No Holds Barred: Smothered by the light

Michael Jackson’s life could so easily have been saved.

Michael Jackson 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Michael Jackson 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This Friday marks one year since the passing of Michael Jackson. His legacy remains highly controversial. There are fans who consider him the inspiration of their lives.
There are also critics who believe he was hopelessly weird, with an unhealthy interest in children. In the middle are those who simply love his music and miss his talent.
The truth about Michael as I knew and understood him was something else entirely. He forever remained the broken boy who yearned for a normal childhood but who was thrust reluctantly into a spotlight that slowly became addictive. Immersed in a celebrity culture rife with human corruption, he yearned to be innocent. Starved of affection, he spent his life looking for love, but ultimately settled for attention. Surrounded by sycophants who indulged his every unhealthy whim, he longed to find an authentic environment. And trapped in a cocoon of fame, he craved to consecrate his celebrity to a cause larger than himself.
The tragedy of his life was his failure to achieve these noble aims. Michael knew that God had given him a special gift, and with it the power to “heal the world, make it a better place.” He understood the responsibility of celebrity, and was devastated as his was slowly transformed into notoriety. He hated to be hated, and was crushed by the chasm between what he saw as his sincere intentions to do good verses the public perception of him as a shallow materialist.
ONCE, IN the midst of the 30 hours of recordings we did together for a book that would allow Michael to speak directly to the public, he revealed how defamatory his celebrity had become. “You get tired and it just wears you down. You can’t go somewhere where they don’t manipulate what you do and say. That bothers me so much, and you are nothing like the person that they write about, nothing. To get called whacko, that’s not nice. People think something is wrong with you because they make it up. I am nothing like that. I am the opposite of that.”
Polite to a fault, he was a soft and gentle soul who prided himself on being different than other celebrities. Whereas they partied in nightclubs, Michael loved being around ordinary families. Where they put, as Michael said, needles in their arms, he was a vegetarian who wouldn’t be caught dead with a street drug. And where they, as Michael maintained, engaged in tawdry relationships, Michael preferred the company of innocent kids.
What he could not see was that overindulging in medication prescribed by a doctor was just as destructive as street drugs and was driven by the same spiritual emptiness. He was also oblivious to his own excess when it came to kids. It was one thing to show kindness and friendship to children, but another thing entirely to invite them into your bed.
I do not for a moment believe Michael was a pedophile. Those who judge him as such forget that the only time he was charged he was acquitted, and it is time for the public to exonerate him as well. But he gave himself license to cross lines of basic propriety that brought him into disrepute and soiled his message as to the purity and innocence adults could learn from children. For a man who spent his life trying to educate the public as to the wonders of childhood, this was a monumental failure, and he knew it. The suspicion cast on him by a public whose love he had spent a lifetime cultivating marked the principal sorrow of his life.
A YEAR after his death, what most haunts me is the knowledge that Michael’s life could so easily have been saved. What Michael needed was not painkillers but counseling, not the numbing through drugs, but the awakening of an inner conscience. He needed a wise voice in his ear guiding him to a mastery of his demons. Any number of people could have rescued Michael.
Most of all, he craved the love and validation of his father.
What emerges most strikingly in our recorded conversations – conversations that Michael knew would be read by a wide audience, perhaps including his parents – was the hurt he felt toward his father on the one hand, and the extreme affection he harbored for him on the other. Michael had many fans, but he played primarily to an audience of one.
But while his life is sadly irretrievable, the lessons to be culled from it are not. Few were as eloquent in articulating the profound lessons parents could learn from their children. Fewer still were more attuned to the lifelong scarring of neglected children. I can still hear Michael’s daily admonishments to me to look my children in the eye and tell them I loved them, and to never allow a night to go by without reading them a bedtime story.
When first I learned of his death, my immediate reaction, I am ashamed to say, was anger. You silly man, I thought. How could you? You knew your children, whom you adored, depended on you. You were the most devoted father. How could you orphan them? You Michael, to whom God bequeathed such unequaled talent, just threw it away! Twelve months later the anger is gone, replaced by a deep sadness. He was an imperfect candle, but his striving to go beyond the caricature he had become and redeem his life by visiting orphanages and hospitals was illuminating. The lyrics of his songs spoke to the human yearning to mend the soul and become whole. He wished for his music to inspire people to choose goodness.
A year after his untimely passing, it is time to finally mourn Michael as a man. To remember him not as an entertainer, or to miss him as an international icon – an object without feelings or pain – but as a struggling soul who tried to transform the pain of his broken childhood into an inspirational message to parents. It is time to evaluate Michael’s life, not in the context of an idol who had money and fame, but as a man who searched for a home that was not a stage.
The writer is author of The Michael Jackson Tapes: A Tragic Icon Reveals His Soul Intimate Conversation and the just-published Renewal:
A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.