The maltreatment he suffered was devastating but not sexual. Did that help fans believe in his harmless, lost boy persona?, says Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman
Jimmy Savile. Harvey Weinstein. R Kelly. Kevin Spacey. We are not exactly short these days of celebrities accused of exploiting their fame to mask predatory behaviour. Yet the Michael Jackson case is different. And thats not just because he is, still, so passionately defended by some including, most recently, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross while he also, simultaneously, did so little to mask his predatoriness.
In his lifetime, he talked happily about sharing his bed with little boys, and was rarely photographed more than six feet away from one, even after he was publicly accused four times of child sexual abuse (by Jordy Chandler, Gavin Arvizo and two boys who accused him of molestation during the Arvizo trial, both of whom received financial payouts). But with every other high-profile story of child abuse, the adult predator is presented solely as just that: an adult predator, a fully formed, inexplicable monster.
With Jackson we have, uniquely, witnessed an entire life of abuse played out in front of our eyes, in which the once-adorable little boy, whose father notoriously physically abused him, grew up to become himself the most notorious abuser in modern music.
Joe Jackson, who finally died last year, was part of a not exactly proud tradition of nightmarish fathers of celebrity families. His one competitor to the crown of the worst famous dad in history is probably Murry Wilson, father of the Beach Boys Dennis, Carl and Brian, who would punish his sons by popping out his glass eye and making them stare into the empty socket.
Joe Jackson was so vicious that even when Michael was in his 40s he would tell people that just thinking about his father made him feel sick. And no surprise: as a child, his father beat him with pretty much everything at his disposal, from belts to electric cords to tree branches. When I interviewed Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the subjects of Dan Reeds seminal documentary, Leaving Neverland, they both told me that Jackson spoke to them at length about the emotional and physical abuse his father subjected him to as a child, and that he was still scared of him.
A grown man turning to little boys for comfort. Ironically, Joe justified the abuse of his children by saying he was helping them to achieve fame and wealth, just as so many parents would later justify pushing their children into Jacksons clearly unhealthy orbit by telling themselves they were helping their children on to the path of celebrity.
It is a well-established tragic truth that one of the biggest predictors for an adult becoming an abuser is if they have been abused themselves. Psychoanalysing a stranger is a fools game, and with Jackson it is especially complicated because he often used cod psychoanalysis of himself as a fig leaf for the truth. He ostensibly groomed the public, as well as the parents of his victims, by insisting that his fondness for being around children had nothing to do with paedophilia, but was rather an expression of his yearning for a childhood his father had denied him. But two things can be true simultaneously: Jackson was one of the most talented performers of all time, and a predator; Jackson mourned his lost childhood, and he was a paedophile.
It is bizarre that one of the most popular questions Leaving Neverland has sparked is whether people can still listen to Jacksons music, as if what Dave from Birmingham does with his Thriller album is really the most pressing problem when faced with overwhelming evidence of compulsive sexual abuse. This is a profoundly unhelpful and narcissistic approach to the issue, and is at least partly why, despite the detailed allegations, so many fans and even some fellow musicians still defend him and refuse to believe his accusers: theyre resentful at the prospect of losing his music. The truth is, if anyone still wants to listen to Man in the Mirror, by all means, they can do so. The real issue is why the public was willing to overlook what was so obviously in front of them for so long.
In Jacksons particular case, there are several reasons: his enormous celebrity, which made him seem otherworldly and therefore asexual; his extraordinary talent, which no one wanted to banish; his money, which afforded him endless legal protection and privacy. But another part was the publics awareness of his past. Joe Jacksons brutality was no secret and Michael, deliberately or not, played up to peoples sympathy for him: everyone from Quincy Jones to Corey Feldman has described him as a lost little boy, even when that boy was in his 40s.
Repeatedly, Jackson told Robson and Safechucks mothers how lonely he was, and theres no doubt that he was: too famous for friends, too smart to let his family near him for long. And because we all knew how abused he had been as a child, it was easier to convince ourselves that this grown man who idolised Peter Pan and built an adventure park in his house was merely a harmless, childlike weirdo. He sketched out a story and we eagerly filled it in, focusing on one tale of abuse to ignore another.
It is no surprise that the Jackson family have not as they have proudly told multiple reporters watched the documentary. In death, Jackson remains their cash cow as much as he was in life. Joe Jackson brutally pushed his children, and in particular Michael, into the spotlight, whatever the physical and psychological cost. The family then kept him there in adulthood, even as it was obvious he was far from well, and stoutly defended him in the face of increasingly serious accusations.
There is no redemption in the story of Jackson, as exploited by his family in death as he was in life. But in his life, we watched how the cycle of abuse plays out: how a damaged little boy can grow up to damage so many others, and why our sympathy for what someone suffers in childhood should never blind us to the horrific suffering they then cause as an adult.
Hadley Freeman is a Guardian columnist
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