How does a critic and fan come to terms with the fall of an icon? Ten years after his death, the Pulitzer-winning writer revisits her book on Michael Jackson and confronts her own denial
In the first year of the 21st century my American editor and I sat in a restaurant talking about Michael Jackson. We hailed his uncanny brilliance and mourned it too 30 years of making music, dance, film; crisscrossing styles, genres, types and tropes; confounding cultural codes. We brooded over the rumours and scandals that were turning him into an object of derision, even revulsion. We wanted, we said, to give him his due before (my editors words) he self-destructs Before hes destroyed, my editor qualified, and self-destructs.
Events moved too quickly: I couldnt finish the book before he was arrested in 2003. He was indicted in 2004; he was found not guilty in 2005; he was found dead of an accidental drug overdose in June 2009. We hoped death would restore the measure of his greatness as an artist.
In the quiet, sombre documentary Leaving Neverland, released earlier this year, two young men in their 30s look into a camera and describe the childhood years in which they had sex with Jackson. They use that flat phrase, had sex, and they describe, almost wonderingly, how much they loved him, even worshipped him. They make us understand how often and how much sexual abuse depends on a childs looking up to a powerful adult: trusting, needing, maybe loving that adult. Molestation and abuse are harsh unambiguous words, but we cant fully understand them unless we understand that they are often inseparable from the lures and ambiguities of seduction. These feelings get all mixed up in a childs mind and body. So we must not separate the acts and the aura of seduction from the acts and aura of abuse. Jackson was a cultural deity. And of course these boys were thrilled to be in his presence: millions of people twice, thrice and four times their age were thrilled to have him in their presence, if only via computer screens, concert stadiums and memorabilia. Imagine meeting Jackson face to face. Imagine being the child whom a god chooses as his favourite.
To any child, there is something of the god about every powerful grownup be they parent, mentor, patron or counsellor. Wade Robson and James Safechuck were child performers from ordinary families. The Jacksons had once been an ordinary family and world fame had chosen them through Michael: now Michael was choosing their children. He visited their modest homes; he watched TV, goofed around and ate popcorn with them. The families were besotted. He brought them all gifts and took them on trips. He offered them a fairytale of upward mobility. The Jacksons had lived that fairytale why shouldnt they? He made the families feel special. He made the boys feel loved. Did he love them? Within the confines of his damaged, damaging soul, I imagine he did. We like to think we love with all thats good in us. But we love just as fiercely with all thats bad in us. Childhood is the fiery furnace in which we are melted down to essentials and that essential shaped for good, wrote Katherine Anne Porter. She should have added two more words. She should have added and ill.
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