Jackson’s life and career, his financial problems, his legal problems, his personal life, and the tabloid fodder that it became. I’ll let other people focus on that.
When I heard about Michael Jackson’s death, my first feelings came from being a parent. I recalled interviews where he talked about the abuse he experienced as a child, including beatings by his father for missed dance steps in rehearsals, etc., and the pressures of fame and responsibility of being a major means of support for his family.
From a young age Jackson claims he was physically and emotionally abused by his father, enduring incessant rehearsals, whippings and name-calling, but also contends that his father was a strict disciplinarian that played a large part in his success. In one altercation—later recalled by Marlon Jackson—Joseph held Michael upside down by one leg and "pummeled him over and over again with his hand, hitting him on his back and buttocks". Joseph would also trip up, or push his male children into walls. One night while Jackson was asleep, Joseph climbed into his room through the bedroom window. Wearing a fright mask, he entered the room screaming and shouting. Joseph said he wanted to teach his children not to leave the window open when they went to sleep. For years afterwards, Jackson suffered nightmares about being kidnapped from his bedroom.
Jackson first spoke openly about his childhood abuse in a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey. He said that during his childhood he often cried from loneliness and would sometimes get sick or start to vomit upon seeing his father. In Jackson’s other high profile interview, Living with Michael Jackson (2003), the singer covered his face with his hand and began crying when talking about his childhood abuse. Jackson recalled that Joseph sat in a chair with a belt in his hand as he and his siblings rehearsed and that "if you didn’t do it the right way, he would tear you up, really get you".
I think of Parker, just a year older than the age Jackson was when he started performing, and what all of the above might do to him — especially the pressure of sudden and unparalleled fame at such a young age, without a parent to turn to for support and protection.
It’s not the the 50 year old Michael that I find myself thinking of. It’s the kid. The Michael who was never really protected the way should have been and any child deserves to be — let alone a child entering show business, where he’s likely to be seen as a money-earner, and tossed aside the moment he stops being one.
I thought of a poem Alice Walker wrote about that Michael, called "Natural Star."
I am in mourning
for your face
The one I used to love
upon the stage.
Thrusting in your fist.
I am in mourning
for your face
the shining eyes
the happy teeth
the look that said
I am the world
and aren’t you glad
Not to mention
I am in mourning
for the sweet brown innocence
of your skin
your perfect nose,
the shy smile
that lit you
like a light.
I am in mourning
for a face
in its goodness
makes but once
and sends it out
to spread great joy
itself well pleased.
I am in mourning
for your beloved face
so thoroughly and
Oh, my pretty little
brother. Genius. Child.
Sing to us, dance
Rest in peace.
I think of that kid, who came into the world with a gift — to borrow from Walker — the Universe only give out maybe once every other generation or so, and who was punished for it as much as rewarded. Maybe even more, for I can’t know what all of that does to a child when he faces it almost alone.
I think of the kid who taught himself to defy gravity, and the rest of us to dance at least a little. (Though, to this day, I can not "moonwalk.")
I think of that kid who in spite of all that, gave us all this.
He seemed, indeed, like a natural star — at once astounding us and making it look nearly effortless.
I think of that kid who despite experiencing so much pain, spread so much joy.
Did he also cause pain? Perhaps. None of us leave this world without causing some. Talent, fame, and even wealth do not make one the slightest bit more than human, let alone perfect.
Pain does things to people. Long after the scars have faded, tears have dried, and all but the residue of fear has faded away, pain can linger — sometimes sharp, and sometimes a dull ache. But still there, and never completely gone.
Pain, like joy, is contagious and easily spread. If we’re fortunate, and try even just a little, when we’re done we may have spread more joy than any pain we’ve caused. And if the joy we spread continues to grow after we’ve gone? Bonus!
So, I want to say just one thing to that kid whose bruises perhaps never fully healed, who had to work while other kids played, then grew up to both reap the benefits and know the full cost of the result, wondered if it was worth it, and kept trying to find the childhood that wasn’t so much lost as taken from him (and never properly protected in the first place).
I want to say something to that child who needed to be held just because he was a child who needed to be held, who needed to feel love and acceptance and approval not for what he had, what he could do, or the legend — for, yes, he became that — he would be, but for the child he was. He waited for it for so long.
It is a birthright, childhood. It is not easily surrendered before its time, and usually can only be taken away by force. Loose it, or have it taken away, and by the time you realize what you’ve lost, you’ll know deep down that you can’t get it back again. And you’ll know just as well, that you can’t stop searching for it, because it may be the cure or balm for the pain you’ve carried since it was taken away. You may search down dark alleys or on brightly lit stages. But you will search in vain, and on some level you’ll know that. You’ll search anyway. You have to.
I want to say something to that child.
Thank you. It’s alright. It’s OK. You are good, and a great kid. Now, rest.
And when you’re ready, again … go and play.
After betting some feedback on at other places where I’ve posted this, I wanted to respond to the question of whether Michael Jackson was an abused child or an abuser of children entrusted to his care.
I think he may well have been both.
I think that in considering Michael Jackson, we can hold conflicting views at the same time. So much of his life was contradictory, it would seem impossible to do otherwise.
In my post, I decided to take on just one view, because I didn’t feel I could write an effective post that encompassed everything. (Also, I don’t know enough about the child abuse charges against him to write about them in great detail.)
On one hand, I do have sympathy for the abuse Jackson experienced as a child.
On the other, as a parent, I would never have left my children alone with him. I’d never let my kids go to a "slumber party" with any 40-something-year-old man, for that matter.
The reality is, yes, he may very well have molested or engaged in inappropriate contact with children. With one case ending in acquittal and another settled out of court, we’re likely never to know for sure.
But since writing this post, I’ve gone back and looked at the transcripts, etc. from previous cases. At the very least, Jackson’s activities with children may have left them vulnerable to abuse and definitely left him open to charges of abuse. It’s not a situation I would put my child in as a parent, with anyone.
As a parent, the sexual abuse of a child — any child — horrifies me. As the spouse of a mental health professional, and a friend to abuse survivors, I know what kind of damage that kind of abuse causes (at least, as much as I can having never experienced that kind of abuse myself).
My intention isn’t to diminish that, or to excuse the damage Jackson may have done.
I guess, when I got the news, I thought of that little boy that Jackson was — before abuse and exploitation, etc., did what they did to him — and I wished I could go back in time and stop that abuse or stop the cycle of abuse there. But I can’t. No one can.
My feeling was not only would it have spared him, but it might have spared many more children.
Michael probably failed to stop it himself. Maybe he couldn’t, maybe he chose not to, and maybe it was a little of both.
Either way, when I heard about his death, I guess I wanted to imagine some way of stopping the pain, and its contagion, from him on down.