• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    They eat off of you

    Wow. Michael Jackson, too? That poor man. After Off the Wall, nearly every great song he made seemed to paranoid or angry. I don’t say that as a criticism—the impulse to turn paranoia and anger into vigorous, combative art is very human and affirmative. It’s probably much better than sitting around and burning up inside. But he always seemed much more haunted and needy than even other out-there celebrities. This is very sad, but it’s nice to think he’s beyond all that now.

    Added later: I think it’s an error to go as far as Andrew Sullivan does here:

    He had no real childhood and spent much of his later life struggling to get one. He was spiritually and psychologically raped at a very early age – and never recovered. Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.

    But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell.

    I grieve for him; but I also grieve for the culture that created and destroyed him. That culture is ours’ and it is a lethal and brutal one: with fame and celebrity as its core values, with money as its sole motive, it chewed this child up and spat him out.

    Well, that depends on whom Sullivan’s including in the “us” that owns what’s “ours.” There are plenty of Americans who wouldn’t be celebrities if you paid us and who find reality TV, for example, creepy. There’s no denying that Jackson was surrounded by people who wanted to use him as a gravy train and that, with his childhood, he would have had a lot of lessons to learn from scratch if he’d decided he wanted to become a conventionally happy adult in his twenties.

    At the same time, let’s remember that he was an individual with choices and free moral agency like the rest of us. Every day in America, there are people who escape abusive families, leave careers that are making them loads of money but crushing them spiritually, and ditch users to find themselves some real friends. Not for a moment do I want to underestimate how hard that would have been for Michael Jackson post-Thriller. But it demeans him to treat him as someone who was only acted upon and never acting. He had thirty years to get acclimated to adulthood; this is not a child star who burned out and ODed at eighteen. Most of us wouldn’t want to live like Elizabeth Taylor or Patty Duke, but despite their ongoing problems, they made the effort to carve out identities for themselves and not spin out into never-ending, uncontrolled loopiness.

    8 Responses to “They eat off of you”

    1. carolyn says:

      I always felt so sad for Michael Jackson — he was so abused and exploited throughout his childhood that it’s no wonder he ended up loathing himself and turned paranoid and angry both in his life and his art. I like the thought that he’s finally free of all that.

    2. Sean says:

      Hi, Carolyn. Interesting that you should have posted that just as I was writing an update about that very thing, which is obviously an important consideration in Jackson’s case. I agree with you–it’s unlikely that he would have ended up being able to realize the placid, white-picket-fence definition of happiness (assuming that would have been his aspiration). But plenty of people with horrific childhoods or track records as adults do manage to pick themselves up and make better choices for themselves, even if it takes years of trial and error. Jackson just seemed to get weirder, and I think that was something in him. It doesn’t make it any less sad, though.

    3. Rondi says:

      I tend to agree, Sean. I think he had a chip missing, so to speak, and it would have manifested itself somehow, regardless of his childhood and brutal father.

    4. “I think itโ€™s an error to go as far as Andrew Sullivan does here”

      Isn’t that pretty much an all-purpose sentence?

    5. Sean says:

      Right, Rondi. Under different circumstances, his weaknesses might not have manifested themselves quite so severely, but they were there.

      Not nice, Virginia. True, but not nice. :)

    6. RW Rogers says:

      Nice or not, Virginia’s comment was well-deserved! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    7. carolyn says:

      That is very true, Sean — my childhood certainly was no picnic, and I’d like to think I was able to rise above it to some degree. I guess it does come down on some level to our internal wiring.

    8. Sean says:

      True, RW.

      Carolyn, my parents, too–they resolved on marrying that they were going to do better than their parents had, and they did it. No, they didn’t have the obstacles that Jackson had, but again, I don’t think anyone faults him for not having his head together by twenty-four. He actually seemed to get more far-out with each decade.

    Leave a Reply