A couple of months ago my four-year-old became very interested in Michael Jackson. His "moves". She doesn't have much interest in his childhood work, but is absolutely fascinated by his dance sequences and choreography. She wanted to see him perform live. As I reflect on that, it didn't even cross my mind that Jackson was 50 years old. His changes of appearance were disturbing, saddening, but they had one of the effects he (owner of "Neverland") apparently intended. He did grow up but he became, in a sense, a man without age. Had he kept his original appearance, and become wrinkled and gray, I doubt that the public surprise at his early death would be quite the same.
The span of his career led to my daughter asking questions about his age in various videos, as well as his evolving appearance. The best explanation I had to offer for his surgeries was that I suspected that he didn't like himself. My daughter couldn't understand why somebody wouldn't like himself, and I'm grateful for that. But then, she didn't have Joseph Jackson raising her in an atmosphere of isolation and abuse. What a lovely guy.
Something that's apparent from Jackson's childhood is how readily people will ignore the abuse and mistreatment of children if it jeopardizes the gravy train. Tell me nobody saw Joseph make threats or administer beatings to his children, when they missed a step or a note during their childhood practices and performances.
He touchingly describes his humiliation at having severe acne as a child, and the relentless teasing by his brothers and father, who called him "Big Nose." "You didn't get that ugly nose from my side of the family," says father Joe Jackson, according to Michael. He also describes throwing up at the mere sight of his father who "threw him against a wall" and beat them with "anything that was handy."Lisa Marie Presley comments on her relationship with Michael:
"I became very ill and emotionally/ spiritually exhausted in my quest to save him from certain self-destructive behavior and from the awful vampires and leeches he would always manage to magnetize around him," she wrote.It's one of the strange thing people do... we develop coping skills to get us through our childhood, and have a hard time breaking out of those same patterns as adults, even when we have a "choice" and following the childhood pattern is self-destructive. It seems that Jackson was surrounding himself with versions of his father - people who would bleed him dry for their own devices. But as an adult, he could also choose people (or choose to end relationships with people) who wouldn't challenge him to break with the past and enabled his eccentric and self-destructive behaviors. I suspect that his pattern of conduct, relationships and surgeries was supposed to help him be happy, but instead provided at best brief moments of relief from the unhappiness they otherwise perpetuated. And I will not be surprise if, having expressed to Lisa Marie Presley the fear that he would "end up like" Elvis, his death involved a similar soup of pharmaceuticals - a maladaptive tool to escape from (and avoid) pain, physical and psychic, that probably ended up magnifying both.
A childhood only counts for so much. Jackson is responsible for the mistakes he made as an adult that led to his isolation in his final years. But if he's capable, I hope Joseph Jackson spends some time thinking about what he did to his children. That he's somehow able to feel shame, remorse, embarrassment for his role in the unhappiness of, dare I say, more than one of his children?
Update: More on this theme from Eugene Robinson:
Jackson once said his father used to beat him, perhaps because he was the "golden child." Joe Jackson has always denied being physically abusive, but in a sense it doesn't matter. It seems to me that attaching oneself to one's young son like a leech and denying that boy any semblance of a childhood qualifies as abuse.I don't think Jackson was trying to make himself hideous - that seems to be the inevitable result of having too many significant cosmetic surgeries. I'm more inclined toward thinking, body dysmorphic disorder.
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The worst choice, of course, was the way he frolicked with children at his Neverland ranch. Jackson was acquitted of child molestation charges, but he also paid a reported eight-figure settlement to the family of one alleged victim. Let me be clear that no childhood trauma would excuse molestation. My question, though, is where were the staff members and the agents and the hangers-on - and the loving family members - who had an inkling that all might not be right at Neverland? Did they choose to look the other way?
I believe Jackson's story that he suffered from the skin disease vitiligo -- though I don't believe that vitiligo or any other infirmity was the reason for the disfiguring plastic surgery that turned his face into a pale, taut mask. It had to be self-hatred - not necessarily an attempt to make himself "white" but to make himself hideous.