July 7, 2009

Michael Jackson

I'd give all wealth that years have piled,
The slow result of Life's decay,

To be once more a little child
For one bright summer day.

~Lewis Carroll, "Solitude" March 16, 1853. It's the first time he used the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. He was teaching mathematics at Oxford, at the time, under his real name Charles Dodgson. The picture at right is from my collection and is by Lewis Carroll. It's a portrait of Xie Kitchin, who sometimes posed with Alice Liddell, of Alice in Wonderland fame.

Victorian writers had a very romantic idea about childhood. A hundred years ago, J.M. Barrie created Peter Pan, which as far as I can tell, gave birth to an ever-growing list of adult psychiatric diagnoses for people who just don't want to grow up. The artwork at the time, even more in the United States than in the UK, showed children as innocents—often at play, or with puppies, and in endearing situations. This has always fascinated me. On the one hand, grown ups have had this idea of childhood as a carefree time of non-stop fun and play, whose only interruption is for the occasional scraped knee.

On the other hand, adults have a fairly spotty record, to say the least, when it comes to making sure that children get some of this carefree time that Lewis Carroll seems to wish for. At the same time as a few wealthy Victorians imagined this fantasy world of childhood, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens were writing about a series of child characters who had to survive by their wits and the kindness of strangers. I wonder if Carroll read Oliver Twist or Huckleberry Finn? Was that the childhood he longed for?

All of this is related to some of my thoughts about the great Michael Jackson. Did he have the childhood of Oliver Twist? We all know he was a child star—touring, recording, perhaps supporting his large family, being advised and managed and publicized to optimize the return on this brand-identity investment. I'm sure there were some private jets involved, so it's not exactly a Victorian workhouse orphanage, I admit. But when we look at our lives and wish for a few days more of childhood, I don't think we're thinking about the best friends we never had, the family life we didn't have, the school friends we didn't have.

I've been working on a post about feral children—who grow up by themselves in the forest, or are raised by wolves—because I met a child once who I think sort of fits that category. Maybe Michael does too. How does a child grow up without a childhood? What happens to them?

I wonder if Michael Jackson, once he had all the freedom that money could provide, still needed to live out some of the childhood that, as an adult, he was aware of having missed. But having missed it, he tried to experience some childhood that he saw in the movies or on TV. That was never anybody's real childhood--but it's not at all clear that he would know that. And adults can't experience childhood the way a child does. They can pretend to be children, but unless it's in the context of an improv performance or a sketch comedy show, that's just, well, odd.

There are things about superstars in every field that some of us envy. The money, of course, would ease certain important headaches and give us freedom most of us will never have. Some people would like the fame, the adulation, the star on Hollywood Boulevard. Some of us would love to be able to move like Michael. This photograph on the right was taken today, July 7th 2009, with a telephone camera at the memorial service in Los Angeles. It was sent to me directly.

I was sad when I heard he died. But I have been sad for him for a while, to be honest. Michael Jackson was not among the millions of people who wanted to be Michael Jackson. Clearly, he wanted to be something he wasn't. I don't know how much he wanted to be African-American, or really why his skin got so light. If it was by his choice, it was not so he could get into the right clubs, hail a taxi, or get treated right by a store clerk. I don't know why he felt he had to get a Grace Kelly nose or a cleft chin on a lantern jaw. But I do know this, it was his choice. Sure, I respect his choice to be whoever he wants to be—nobody else was hurt. But it made me sad to see so clearly that the person he wanted to be didn't really resemble the person we all saw.

How did that happen? I don't know, but maybe while his parents were promoting the band, it's easy as 1-2-3, they weren't spending a lot of time reminding little Michael (let alone Jermaine and Tito and Jackie and Marlon) about what a great kid he was, and how lucky they were to have him, and how great he looked just the way he is.

I don't worry so much when a worried parent brings me a teenager who doesn't dress the way the parent wants. Maybe it's too Goth, too Skater, too Emo, whatever. They are finding their tribe, searching for a group that feels right to them. It's a normal thing and they deserve our support. I worry more about the kid who doesn't dress like anybody else. A sequin quasi-military jacket with gold braid, like something from Sergeant Pepper but...more. Wearing a single glove. I would worry because there is no tribe for that person, no group he can relax with.

It's OK with me if you are grooming your child to be a rock star, or a major league athlete, or a CEO. But if they actually achieve your unlikely dream for them, if they survive what is most likely to be a fruitless quest for your selfish and unrealistic desire to live vicariously through them, and they are still talking to you, then your dream will be fulfilled, not theirs. Every child's quest is to make their parents happy. Show them with your words and actions that you are happy with them just as they are, and they will reward you with a happy adulthood of their own. Maybe they'll even visit you when you're old. That is what perceptive parenting, empathic parenting, good parenting, is all about.

Part 2:
I once dated a ballet dancer in New York. It didn't work out. (Neither did I, and that was just one thing we didn't have in common.) She made me go to at least a dozen 'modern dance' performances. These modern dance performances were the dullest activities that any group of about a dozen very athletic and flexible young men and women could ever work their tails off to do for very little pay. Not a physician at the time, I was nonetheless tempted, just a few minutes into each agonizing performance, to amputate first parts and then whole chunks of my own limbs just to distract myself.

Imagine, then, that one young black man from Gary Indiana could change this forever. This guy showed highbrow dance experts that there were moves and expressions in movement that were completely new. Every dance we see in theater or anywhere has been touched by Jackson.

I am still surprised when I'm in an elevator or mall and some familiar Beatles song is being played by synthetic instruments that have never touched human hands, music 40 or more years old. I've never really tried to predict the future (since I left Wall Street), but in 2050 and 2060, long after I'm gone, Beat It will be guiding our grandchildren's children down the supermarket aisle on their hovercarts. Maybe it's ironic that Muzak filed for bankruptcy just a few months ago.

And we'll always have Thriller. He got the brilliant John Landis, who directed the coolest werewolf movie ever made to direct this little movie, which follows Michael Jackson changing from nice guy to scary monster. (Yikes! That sounds like a one-line biography of the guy.) And that amazing leather jacket, designed by UCLA's Copley Professor of Costume Design.

This, from 1500 inmates in Cebu, Phillipines:

OK, the quality's really low--taken, maybe from a cellphone, at a live performance. But be patient. The song doesn't start for about 3 minutes. But those first 3 minutes.... I know that singing without music is called a capella. What is dancing without music? Unbelievable.

They gave us ABBA. I'll take MJ any day--and apparently so will they.

And his music will be around for a long, long time. This will change preconceptions:


  1. I loved this article and Dr. Nadoolman's assessment of Michael Jackson. Beverly Eller

  2. So insightful and beautifully compiled. Several videos brought tears to my eyes! And I've never even been a particularly big MJ fan.

  3. Personally I feel that the outpouring of grief over MJ has been because we all feel like he is our own child, sibiling, friend... and our mind wanders to what we could have done.

    Just look at his eyes and you can see how sad he was.

    Lovely blog.

  4. Michael Jackson was misunderstood and you don't seem to understand him either. I know you probably did your best to try to though. I would like to point out some things you said in your article about him.
    Michael's clothes like his one handed glove and sequinned military jacket were not what he wore casually or out and about when visiting friends. He did it to look good in public, to make a public statement. That is what people do in show business. He wouldn't wear them casually or all the time like and emo or goth or skater would wear their clothes. I think he just wore normal pants and t-shirts when around his house or with friends,not one glove or sequinned jackets. If he did (which he didn't) now that would be weird.
    Also some people like dancing and being very flexible. They find that kind of thing fun so they don't care if it is for little pay. I am a dancer so I would know. Just because you don't like it don't mean others don't or find it a hardship. Just like you can't understand why dancers want to do that I can't understand why people want to get drunk or have sex or gamble or spend all day underneath a car.
    Another thing you got wrong about Michael. His parents were not out promoting the band. Only his father was. His mother stayed at home and looked after the children. The reason he got so much plastic surgery is because his father went out of his way to tease Michael and bully him about the shape of his nose and his face ans his looks in general.
    Also Michael wasn't looking for a perfect childhood as sometimes portrayed in the movies. He was looking for a NORMAL childhood and wanted to know what that was like. Unless you can understand what it is like to have a childhood growing up in show business and/or being isolated from your peers because you or your family is in some way different from the majority you will never be able to understand what it is like.


Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?