The Radical Notion of Michael Jackson’s Humanity

Five years after his death, we’ve done little to locate the man beneath the tabloid caricature.

Michael Jackson.
At left, an undated picture of Michael Jackson. At right, Jackson announces plans for a summer residency at the O2 Arena at a press conference on March 5, 2009, in London. Jackson died on June 25, 2009.

Composite by Slate. (Left) Photo courtesy of AFP/Getty Images. (Right) Photo by Tim Whitby/Getty Images. 

It was a beautiful summer day. I was sitting in my office in my apartment in Brooklyn next to an open window when the headlines started to come in over Facebook. One or two at first, then a flood. Pretty soon I was clicking over to iTunes, pulling out songs that I hadn’t listened to for a very long time. I played them on a loop for the rest of the afternoon. To judge from the passing cars and the open windows down the block, everyone else was doing the same.

We all remember where we were five years ago when we got the news that Michael Jackson had died, killed by a fatal dose of some obscure hospital-grade anesthetic the singer used to cope with his chronic insomnia. Yet for all the global outpouring of nostalgia and affection, none of us really knew the man we were grieving for. To the general public, especially in his later years, Jackson had become an abstraction, not a person at all but a tabloid cartoon: “Wacko Jacko.” All the hastily written obituaries tied themselves in knots trying to extract a tasteful remembrance from a media narrative that had devolved into constant speculation about his plastic surgery, gossip about his eccentric behavior, and, unavoidably, the did-he-or-didn’t-he allegations of child abuse that engulfed and finally destroyed his reputation. Every gushing bit of praise came with an asterisk firmly affixed. At best, we mourned the precocious, youthful, still-brown boy who’d become such a tragic, broken man. We didn’t mourn the man.

When it comes to Jackson’s story today, we’re still doing our best to compartmentalize. We put “Billie Jean” and “Thriller” in one box and put his personal life in another box and try our best not to think about it too much. Two years ago I was forced to reconcile that split. Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, two men who’d served as Jackson’s personal security team for the last two and a half years of his life, approached me and asked if I’d help them write a book about Jackson’s final days, a time spent alone with his family behind the gated walls of a rented Las Vegas mansion, away from the glare of the spotlight. You can’t write a good biography of an abstraction. You have to excavate the human being from the mythology and misinformation built up over the decades. Empathy is the tool required above all others, and empathy is the quality that’s missing from virtually everything ever written about Michael Jackson. We glorify him or we vilify him or we pity him or we take his changing appearance and we use it as fodder for theories about race and gender—the highbrow equivalent of the objectification you’ll find in the tabloids. We do all of this, but we do not attempt to understand him.

The idea of Michael Jackson as a human being remains a radical notion. But during the process of writing the book, that is how I came to know him. Through Bill’s and Javon’s eyes, I got to see the everyday person: Jackson helping his kids with their homework, Jackson grabbing a basketball and corralling his bodyguards for a game of HORSE in the driveway. The eccentric behavior was still eccentric, of course, but seeing it in context, a lot of it actually made sense; I gained a better understanding of why he made the choices he made.

As for the allegations of abuse, once I really started digging into them, what surprised me was not just that the allegations are unfounded, but that they are so obviously unfounded. The first claim, made against him in 1993, was debunked by a thorough piece of investigative reporting in GQ. The second claim, made a decade later, was soundly rejected by 12 reasonable jurors as being without merit. These facts are available to anyone with five minutes and an Internet connection. Yet the questions about his innocence persist. The “Wacko Jacko” stories haven’t gone away.

Jackson performs at the Tokyo Dome on Dec. 12, 1992, as part of his Dangerous World Tour.

Photo by Kimimasa Mayama/Reuters

The reason they haven’t is because Jackson was different. His actions were outside the norm. People need a context, a framework, in which to understand him. Humans are storytellers. It is our nature to shape facts into a narrative. Jackson’s narrative, driven by the tabloids and adopted by nearly everyone, was that of a boy genius who morphed into a weirdo and a freak and possibly a criminal. That’s the only story we know, and to date no satisfactory counternarrative has emerged to replace it. The allegations against him have long been proved false, but they haven’t been replaced by a more compelling truth. And that’s the problem. Absent a new truth, people remain free to say whatever they want about him. Depending on what day of the week it is, Jackson is either a serial pedophile or a virginal man-child—or, somehow, both.

Michael Jackson deserves a more honest accounting of his life. He deserves to have his story told properly. As we look back on his death at the five-year mark, we would do well to reconsider everything we think we know about him. Take, for example, one of the most mocked statements that Jackson ever made: “I am Peter Pan,” a declaration that came during the disastrous 2003 Martin Bashir documentary Living With Michael Jackson. When Jackson said that he was Peter Pan, Bashir took it as an opportunity to portray the singer as if he were a mental patient on national television, and the world mostly took it to mean that Jackson fancied himself a whimsical sprite, prancing around Neverland in green tights, sprinkling fairy dust everywhere—that guy had to be guilty of something.

But that’s a misconception based on our own cartoonish understanding of both Jackson and Peter Pan. Michael Jackson was, among other things, a smart and voracious reader. He’d take midnight trips to Barnes & Noble and drop $5,000 on books in a single spree. History, art, science, religion, philosophy—he’d sit alone in his house devouring everything he could get his hands on. (If you were a chronic insomniac too famous to leave your own house, you’d read a lot, too.) And the source of Jackson’s Peter Pan obsession was not just Disney’s 1953 animated film, but also J.M. Barrie’s original play and book, vintage editions of which Jackson collected for his library.

In Barrie’s original telling, Peter Pan is a very different creature. Unable to grow up, he is trapped in an eternal present. He lives without consequence. He has no memory, and therefore no understanding of how his actions affect others, meaning he can never truly connect or empathize with anyone. He is alone. It’s no accident that Pan’s home, Neverland, is an island cut off from reality. Taken at its most literal, Neverland is a place where you can never land, never rest. It is the same frenetic, make-believe battle of pirates and Indians played out over and over again.

Peter Pan, like so many great children’s stories, is a dark and morbid piece of work. What do we mean when we say someone has “lost” a child? We mean that the child is dead. That’s what the Lost Boys are, children’s souls snatched from the prams of London, waylaid on their journey from this world to the next. And Pan’s outfit is not, in fact, a pair of snappy green tights. It’s a tunic “clad in skeleton leaves.” The symbolism is hard to miss. Neverland, the Lost Boys, Pan himself, they all represent a kind of death, because while it might seem fun and idyllic to remain a child forever, to never grow up is to already be dead. And even though Pan presents himself as a carefree, swashbuckling adventurer, late at night, once the games are over, he is plagued by nightmares, dreams that are “more painful than the dreams of other boys,” dreams that make him wail “piteously.” But the source of Pan’s nocturnal torment is a mystery; no one understands what causes it, and no one can make it go away.

Michael Jackson performs on the 1995 MTV Video Music awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Sept. 8, 1995.

Photo by Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect

When Michael Jackson told us that he was Peter Pan, I don’t think he was telling us that he wanted to be a cartoon. The tragedy of the false allegations against him is that they obscured the very real problems we should have been paying attention to. During his trial, a stream of witnesses testified that Jackson had never done anything inappropriate to them. That they were just friends. I would argue that Jackson’s relationships with children, far from being scandalous, are actually quite boring. Unusual at first glance, yes, but ultimately nothing more than movie nights and trips to amusement parks and other mundane goings-on. Jackson’s relationships with children are more notable for what they tell us about his relationships with adults, or the lack thereof. That’s what’s truly interesting about the man.

From the time he was 10 years old, Jackson was indentured to the entertainment industry. Almost every relationship he knew was transactional. To his record company he was a product. To his family he was a meal ticket. Almost everyone in his orbit was drawing a paycheck, and when the paychecks stopped, they often stopped coming around. “I’ve met a lot of people in my life,” Jackson once said, “and very few are real, real friends. I can probably count them on one hand.” And by the end even those people, the Elizabeth Taylors and the Chris Tuckers, were only around in a superficial way, dropping by for a few hours here and there. As Bill and Javon aptly put it, “There were plenty of people coming through Michael Jackson’s life, but there was nobody in his life.”

Jackson bears some responsibility for his own isolation. As a result of a lifetime of being used, he himself was incapable of the kind of reciprocal sharing and trust that meaningful relationships necessarily entail. The man bemoaned his solitude in song after song, yet he was notorious for icing the very relationships he desperately wanted. Jackson could be unfailingly kind and generous to people, but that ostensible sweetness masked a deeper inability to relate. He’d grown up as the center of his own universe, in a world where everyone catered to him. When relationships grew messy or demanding, he would just shut them down. By the time he moved to Vegas, Jackson had distanced himself from all of his famous siblings. (Yes, even Janet.) Jackson’s two marriages, to Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe, are also good examples. Like everything else in Jackson’s life, those relationships were the subject of endless and generally tasteless speculation. But we needn’t speculate about the nature of the marriages to note the one obvious thing about them: They didn’t last very long. Even if they were the arrangements people alleged them to be, they weren’t even successful on that level.

Jackson took refuge in the world of children because it was the only place he felt safe. Children, he often said, “don’t want anything from you.” In fact, outside of the recording studio, only three relationships served as constants in Jackson’s world: his relationship with his mother, his relationship with his fans, and his relationship with children. These relationships all share one thing in common: They’re easy. A mother’s love is unconditional. The devotion of a fan, even more so. And who among us is immune to the wide-eyed adoration of a child? These types of love, though a joy to receive, require little effort. They don’t challenge the recipient. And eventually, they become debilitating. Too much mothering and too much hero-worship stranded Jackson right where he was, left him unwilling and unable to change.

It’s admirable that Jackson’s hard-core fans never rushed to judge him the way the general public did, but the adoration of fans and children alone cannot fill the role of a spouse or a partner or true friend. Those are the relationships that force us to be our best selves. In all the obsession over whom Michael Jackson slept with, rarely have we stopped to ask: Whom did Michael Jackson connect with? Whom did Michael Jackson love with a mature and rigorous kind of love, and who ever gave Michael Jackson that kind of love in return? No one. Once the stage lights dimmed, he was amazingly, astoundingly alone—and not just alone, but utterly lacking in the possibility of ever being otherwise.

The one bright spot in Jackson’s final days was his three children. He was the best and most loving father he knew how to be. But he was also, by his own admission, an incomplete father. He couldn’t do all the things a father is supposed to do. There were moments in their lives that he was unable to share, things that the rest of us would take for granted. Driving past a public park in Virginia one time, the kids spied a playground and begged their father to stop and come and play with them. But Jackson couldn’t risk being photographed with his own children, exposing their identities to the paparazzi. So he waited in the car, watching from behind tinted windows as the bodyguards took the kids across the street to enjoy the moment that should have been his. That problem was only going to get worse as they grew older. What was going to happen when those kids grew too old for masks and code names? What was going to happen when, like all adolescents, they began to reject the world Jackson had made for them?

Peter Pan does not have a happy ending, at least not for Pan himself. The Darling children grow homesick, and they beg Peter to fly them home, which he does. The children return to their nursery, their overjoyed parents rush in to hug them tight and welcome them back, and Pan is left outside, looking in, unable to share in the family’s warm embrace. “He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know,” Barrie wrote, “but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be forever barred.”

Ecstasies innumerable, yet denied the simple joys of being human. Seems a pretty astute description of life inside Jackson’s gilded cage. Maybe the guy on TV calling himself Peter Pan wasn’t the crazy one. The biggest difference I can see between Michael Jackson and Peter Pan was that Pan had no memory of what caused the nightmares that afflicted him. Jackson knew all too well why he couldn’t sleep at night, which is why he looked to the syringe and the pill bottle to try and make it to morning.

Michael Jackson made a lot of unhealthy choices in an effort to cope with the burdens he carried, but we shouldn’t judge those choices without a diligent and sincere effort to understand why he made them. Last year the late King of Pop topped Forbes’ list of highest-earning celebrities, easily besting his closest living competitor, Madonna, by a good $35 million. That feat was made possible by a massive overhaul of his debt-ridden estate, which has been transformed into a wildly profitable, billion-dollar enterprise. If that much effort can be made to refurbish his professional legacy, it would be a crime if we did any less for his personal one. Michael Jackson ought to have his story reconsidered. The man led an extraordinary and extraordinarily difficult life. He deserves an epitaph that doesn’t have an asterisk next to it.