The Big Idea

Arrested Development

The tragedy of Michael Jackson.

Jackson: Little big man

I’ve never believed Michael Jackson was a pedophile. To begin with, he doesn’t fit the profile. Child abusers tend to do the same thing again and again. According to one study, the average molester of boys commits 280 crimes over a lifetime. Yet despite the lure of getting rich by making accusations against Jacko, only two alleged victims have ever come forward with detailed allegations.

What’s more, those two accusations, separated by 10 years, don’t conform to a pattern. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the accuser in the recent case—the cancer victim—alleged groping by Jackson. Jackson’s previous accuser, whose family settled a civil suit in 1993 for $20 million, accused the singer of more extreme abuse, including oral sex.

But the main reason I never bought the prosecutor’s depiction of Jackson as a premeditating sexual predator “grooming” his victims is that it doesn’t ring true in psychological terms. Whether or not he has ever touched a boy inappropriately, Michael Jackson seems too emotionally stunted to act in any grown-up way, including a deviant sexual one. Naive, juvenile, and terribly damaged, he seems pathetically incapable not just of criminal intent, but of adult consciousness.

People tend to throw up hands at Michael Jackson’s multifarious bizarreness. But is it really so strange? The boy was forced to work by a cruel and physically abusive father starting at the age of 7. (If he’d been sent into a factory or coal mine, instead of onstage, we’d have more compassion for him.) As a boy, he was denied what even most abused and underprivileged children have: school, friends, and play.

Instead, Michael was made into a performing sexualized freak, a boy whose soprano voice kindled passion in grown women. He was made to witness adult sexuality at an age when it can only have been terrifying and incomprehensible to him. By 10, he was performing in strip clubs and hiding under the covers in hotel rooms while his older brothers got it on with groupies. At 11—the age at which his psyche seems frozen—he was a superstar. “My childhood was completely taken away from me,” he has said. Almost everything that seems freakish about him can be explained by his poignant, doomed effort to get his stolen childhood back.

To describe the world Michael Jackson has created around himself as a childhood fantasy isn’t quite accurate. Thanks to wealth and celebrity, he has been able to live as a superannuated child. With the help of plastic surgery and dramatic affectation, he has made himself look and sound pre-pubescent. He amuses himself with fancy toys, fantastic pets, amusement park rides, and a personal magician.

What emerged at the trial wasn’t the picture of a man playing with children in order to seduce them. It was the picture of a man playing with children because he sees himself as one of them. He and his friends in the “Apple Head Club” stayed up all night playing videogames, watching television, and eating popcorn. In the absence of parental authority, they would sometimes drink wine out of Coke cans, make crank calls, look at dirty magazines, and try to gross each other out (head-licking, anyone?). A child in his own mind, Jackson sees all of his behavior as completely innocent. It was a sleepover party, not a seduction or even the sublimation of one. Hence his sincere-sounding admission to Martin Bashir, the British filmmaker whose 2003 documentary Living With Michael Jackson initiated his recent troubles, that sleeping with young boys is loving, and not sexual. Jackson appears not to comprehend adult sexuality enough to get why people might divine a more sinister intent.

There is, of course, a literary precedent here. “I am Peter Pan,” Jackson told Bashir. Even without his cosmetic remodeling as Mary Martin, this identification would be hard to miss. At the Neverland Ranch, as in the Darling nursery, the boys all sleep in the same room. Michael, like Peter, casts himself as father, big brother, and ring-leader. He takes his lost boys on romps and adventures. Girls are not welcome. One of the few exceptions was his sister, whom he calls “Tinkerbell.” But as Jackson knows, Peter Pan is not entirely a happy story. The boys will return from Neverland and grow into adults. Peter cannot.

A more interesting comparison may be between Jackson and the author of that fantasy, J.M. Barrie. Like Jackson, Barrie suffered from a kind of arrested development, brought on by the death of his beloved older brother when he was 6. According to Andrew Birkin’s book J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan, Barrie’s marriage remained unconsummated, while his deepest relationships were with the Llewelyn Davies brothers, the five boys he met in Kensington Gardens in London who formed the basis for the characters in Peter Pan. Barrie performed tricks for the children, played with them, more or less moved into their home, and fantasized, in print, about sharing his bed with them. But there is no evidence of any physical involvement. The best guess is that Barrie was celibate or asexual.

Today we find the idea of nonsexuality more bizarre than deviant sexuality. But in Michael Jackson’s case, it seems more plausible than any other explanation. All of Jackson’s oddities seem to be reactions to what he suffered as a child. Manhandled by strangers, he became a mask-wearing, gloved germophobe. Tyrannized and abused by his father, he turned hyperbolically gentle and generous to children. Terrified by adult sexuality, he froze in pre-adolescent immaturity.

“I haven’t been betrayed or deceived by children,” Jackson once said. “Adults have let me down.” Kudos to 12 in Santa Barbara, Calif., who didn’t.