The Complicated Legacy of Michael Jackson
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 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.