Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On the Death of Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson was an exceptionally gifted singer and dancer. He brought an intensity and joy to his performances unlike any performer I can think of. And because he brought so much joy to so many, I never understood it when the media turned on him with hysterical outbursts when, for example, he held his baby over the railing of a hotel balcony somewhere in Europe, something he did in response to fans yelling up that they wanted to see the child. Did they really believe he was going to drop the infant? The thought is ridiculous.

Jackson became a freak in the eyes of the media, and the Lenos and Lettermans knew they could get a guaranteed laugh if they made fun of him. How could people become so hostile toward someone who had given joy to so many? Why couldn't people be grateful for his astounding gifts as a musician and dancer and leave the person alone?

But what about the charges of pedophilia against him because he slept in the same bed with children? What no one wanted to examine was why did the American mind instantly equate sexual acts with sleeping in a bed with a child? People projected onto Jackson their own prurience. I am reminded of a case in which a father took film to be developed. On the roll were photos of his daughter, naked, in the bathtub. The camera store owner called the police, and the man was arrested!

In his relationships with children, in the fantasy world he created at his Neverland Ranch, Jackson was attempting to retrieve what his father had deprived him of -- a childhood. There was something pathetically courageous in Jackson's efforts to have a childhood. But just as Americans projected pedophilia onto him, he projected his need to be a child onto actual children in an attempt to live through them. Some of the children may have been uncomfortable with this, and perhaps their expressions of discomfort were translated by adults into pedophilia.

Jackson did not understand that he could not give himself the childhood his father had deprived him of. The love and play of childhood would always be closed to him as long as he carried resentment and anger at his father. And the greatest paradox Jackson did not learn to live with was that he would not have become the entertainer he was, that he could not have amassed the wealth he did if not for the tyranny of his father.

Jackson lived in pain, excruciating pain as evidenced by the $100,000 pharmacy bill he amassed over a two year period. He wanted to numb the pain, but the only way to rid himself of the pain was to go through it. This was not possible for someone who probably felt most comfortable when he was on a stage, performing.

As for the plastic surgeries Jackson underwent, the changes in his skin color from dark brown to an unnatural whiteness, these were interpreted as expressions of self-hatred, that Jackson wanted to be a white man. Last week, Deepak Chopra was interviewed by Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, and Chopra said that Jackson had had lupus as well as a skin disease, and it was this that led to the plastic surgeries and the wearing of ghostly white make-up.

The Michael Jackson story is a modern American tragedy that touches other young people who become world famous. I find myself thinking of Michael Phelps and athletes in general. Americans idolize youth, especially in sports and entertainment. Michael Jackson, Michael Phelps & Britney Spears were applauded all over the world for the joy their performances gave so many. And yet, the public turned against them when they transgressed the bounds of the social norms. Opprobrium was heaped on them for something that was not entirely their fault. No one had taught them how to live when they were not performing on their respective stages. Each had their childhoods taken from them by ambitious adults, and each reached a point of rebellion, sometimes self-destructive rebellion.

Learning how to live is a lifelong process. The exceptional abilities of these young people were focused on to the detriment of their minds and their emotional lives. None of them were given books in which they might have seen something of themselves and their lives. Books help us to see ourselves, something we cannot do alone, especially when we are surrounded by sycophants. When I learned that Michael Phelps's life up to the Olympics consisted of swimming, eating pizza, playing with his dog and watching television, I was saddened. But the values of our country have become mired in celebrity and wealth. When many children today are asked what they want to be when they grow up, all too often the answer is "Famous and rich." Our society expects multimillionaire teenagers to be role models, but having a society which wants children to aspire to be heroes/heroines, well, heroes and heroines are confined to books. And adolescent celebrities don't read.

Michael Jackson was a man whose childhood was taken from him, and he tried to have that childhood when he was no longer the age of a child. It was sad to watch. While I am stunned and saddened by his death, a part of me is also relieved that perhaps now he has the peace that seemed to be so very absent from his life.

Saddest of all, however, is that Americans are now expressing their love for him and their gratitude for all that he gave us. This would have meant so much more if it had been expressed while he was alive instead of the contempt and derision heaped on his valiant attempts to learn how to be a person.

Julius Lester
© 2009

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