Five Years After Michael Jackson’s Death, We’ve Yet to Rescue Him From Tabloid Caricature

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 24 2014 11:53 PM

The Radical Notion of Michael Jackson’s Humanity

Five years after his death, we’ve done little to locate the man beneath the tabloid caricature.

Michael Jackson.
At left, an undated picture of Michael Jackson. At right, Jackson announces plans for a summer residency at the O2 Arena at a press conference on March 5, 2009, in London. Jackson died on June 25, 2009.

Composite by Slate. (Left) Photo courtesy of AFP/Getty Images. (Right) Photo by Tim Whitby/Getty Images.

It was a beautiful summer day. I was sitting in my office in my apartment in Brooklyn next to an open window when the headlines started to come in over Facebook. One or two at first, then a flood. Pretty soon I was clicking over to iTunes, pulling out songs that I hadn’t listened to for a very long time. I played them on a loop for the rest of the afternoon. To judge from the passing cars and the open windows down the block, everyone else was doing the same.

We all remember where we were five years ago when we got the news that Michael Jackson had died, killed by a fatal dose of some obscure hospital-grade anesthetic the singer used to cope with his chronic insomnia. Yet for all the global outpouring of nostalgia and affection, none of us really knew the man we were grieving for. To the general public, especially in his later years, Jackson had become an abstraction, not a person at all but a tabloid cartoon: “Wacko Jacko.” All the hastily written obituaries tied themselves in knots trying to extract a tasteful remembrance from a media narrative that had devolved into constant speculation about his plastic surgery, gossip about his eccentric behavior, and, unavoidably, the did-he-or-didn’t-he allegations of child abuse that engulfed and finally destroyed his reputation. Every gushing bit of praise came with an asterisk firmly affixed. At best, we mourned the precocious, youthful, still-brown boy who’d become such a tragic, broken man. We didn’t mourn the man.

When it comes to Jackson’s story today, we’re still doing our best to compartmentalize. We put “Billie Jean” and “Thriller” in one box and put his personal life in another box and try our best not to think about it too much. Two years ago I was forced to reconcile that split. Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, two men who’d served as Jackson’s personal security team for the last two and a half years of his life, approached me and asked if I’d help them write a book about Jackson’s final days, a time spent alone with his family behind the gated walls of a rented Las Vegas mansion, away from the glare of the spotlight. You can’t write a good biography of an abstraction. You have to excavate the human being from the mythology and misinformation built up over the decades. Empathy is the tool required above all others, and empathy is the quality that’s missing from virtually everything ever written about Michael Jackson. We glorify him or we vilify him or we pity him or we take his changing appearance and we use it as fodder for theories about race and gender—the highbrow equivalent of the objectification you’ll find in the tabloids. We do all of this, but we do not attempt to understand him.

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The idea of Michael Jackson as a human being remains a radical notion. But during the process of writing the book, that is how I came to know him. Through Bill’s and Javon’s eyes, I got to see the everyday person: Jackson helping his kids with their homework, Jackson grabbing a basketball and corralling his bodyguards for a game of HORSE in the driveway. The eccentric behavior was still eccentric, of course, but seeing it in context, a lot of it actually made sense; I gained a better understanding of why he made the choices he made.

As for the allegations of abuse, once I really started digging into them, what surprised me was not just that the allegations are unfounded, but that they are so obviously unfounded. The first claim, made against him in 1993, was debunked by a thorough piece of investigative reporting in GQ. The second claim, made a decade later, was soundly rejected by 12 reasonable jurors as being without merit. These facts are available to anyone with five minutes and an Internet connection. Yet the questions about his innocence persist. The “Wacko Jacko” stories haven’t gone away.

JACKSON.
Jackson performs at the Tokyo Dome on Dec. 12, 1992, as part of his Dangerous World Tour.

Photo by Kimimasa Mayama/Reuters

The reason they haven’t is because Jackson was different. His actions were outside the norm. People need a context, a framework, in which to understand him. Humans are storytellers. It is our nature to shape facts into a narrative. Jackson’s narrative, driven by the tabloids and adopted by nearly everyone, was that of a boy genius who morphed into a weirdo and a freak and possibly a criminal. That’s the only story we know, and to date no satisfactory counternarrative has emerged to replace it. The allegations against him have long been proved false, but they haven’t been replaced by a more compelling truth. And that’s the problem. Absent a new truth, people remain free to say whatever they want about him. Depending on what day of the week it is, Jackson is either a serial pedophile or a virginal man-child—or, somehow, both.

Michael Jackson deserves a more honest accounting of his life. He deserves to have his story told properly. As we look back on his death at the five-year mark, we would do well to reconsider everything we think we know about him. Take, for example, one of the most mocked statements that Jackson ever made: “I am Peter Pan,” a declaration that came during the disastrous 2003 Martin Bashir documentary Living With Michael Jackson. When Jackson said that he was Peter Pan, Bashir took it as an opportunity to portray the singer as if he were a mental patient on national television, and the world mostly took it to mean that Jackson fancied himself a whimsical sprite, prancing around Neverland in green tights, sprinkling fairy dust everywhere—that guy had to be guilty of something.

But that’s a misconception based on our own cartoonish understanding of both Jackson and Peter Pan. Michael Jackson was, among other things, a smart and voracious reader. He’d take midnight trips to Barnes & Noble and drop $5,000 on books in a single spree. History, art, science, religion, philosophy—he’d sit alone in his house devouring everything he could get his hands on. (If you were a chronic insomniac too famous to leave your own house, you’d read a lot, too.) And the source of Jackson’s Peter Pan obsession was not just Disney’s 1953 animated film, but also J.M. Barrie’s original play and book, vintage editions of which Jackson collected for his library.

In Barrie’s original telling, Peter Pan is a very different creature. Unable to grow up, he is trapped in an eternal present. He lives without consequence. He has no memory, and therefore no understanding of how his actions affect others, meaning he can never truly connect or empathize with anyone. He is alone. It’s no accident that Pan’s home, Neverland, is an island cut off from reality. Taken at its most literal, Neverland is a place where you can never land, never rest. It is the same frenetic, make-believe battle of pirates and Indians played out over and over again.

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