Peter Pan, like so many great children’s stories, is a dark and morbid piece of work. What do we mean when we say someone has “lost” a child? We mean that the child is dead. That’s what the Lost Boys are, children’s souls snatched from the prams of London, waylaid on their journey from this world to the next. And Pan’s outfit is not, in fact, a pair of snappy green tights. It’s a tunic “clad in skeleton leaves.” The symbolism is hard to miss. Neverland, the Lost Boys, Pan himself, they all represent a kind of death, because while it might seem fun and idyllic to remain a child forever, to never grow up is to already be dead. And even though Pan presents himself as a carefree, swashbuckling adventurer, late at night, once the games are over, he is plagued by nightmares, dreams that are “more painful than the dreams of other boys,” dreams that make him wail “piteously.” But the source of Pan’s nocturnal torment is a mystery; no one understands what causes it, and no one can make it go away.
When Michael Jackson told us that he was Peter Pan, I don’t think he was telling us that he wanted to be a cartoon. The tragedy of the false allegations against him is that they obscured the very real problems we should have been paying attention to. During his trial, a stream of witnesses testified that Jackson had never done anything inappropriate to them. That they were just friends. I would argue that Jackson’s relationships with children, far from being scandalous, are actually quite boring. Unusual at first glance, yes, but ultimately nothing more than movie nights and trips to amusement parks and other mundane goings-on. Jackson’s relationships with children are more notable for what they tell us about his relationships with adults, or the lack thereof. That’s what’s truly interesting about the man.
From the time he was 10 years old, Jackson was indentured to the entertainment industry. Almost every relationship he knew was transactional. To his record company he was a product. To his family he was a meal ticket. Almost everyone in his orbit was drawing a paycheck, and when the paychecks stopped, they often stopped coming around. “I’ve met a lot of people in my life,” Jackson once said, “and very few are real, real friends. I can probably count them on one hand.” And by the end even those people, the Elizabeth Taylors and the Chris Tuckers, were only around in a superficial way, dropping by for a few hours here and there. As Bill and Javon aptly put it, “There were plenty of people coming through Michael Jackson’s life, but there was nobody in his life.”
Jackson bears some responsibility for his own isolation. As a result of a lifetime of being used, he himself was incapable of the kind of reciprocal sharing and trust that meaningful relationships necessarily entail. The man bemoaned his solitude in song after song, yet he was notorious for icing the very relationships he desperately wanted. Jackson could be unfailingly kind and generous to people, but that ostensible sweetness masked a deeper inability to relate. He’d grown up as the center of his own universe, in a world where everyone catered to him. When relationships grew messy or demanding, he would just shut them down. By the time he moved to Vegas, Jackson had distanced himself from all of his famous siblings. (Yes, even Janet.) Jackson’s two marriages, to Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe, are also good examples. Like everything else in Jackson’s life, those relationships were the subject of endless and generally tasteless speculation. But we needn’t speculate about the nature of the marriages to note the one obvious thing about them: They didn’t last very long. Even if they were the arrangements people alleged them to be, they weren’t even successful on that level.
Jackson took refuge in the world of children because it was the only place he felt safe. Children, he often said, “don’t want anything from you.” In fact, outside of the recording studio, only three relationships served as constants in Jackson’s world: his relationship with his mother, his relationship with his fans, and his relationship with children. These relationships all share one thing in common: They’re easy. A mother’s love is unconditional. The devotion of a fan, even more so. And who among us is immune to the wide-eyed adoration of a child? These types of love, though a joy to receive, require little effort. They don’t challenge the recipient. And eventually, they become debilitating. Too much mothering and too much hero-worship stranded Jackson right where he was, left him unwilling and unable to change.
It’s admirable that Jackson’s hard-core fans never rushed to judge him the way the general public did, but the adoration of fans and children alone cannot fill the role of a spouse or a partner or true friend. Those are the relationships that force us to be our best selves. In all the obsession over whom Michael Jackson slept with, rarely have we stopped to ask: Whom did Michael Jackson connect with? Whom did Michael Jackson love with a mature and rigorous kind of love, and who ever gave Michael Jackson that kind of love in return? No one. Once the stage lights dimmed, he was amazingly, astoundingly alone—and not just alone, but utterly lacking in the possibility of ever being otherwise.
The one bright spot in Jackson’s final days was his three children. He was the best and most loving father he knew how to be. But he was also, by his own admission, an incomplete father. He couldn’t do all the things a father is supposed to do. There were moments in their lives that he was unable to share, things that the rest of us would take for granted. Driving past a public park in Virginia one time, the kids spied a playground and begged their father to stop and come and play with them. But Jackson couldn’t risk being photographed with his own children, exposing their identities to the paparazzi. So he waited in the car, watching from behind tinted windows as the bodyguards took the kids across the street to enjoy the moment that should have been his. That problem was only going to get worse as they grew older. What was going to happen when those kids grew too old for masks and code names? What was going to happen when, like all adolescents, they began to reject the world Jackson had made for them?
Peter Pan does not have a happy ending, at least not for Pan himself. The Darling children grow homesick, and they beg Peter to fly them home, which he does. The children return to their nursery, their overjoyed parents rush in to hug them tight and welcome them back, and Pan is left outside, looking in, unable to share in the family’s warm embrace. “He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know,” Barrie wrote, “but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be forever barred.”
Ecstasies innumerable, yet denied the simple joys of being human. Seems a pretty astute description of life inside Jackson’s gilded cage. Maybe the guy on TV calling himself Peter Pan wasn’t the crazy one. The biggest difference I can see between Michael Jackson and Peter Pan was that Pan had no memory of what caused the nightmares that afflicted him. Jackson knew all too well why he couldn’t sleep at night, which is why he looked to the syringe and the pill bottle to try and make it to morning.
Michael Jackson made a lot of unhealthy choices in an effort to cope with the burdens he carried, but we shouldn’t judge those choices without a diligent and sincere effort to understand why he made them. Last year the late King of Pop topped Forbes’ list of highest-earning celebrities, easily besting his closest living competitor, Madonna, by a good $35 million. That feat was made possible by a massive overhaul of his debt-ridden estate, which has been transformed into a wildly profitable, billion-dollar enterprise. If that much effort can be made to refurbish his professional legacy, it would be a crime if we did any less for his personal one. Michael Jackson ought to have his story reconsidered. The man led an extraordinary and extraordinarily difficult life. He deserves an epitaph that doesn’t have an asterisk next to it.