It is a modern tragedy. A young man is born with incredible talent and promise, and then achieves unimaginable success early in life. A glorious future is predicted, but instead his life is a series of increasingly bizarre behaviors and events, culminating in his untimely death. Michael Jackson is called “The Prince of Pop”, but he should be known as the tragic hero of our time.
Who was he really? Michael Jackson has been, paradoxically, the most public and private figure of the last half century; a man that everyone knows but few, if any, really know. He guarded his privacy fiercely; sometimes going to extremes and even strangers to hide their appearance and that of their children. He was there and not there, and now, he’s really gone.
Its tragic story began more than 50 years ago. According to many accounts, he was brutally beaten and verbally abused as a child, and his father made fun of him for the size of his nose and the color of his skin. At a very young age, he and his brothers became famous all over the world, but he stood out as the star. Fame is never a totally positive thing for a young person: it pushes a false public persona into a shapeless personality and confuses the young person about their true identity.
The combination of early childhood trauma and very early fame is similar to nitro plus glycerin – highly explosive. MJ never had a chance to find out who he was like an ordinary young man would. He was the teenage heartthrob; the musical sensation, the shining star. These people placed on significant abuse are like a magnificent mansion perched on a fragile foundation. Inevitably, everything must collapse.
There were early signs that things were not going well. He didn’t come off as a normal guy, but he had relationships that were difficult to define with other famous people. Some were much younger and some were much older. With most people we could say, “This couple is right for them” or “This couple is not right for them,” but with MJ, neither couple seemed to fit him. In fact, her sexuality was just as confusing as her choice of partners.
Then there was plastic surgery. Photos taken after his first nose job showed a handsome young man, but the second left him looking a bit too pretty. Until then, he looked like a normal young man, albeit thin, but after the second surgery he became increasingly androgynous.
After multiple surgeries, it was obvious that there was a serious problem. His face looked mutilated. According to some reports, the tip of his nose had been destroyed by too many operations and he had to wear a prosthesis. It was almost a relief when he came out with the mask he used to wear.
In his eyes it was no better. They seemed to bulge under his too prominent forehead; lined in heavy black eyeliner and abnormally long lashes. Her bright red feminine lips stretched and tugged like those of a middle-aged woman who had been given too bad a facelift. This handsome young man had turned into someone terribly deformed.
Most confusing was the color of her skin. Growing up, he had the typical features of an attractive African American man. However, as the years passed, he paled and lost all evidence of his African ancestry. There was a cruel joke that implied that he had started out as a black man and turned into a white woman. No one unfamiliar with him could have visually connected young Michael Jackson to the man he later became.
Far beyond the point where it became grotesque, his face kept changing. Perhaps he was working in a vain attempt to repair the damage caused by previous surgeries, or perhaps he had a condition known as “Body Dysmorphic Disorder,” in which someone falsely believes that one or more parts of their body are unacceptable and should be changed. . From one public appearance to another he looked different, upset. Nobody knew what to expect. Her face was a work in progress, never to be finished, and perhaps this was the most suitable metaphor for her identity.
Despite his ever-changing face, he was instantly recognizable. The lanky body, the military-inspired jackets and the skinny pants. The aviator glasses and long hair. At one point, the only glove. And yet his personal identity seemed so shaky. He engaged in a series of compulsive behaviors. Aside from the continual alteration in her appearance, there was her overspending, a disturbed eating pattern, multiple substance abuse, and a pattern of surrounding herself with young children.
He was accused of many wrongdoings and acquitted of some of the charges against him. A lawsuit was settled out of court for possibly millions of dollars. There is no way of knowing if he was guilty of anything other than poor decisions. Whatever behaviors you actually engaged in, each and every one of your compulsions could be seen as the result of early and ongoing childhood trauma.
Some people said he had race issues and he vehemently denied them, claiming he was proud of his heritage. It was confusing, then, when he adopted three white children. He claimed that his two oldest children were his, but the genetics of this would be so unlikely that it would be practically impossible. He was married briefly twice and both women were also white. This could all be a coincidence, but one wonders if he hated his father so much that he tried to erase everything about himself that might be similar to this abusive and rejecting father model.
Sometimes MJ did wonderful things, like “We are the world.” Sometimes she did horrible things, like hanging her baby over the balcony in front of a group of reporters. Sometimes he did inexplicable things, like trying to buy the remains of John Merrick, the “Elephant Man,” who suffered from a disfiguring condition called neurofibromatosis. It is chilling to think of him wanting to possess the bones of a man who was seen as a physical freak and who tragically died very young.
MJ bought a ranch and named it “Neverland”. He seemed obsessed with the symbols of eternal childhood. People with early and severe trauma often have a hard time growing up and seeing themselves as full-fledged adults. They tend to remain childlike in their appearance and attitude and naive about how the real world works. They cling to their past, hoping to create the happy and loving childhood they never had. Was this what Michael Jackson was doing with his petting zoo and carousel? Was that why he, like Peter Pan, surrounded himself with his own gang of “lost boys”?
More recently, it seemed to have stabilized a bit. He allowed his children to be seen in public without their masks and shrouds. He had settled comfortably into his role as a doting father and his legal troubles were behind him. He was embarking on a series of major concerts and was diligently rehearsing for the shows. His death was a great shock to many people, but perhaps not to everyone. After all, there was still a fabulous mansion that was teetering precariously on a flimsy foundation.
Recently, it was discovered that MJ had such a severe sleep disorder that he had been using general anesthesia to sleep. The physician administering this anesthesia outside of the appropriate hospital setting has a lot to answer for.
Apparently, the temptation to behave unethically was too great for plastic surgeons, family physicians, and many of the other healthcare professionals involved with MJ. They put his desire for personal gain, whether in the form of money, power, or access to the star, ahead of what was good for him. Perhaps it was that they were so in awe of his greatness that they simply couldn’t refuse his inappropriate and dangerous requests, even when they should have.
He had a series of dysfunctional symbiotic relationships with people who were supposed to take care of him, but who were instead exploiting or pleasing him. Paradoxically, the fact that he had as much money and power as he did made it possible for anyone around him to become a facilitator of his self-destructive behavior.
It could be that, like so many child abuse survivors dealing with deep ambivalence and denial about their past, MJ turned down the help that was offered to her. However, unlike most people, he had the ability to completely isolate himself from those individuals who might insist that he distance himself from toxic facilitators in his presence and get real help for his problems.
We may never know why he did all the wonderful, horrible, inexplicable things that he did, and here lies the greatest tragedy. Obviously, a lot of people loved him, but it seems that no one was able to address his emotional wounds or help him obtain the necessary therapy to deal with his initial trauma. If only there had been someone in his life who knew the truth about his past and had the courage and wisdom to take a stand; perhaps his life could have been saved.
(C) Marcia Sirota MD