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The Complicated Legacy of Michael Jackson

25 June 2009

When I first heard the news about Michael Jackson’s death, my reaction was, to put it mildly, glib. I have a tough time feeling bad for someone widely believed to have molested children.

As always, leave it to Angele to be the voice of reason. For those of you who don’t know (basically everyone except immediate family), she’s a psychologist who studies family violence, among other things. She’s also a certified genius whose perspective is pretty much always spot on. As someone well versed in the horrible effects that child abuse (or even just simple corporal punishment), can have on a person, she has a unique perspective on how Joe Jackson’s reign of terror negatively impacted his children–Michael most of all.

Here’s a Wikipedia snippet on what Joe did to Michael (and his other sons):

From a young age Jackson was physically and mentally abused by his father, enduring incessant rehearsals, whippings and name-calling. Jackson’s abuse as a child affected him throughout his grown life. In one altercation—later recalled by Marlon Jackson—Joseph held Michael upside down by one leg and “pummeled him over and over again with his hand, hitting him on his back and buttocks”. Joseph would often trip up, or push the male children into walls. One night while Jackson was asleep, Joseph climbed into his room through the bedroom window. Wearing a fright mask, he entered the room screaming and shouting. Joseph said he wanted to teach his children not to leave the window open when they went to sleep. For years afterward, Jackson suffered nightmares about being kidnapped from his bedroom.

Our conversation led to extensive debate about Joe’s influence. He was the father (literally and figuratively) of the Jackson 5, someone who was enshrined into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and introduced as “”the greatest musical manager of all time.” Did Joe’s tactics push Michael to become The King of Pop? Should we thus be thankful to Joe that Michael was able to make millions…probably billions of people happy? Or was that kind of talent more a question of nature than nurture, and would Michael have been a superstar if his dad wasn’t an overbearing maniac?

Then you can get into a utilitarian debate. If Joe was the cause of some of Michael’s deepest troubles (hard to argue otherwise) but also the reason Michael became the musical legend he was…Is it worth one man’s life to make billions of people happy?

Even that’s too simple, though. Joe likely caused some serious psychological trauma to at least some of his other children too. It’s not a stretch to also say that he’s a big reason Michael took a turn for the worse behaviorally, such that, allegedly, many young children, and the families of those young children, paid a horrible price.

We’re not even done here. Jackson was also a humanitarian in many ways, someone who legitimately sought to make people happy and help the world. He may very well have been sincere when he said how much he truly loved children (in a non-perverse way), and that he wanted to improve their lives. How does one reconcile Jackson’s own constant, child-like state, from building an amusement park at Neverland Ranch to his adventures with his own children, to, well, naming one of them Blanket?

And we haven’t even touched on much less dramatic, though still interesting debates such as Jackson’s befriending Paul McCartney, then buying The Beatles’ music catalog out from under him–a move which was perfectly legal and shrewd from a business sense, though probably a bit on the sketchy side from an interpersonal perspective.

The next 24 hours (and probably much more) are going to be a roller coaster of Jacko coverage. Radio stations will treat us to “Billie Jean”, then depress us with lesser Jackson offerings. We’ll probably hear from Macaulay Culkin, and maybe Corey Feldman. We’ll be reminded of his famous trial in which he dodged abuse charges. The plastic surgery, the pyrotechnics mishap, the one glove, the red jacket, the crotch grabbing, the incredible dancing, the amazing voice…the networks are going to have a field day (and you can bet that the White House won’t mind no one paying attention to the imminent votes over proposed climate legislation).

But when it’s all said and done, I’ll just go back to a simple story: An abusive father, and the indelible harm he caused to his son. Still going strong as he approaches his 80th birthday, Joe Jackson remains among us. The little boy he messed up forever is gone.

UPDATE: Will jump on Bob Andelman’s show in a few minutes to talk about Michael Jackson. Click here to listen.

UPDATE 2: Slate’s got an interesting take, introducing doubt to the idea that Michael Jackson ever molested anyone. It may or may not convince you, but it’s certainly worth a read.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. thasportschick permalink
    25 June 2009 7:42 pm

    well said, sir. It is a sad life story that began from birth with a difficult and abusive father and childhood, and ended tragically, as it did today.

    good piece.

  2. enderandrew permalink
    25 June 2009 7:48 pm

    With any kind of abuse, there is often a legacy where abusers were often victims themselves at some point.

    Should we forgive the abuser and offer them empathy because they were too a victim at one point? I say only to a small extent. As children we are shaped by a number of outside factors, but as adults we have the opportunity to make our own decisions and reinvent ourselves apart from early influences.

    It is arguably more important to call out abuse and stop it because of the legacy factor. Those that are allowed to get away with abuse could in theory by adding to future generations of abuse.

    If there was substantial evidence that he molested children as the media led us to believe (such as a child providing clear testimony to describing Michael’s genitals in detail) then why wasn’t he brought up on criminal charges? Why did no one insist that Michael seek psychological treatment?

    Celebrities should not be so detached from the rest of society that they can not function in society.

  3. 25 June 2009 9:33 pm

    @enderandrew He was brought up on criminal charges in 2005, and acquitted on all counts.

    The majority of abused children grow up never to abuse anyone. The cycle of violence is something I have researched quite a bit, including interviews with hundreds of parents about why they may be doing things differently from their parents, and I can tell you that not everyone has the same capacity to make their own decisions as you do. Some people certainly are capable of making decisions but make the wrong ones, but it’s easy for those of us with unimpaired cognitive functioning, reasonable coping skills, the capacity to learn from mistakes, emotion regulation abilities, impulse control, et al., to misjudge and misunderstand those who are lacking in those ways (such deficits often being a direct result of abuse, particularly physical abuse leading to head injury in the frontal lobe).

    I am by no means an apologist for those who hurt anyone, much less helpless children, but you should know that some of us have freer free will than others.

    Sorry, I’m in the middle of an intensive child development institute this week — I don’t normally talk quite so much like a psychologist.

    @Jonah In your face, discussion of run differential!

    • bohica99 permalink
      25 June 2009 9:46 pm

      Excellent point. Not all victims will become abusers, just as not all children of addicts will become addicted. It definitely increases the risk factor, though.

  4. Jonah permalink*
    25 June 2009 9:37 pm

    Amber – Thanks. Angele was the driving force behind that post, though. Let there never be any doubt that she is the brains in this household.

    T.J. – What she said.

    Dr. Fauchier – MJ’s far more interesting.

  5. thasportschick permalink
    25 June 2009 9:41 pm

    Yes, Angele, thank you for your expertise on the subject. I remember learning about children that were in an abusive family, and the psychological aspects of it. As you said, most kids that are abused do not grow up to follow in the same footsteps. The subject is misunderstood, and people are far too often ready to judge.

    Jonah, you are right, she IS the brains ;)

  6. bohica99 permalink
    25 June 2009 9:44 pm

    Well done JK. So much of the coverage and commentary skips over the abuse Joe heaped on ALL of his children. The blogosphere is either entirely focused on the negatives, or ignores them completely.

    Bottom line is that Jacko was a very complicated human being. And chances are, none of us will ever truly understand what made him tick.

  7. jenpeltak permalink
    26 June 2009 8:00 pm

    Great post, Jonah. Abusive parents seem to be a dime a dozen in the entertainment business (just ask Brian Wilson), but Joe Jackson has to be one of the worst. Oh, I saw a great MJ video at the gym this morning that features Michael Jordan. They “play” basketball and of course Michael (Jackson) makes a three-pointer from basically one end of the court to the other. And then he teaches Michael Jordan how to dance like him. That’s showbiz!

  8. jeniferinjapan permalink
    5 July 2009 2:18 am

    This is a video I found on YouTube about Michael Jackson`s vitiligo. It`s very sad. He said it on Oprah. No one believed him. I don`t blame him if he didn`t want to show everybody, that`s his personal business, but how very sad. I feel bad that I didn`t believe him. Just goes to show that there are things going on in people`s lives beyond what we see. Whether people are walking around with physical scars, or mental scars, or emotional scars, we might never know. Maybe it`s best just to assume that we don`t know the whole story and stop with the snap judgements. Or maybe with the judgements at all. Seeing this video made me realize that we just can`t know what people are dealing with, so it`s best to have some compassion.


  1. My Morning in Exile

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