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How Michael Jackson Became the Thriller Monster

A new documentary forces us to look at this broken Peter Pan and wonder how we can ever hear him the same way again.
michael jackson

It’s been said there’s no real dignity in death. And despite his legendary career, dignity was certainly in short supply the day Michael Jackson died from a Propofol-induced “nap” at his $100,000-a-month Bel Air palace nearly a decade ago. Certainly the horrific revelations of the new HBO documentary Leaving Neverland should settle any question over whether “in” should be placed before “famous” when describing the King of Pop.

Personally, I have always, and with sadness, felt that Jackson was guilty, from the time the first allegations surfaced in the early 2000s. I have also believed his guilt was by reason of insanity and diminished capacity. Jackson was not some kind of Freddy Krueger-like monster who got off on overcoming and hurting helpless creatures. Clearly, all of his creative ambition in those later years was aimed at trying to recreate a childhood he never had, to un-ring the cynical, sexualized, tarnished bell of adulthood, to fly off and become Peter Pan. There was something broken and unformed about him.

Jackson had toyed with and subverted gender and race roles throughout his career—only David Bowie, Madonna, and Prince came anywhere close to the number of reboots and reinventions he had. By the time he got to Neverland, he still physically “presented” himself as a grown man. But by his own admission, he literally wanted to transform himself—not into another gender or even another race (though his furious cosmetic and surgical alterations might suggest otherwise)—but into a pre-pubescent child. He spent mega-millions building a private theme park fantasyland for just that purpose.

And as the documentary chillingly reveals, he also had a child’s lack of ability to see or truly care about anything from any perspective other than his own. That along with his instinctive, defense-mechanism capacity to obfuscate and avoid getting caught at all costs made him into what he became: a juvenile sociopath. As the latest allegations of child abuse suggest, all of this was caught up in sexual perversions for which we have no explanation, only revulsion and a million questions about what really animated this man-child pop legend.

What we do know is that he was an incredibly gifted, cheerful young kid with a cruel and abusive father who did everything in his power to exploit his uber-talented family. As a child in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Michael was already onstage, backed up by his older, young adult brothers, doing his baby-burlesque pantomime of grownup sexuality (“Shake it, shake it baby! Oooh! Sock it to me, mama!”). In his young adult prime, he had hormone-crazed fans grabbing and pawing and screaming at him like he was a piece of meat. Instead of enjoying the superstardom that he found in the 1980s with the record-busting album Thriller, however, he spent the last decades of his life irrevocably altering his appearance (he reportedly had no nose left when he died) and attempting to distance himself from his father and siblings. All the other grotesque abuses and manipulations revealed in the documentary seem to flow from those early years, the fruit of that poisoned tree.

The roll call of child stars for whom adulthood brought unbelievably grim fates—Dana Plato, Corey Haim, Judy Garland—chills the blood. Even the ones who survived relatively unscathed, or who courageously pulled themselves up from trauma to triumph, like the late great Patty Duke, almost all had stories of beyond-underage sex and severe substance abuse dramas.

So where were the interventions for these child stars? For Michael? For the children he is accused of abusing on his Neverland ranch? Where were the parents?

It’s a story as old as celebrity itself. There’s a very big reason why Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, Matt Lauer, Roger Ailes, and Bill Cosby all got away with things for years that would have utterly destroyed anyone else on the planet. It’s not that “nobody knew” what they were up to in their Hollywood media bubbles. It’s that their handlers, lawyers, and courtiers understood that if they upset the gravy train in any way—especially after they’d bowed and scraped and clawed their way into the inner circle in the first place—it could all disappear in a flash.

This is what happens when you can clearly see that the golden goose is a monster but your personal ambition compels you to never speak about or acknowledge it, much less do anything about it. So the monster gets bolder, sicker, more powerful, even as he’s laying enough eggs to serve as hush money and then some.

At the time he died, Michael Jackson was funding a small army of hangers-on who were literally being paid to enable his destruction. Was there ever any hope he could be healed, let alone for justice for those he hurt?

Some may call it justice that the latest revelations have led to a widespread rejection of his music, with radio networks all over the world taking his massive discography off of the air. Knowing what we know (or at least think we know) about the pain Jackson caused these children and their parents and families, can we ever listen to his songs or watch his movies and videos guilt-free again?

Norman Mailer was a wife beater. Joan Crawford was an alleged child abuser. Roman Polanksy is an accused statutory rapist. Nothing can or should excuse those things. But to “erase the existence” of these people or their genuine artistic achievements—to me, that’s also untenable. It’s denying history instead of fleshing it out and understanding it more fully.      

I, for one, think it’s still morally defensible to enjoy Michael Jackson’s music, even after leaving the nightmare world of Leaving Neverland. The 50-year-old “Wacko Jacko” who flatlined in June 2009 may have been a monster, or at least way too close to one for comfort. But the almost supernaturally talented, lovable little boy singing his heart out on The Hollywood Palace and The Ed Sullivan Show certainly wasn’t. The early 1980s civil rights icon who moonwalked and breakdanced his way to becoming the King of Pop, who made music videos into an art form and earned his place alongside Sinatra, Elvis, and the Beatles—he wasn’t yet a goner.  

Maybe that’s just a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s engaging in rationalization. But I don’t think it should be impossible to think of the beauty and the promise of what he once was—and maybe, if life had been less cruel, of what he might have been.

Telly Davidson is the author of the book Culture War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”